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Dunster Village

Find out what the old Somerset words ‘skitty vamps' and ‘sparrow-bills' (pronounced skeet'ee-vaam's and spaar'u-bee'ulz) refer to, why the Maharajah of Jodhpur came to tea and see the cannonball hole in the yarn market.

Welcome to the Dunster hidden history Storywalk along the England Coast Path. This trail is designed to be like a skimming stone of interesting facts, myth, history and tales linked to this location. The walks are designed to be read aloud to family and friends and to embellish your experience of Dunster.

Route - from Dunster Exmoor National Park visitor centre you will take a loop through the village passing the Yarn Market, Dunster Castle, St Georges Church and the Dove Cote.

To delve deeper into local history then please ask at the visitor centre, catch a walking tour or pop into Minehead Library.

Length - 0.8 mile / 1.2 km, allow a couple of hours at an amble.
Access - generally level throughout with incline up castle hill.
Directions - this trail begins at the Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre in Dunster. TA24 6SE What3words address ///dolly.bossy.static 51.185277, -3.4429020
Chapter one


The old Somerset dialect words ‘skitty vamps' (pronounced skeet'ee-vaam's) are lace up boots, and ‘sparrow bills' (pronounced spaar'u-bee'ulz) are the copper nails for shoe and boot soles.
Chapter two

Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre

We have tried to keep this trail quite light in respect to the history as we can delve only so deep. If you need more facts than we can squeeze into this little tour then just step inside the Exmoor Visitor Centre here and grab a book or two, there are lots to choose from. We hope by the end you will be hungry to know more about our little village.

The picture above is of a stag hunt meet in the village — notice the hounds in the foreground. This photograph was most likely taken circa 1900s but interestingly little has changed with the architecture in the high street since then.

The earliest records of Dunster begin after the battle of Hastings in 1066, after which 69 West Country manors were granted to William De Mohun. He seemed to take quite a liking to Dunster and set the village up as his administrative centre.

Over the next hundred years Dunster became the centre of a burgeoning wool trade with the first fullers mill being noted in 1259. But by the late 14th century, the castle came under ownership of the Luttrell family and remained so for the next 600 years!
Chapter three

Cider Wages

Conygar Tower sits on the hill overlooking all who enter Dunster and was built as a folly, or pretend ancient ruin, by the Luttrell family in 1775. They had planned several towers located across Exmoor but this was the only one to make it off the drawing board. The accounts show that the builders were paid with cider for their building works!

The name Conygar has its roots in rabbits, as the hill used to be a kind of rabbit farm, providing meat for the castle. Conies are hares or rabbits and gar means enclosure. Up until the 1950s rabbits and hares were a staple food though a bit chewy by today's standards.
Directions - Walk past the visitor centre and into the village, the next chapter will reveal at the Yarn Market which is the octagonal open sided oak building in the middle of the village. Note - Dunster has generally poor mobile reception, if your distance counter begins to get sleepy we usually recommend just refreshing the page but this might not work here so alternatively just use the 'help' button below to open the chapters. As you walk, consider what the old Somerset dialect word ‘wam-locks’ (pronounced wau'm-loa'ks) might refer to?
Chapter four


The old Somerset dialect word ‘wam-locks' (pronounced wau'm-loa'ks) refers to the belly wool from a sheep. Dunster's history is deeply woven with wool, as you can see by the strength of construction of the Yarn Market building here.
Chapter five

The Cannonball Hole in the Yarn Market

Step inside the Yarn Market and look up into the roof, one of the timber beams which radiate from the central column still has an original cannonball hole. The shot was fired from the castle while under siege during the English Civil War. Dunster Castle was a garrison at the time and a focal point for much military activity. In 1646, there was a five month long siege which ended with the Royalists finally leaving the castle with drums beating and flags flying but the Yarn Market building in tatters along with much of the village.
Chapter six

The Ashen Faggot

The Luttrell Arms here has traditionally burnt the ‘Ashen Faggot' on Christmas Eve for generations. The faggot is a large bundle of ash sticks, bound with willow and hazel withies and constructed on the day of its burning so many parts will still be green. When the faggot is lit, the withy bindings spring out firing sparks and a roar of flames up the chimney. When this happens, all present stand and cry out ‘loving cup' and take their fill of cider. Jokes and talk then resume until the next bindings release, sparks rise again and further drinking celebrations take place!

This extract is from Festivities and Superstitions of Devonshire in Bentley's Miscellany 1847.

‘We all sat round the hearth in a circle; the firelight deepening the shadows on the hard-featured mahogany countenances around, and setting off the peculiarities of each form. The ashen faggot which lay on the hearth consists of a long immense log of ash, surrounded with smaller branches bound to it with many withies, forming one large bundle; it filled the whole hearth and as it burned the roaring in the large chimney was tremendous.'
Directions - Walk to the right of the Yarn Market building and half way down the high street, but as you walk, consider what the old Somerset dialect phrase ‘pinchfart’ (pronounced pun'shfaa'rt) might refer to?
Chapter seven


The old Somerset dialect phrase ‘pinchfart' (pronounced pun'shfaa'rt) refers to someone who is miserly or tight with their money!
Chapter eight

Whitsun Fair

The fairs themselves were quite elaborate and diverse with silver, books, brass, earthenware, bread, confectionery, lace, fruit, and clothing listed for the 1767 event.
But by this date the fair was sadly already in decline, as less than half the sheep and bullocks brought to the fair were sold.

The last fair was in 1819 when there were only seven stalls offering toys, confectionery, millinery, punch and curiously ‘luck in the bag'.

Dunster High Street today is surprisingly quite wide and open, but it once had a little shambling street along its length. With the regular fairs failing, these buildings quickly fell into a dilapidated state and were demolished in 1825. The days of the booming woollen industry were a thing of the past for Dunster by this time, mainly due to new mechanisations ‘up north' rendering Dunster inefficient and outmoded.
Chapter nine

The Doll Museum

Dunster Museum and doll collection is well worth a little of your time, initially founded with the donation of the late Mollie Hardwick's doll collection, it is now also home to a community museum. One of the more unusual dolls in the collection is the 16th century plague doll with its long leather robe and hooked nose mask. See if you can spot him amongst the others and tag #ecpStorywalks.
Directions - Walk across the street and continue along the pavement past the traffic lights to the gates at the foot of Castle Hill. But as you walk consider what the old Somerset dialect phrase ‘coffin-handle’ (pronounced kau 'feen an·l) might refer to?
Chapter ten


The old Somerset dialect phrase ‘coffin-handle' (pronounced kau 'feen an·l) refers to the tallow or wax of a candle running down on one side which often projects and then reunites to form a little loop. This ‘coffin-handle' is a sign of death to the person in whose direction it points. The same superstition holds when the wax merely forms a simple projection, this is called a ‘winding-sheet' but is not so feared as a ‘coffin-handle'!
Chapter eleven

Dunster by Candlelight

On the first Friday and Saturday of December, Dunster is a spectacle to the lighting of the lanterns procession which launches the Dunster by Candlelight Christmas festivities. Stilt walkers alongside Dunster and Timberscombe school children process their paper lanterns from the village steep through to Dunster Water Mill and the streets are lined with thousands of onlookers. The village is closed to traffic throughout the weekend, permitting soldiers in period Civil War costume with flaming sconces to march to the sound of medieval drums and wandering taborers (musicians) to beat out a rhythm of times gone by.
Chapter twelve

Dunster Castle

You are about to climb Castle Hill, at the top of which William de Mohun built a timber castle on the site of a Saxon hill fort nearly 1000 years ago. The Luttrell family lived here from 1376 until they moved out in 1976 having changed the castle from a medieval stronghold into a comfortable family home.

The only substantial remaining part of the original de Mohuns castle is the gateway with its iron strapped oak doors, dating from the 13th century. It was apparently repaired in the 1470s by the Luttrells at the cost of just £1.

By the end of the Civil War, around the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell was sacking castles country wide and Dunster didn't escape his tirade. Towers were felled, bastion walls were levelled, but thankfully George Luttrell, the owner at the time, was able to persuade parliament to let him keep his family home before it too was destroyed.

Over the following centuries the family invested in the house and grounds, with one notable elaborate staircase being installed in the 1680s. The deep carving of hunting scenes along with rich acanthus leaves is still in good order today and well worth a look.

Perhaps you can catch a castle tour to get deeper under the skin of Dunster and the Luttrell family history.
Directions - Walk up Castle Hill and bear right at the top to read the next chapter in front of the castle stables. But as you walk consider what the old Somerset dialect word ‘flittermouse’ (pronounced vlut'urmuws) might refer to?
Chapter thirteen


The old Somerset dialect word ‘flittermouse' (pronounced vlut'urmuws) refers to a bat, and Dunster castle is host to a number of bat species including the lesser horseshoe bat. These are among the world's smallest bats, weighing only 5 to 9 grams and have been recorded as living in the stable block although new bat surveys currently underway will determine the colony density and whether other species are in residence too.
Chapter fourteen

Polo and the Maharajah of Jodhpur

Dunster Castle has hosted many society events throughout its history. In 1925 the Maharajah of Jodhpur was the honoured guest of Geoffrey Luttrell who had recently invested in extensive repairs and redecorations. Previously Geoffrey's father Alexander had preferred to live at the family estate at East Quantoxhead leaving the castle empty, but in 1920 Geoffrey moved his family into Dunster, injecting a new lease of life into the old castle.

The large empty stables were once again full with fine thoroughbred horses (think supercars here) and so it was only natural to set up a polo team and then invite the Maharajah of Jodhpur in 1925 to a match or two on the lower lawns!

There is a fabulous Pathé film of ‘their first try out' which is worth searching for online.
Chapter fifteen

Giant in the Castle Keep

At the castle gatehouse easily visible from here, there is a pit or oubliette beneath the right hand tower said to be 25 feet deep. During excavations in the 19th century, the body of a chained man was said to be unearthed at the bottom. At 7 feet tall, this giant skeleton was apparently manacled at both wrists and ankles after being thrown down the hole and left to die.

It is not known whether his remains still lie there to this day, but it is said, in the small hours when the moon is weak and cold, haunting sounds have been heard coming from beneath the tiles which now cover the hole.
Directions - Walk down past the stable block to the gates which lead onto West Street. This will take you past the National Trust public toilets. Note - Dunster has poor mobile reception, if your distance counter begins to get sleepy we usually recommend just refreshing the page, but this might not work here, so alternatively just use the 'help' button below to open the chapters. As you walk, consider what the old Somerset dialect word ‘northeye’ (pronounced namu-thuy) might refer to?
Chapter sixteen


The old Somerset dialect word ‘northeye' (pronounced namu-thuy) refers simply to a squint.
Chapter seventeen

The Double Overshot Wheel

You are at the top of West Street, the oldest street in the village and if you were to walk down and around the castle torre you would soon come to Dunster Water Mill. The mill is in full working order to this day and grain milled for flour can be purchased directly from the mill or the village delicatessen.

The path which leads to the mill follows a small stream or more accurately mill leat, which powers the two ‘overshot' wheels. When grinding the whole building reverberates and trembles with the sounds of the grinding wheel stones and is definitely worth a visit.
Chapter eighteen

Popplestone Pitching

The pavements in Dunster thankfully retain many of the original cobblestones adding to the charm of the village. However, some segments were unsafe and in recent years works have taken place to bring these up to a better standard that remains in keeping with the character of Dunster.

The local name for a cobblestone is a popplestone, and a popplestone pitching (pronounced paup'l-stoa'un-puch'een) is a pavement of cobbles.
Chapter nineteen

The Packhorse Bridge

To the southern edge of Dunster is Gallox bridge, which leads to Gallox Hill where Judge Jeffreys hanged two of Monmouth's followers. During the West Country Rebellion of 1685 the Duke of Monmouth attempted to overthrow King James II. After his defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor, some 22 miles to the east of here, the Duke was executed for treason, and Judge Jeffreys infamously clamped down on any supporters.

Just beside Gallox or Packhorse Bridge there is a great children's play area with a cute picnic spot and secret grass labyrinth. Kingfishers and even otters have been spotted here and it is said that if you can walk the labyrinth path in exactly 99 paces then your wish will come true. There is even a free family Storywalk called ‘The Hanging Maze' which starts from here, weaves up into the hills and then back around to finish at the bridge.
Directions - Turn right and walk into the churchyard, the next chapter will reveal at the main entrance. But as you walk, consider who a ‘gulliver’ might be and what would they be doing in the village on May Day?
Chapter twenty


The Somerset word ‘gulliver' refers to the children and musicians guiding the Hobby Horse and on May Day and May weekend they ‘beat' around Dunster and Dunster Castle.
Chapter twenty-one

The Carillon Bells at St George's Church

You may have already heard the chimes while you have been walking as Dunster's church bell rings every quarter hour, then on the hour which is followed by a hymn at six points during the day beginning at 1am, 5am, and 9am and then again at 1pm, 5pm and 9pm. The carillon rings out a carol originally selected by George Luttrell who lived in the castle in the 1870s. The tunes are changed at Christmas to be suitably seasonal and include the hymn All things Bright and Beautiful which was inspired by the village and the surrounding countryside..

Here is the weekly sequence of hymns

Sunday - O Rest In The Lord
Monday - Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes
Tuesday - Home, Sweet Home
Wednesday - O Worship The King All Glorious Above
Thursday - The Bluebells of Scotland
Friday - The Old Hundredth
Saturday - Hark, Hark My Soul, Angelic Voices Swelling
Chapter twenty-two

The Rood Screen

Inside St George's Church there is an incredible rood screen, a carved oak panel which divides the church into two sections, one for the monks who were resident at Dunster Priory and the other for the locals. The rood screen is said to be the longest in England and was installed in 1498.

Feel free to pop inside now to have a look and find out more, though please close the church door as birds have a tendency to fly in!
Chapter twenty-three

Obby Oss

On the eve of May Day, known as 'Warning Eve', preparations are made for early morning shenanigans with the ‘obby ‘oss or Hobby Horse. This is a wicker and hessian horse with conical head with brightly painted tin face and huge head plume.

On May morn, as first light breaks, the party appears accompanied by its 'Gullivers', the musicians, ready to dance their way through the town and meet the other hobby horses at Whitecross. The horses, of which there are sometimes three, then take their turns to wheel, dance and beat about, celebrating May and the farmers year to come.

In the afternoon and in subsequent days the Hobby Horse beats the boundaries of Dunster before finally coming to rest on the lawns at Dunster Castle.

In times of old the ‘gullivers' carried heavy clubs and considered they had a right to enter private homes and demand money, but thankfully these traditions have long been relegated. But if you are in the village or Minehead during the May weekend and come across the hobby horse, be careful you don't get swept away with ‘The Sailors Joy' which is the song most often played by the gullivers. But also remember to bow, for the horse is very likely to swish his tail at you if you neglect this courtesy.
Directions - Continue to walk up the churchyard path and turn right at the lych gate, then follow the road around the corner to the Dove Cote, a very solid round building which will be on your left. But as you walk consider what the old Somerset dialect phrase ‘parish lantern’ (pronounced paar'eesh lan'turn) might refer to?
Chapter twenty-four


The old Somerset dialect phrase ‘parish lantern' (pronounced paar'eesh lan'turn) is a simple reference to moon light!
Chapter twenty-five

Dove Cote and Tithe Barn

The Dunster Dove Cote, is a round solid building and if you peek through its characterful wooden door you will see a rotating ladder. X Rays have shown that the central post sits on a coned pin which is probably made from bronze. The construction looks perhaps a little excessive with 3ft thick walls, but it would have provided regular food all year round. Baby pigeons called squabs were considered quite a delicacy, especially in pigeon pie. But the important by-product from these pigeons would be the high quality fertilizer, essential for feeding up fruit bushes.

Opposite the Dove Cote is the Tithe barn, a warehouse for crops and stock collected by the church. The tithe tax was a tenth of the crop which the friars at the priory would have managed until Henry VIII fell out of favour with the church and dissolved the priories across the country.
Chapter twenty-six

Street Lighting

During the late 19th century Dunster's lighting committee maintained 18 oil lamps located throughout the village, the parish council took over management in 1895 installing 6 more lamps including one at the Luttrell Arms. The lamps were lit during the winter months unless the moon was bright. In 1909 consideration was given to convert the lamps to electric but it was found to be too expensive.

Today the village is very up to date with electric lighting throughout!
Directions - Continue past Dunster Tithe Barn along Priory Green road, this will lead you to Dunster Ball, a small triangle of green which drops down to the High Street and close to where our journey began. But as you walk, consider what the old Somerset dialect word ‘boggler’ (pronounced baug'lur) might refer to?
Chapter twenty-seven


The old Somerset dialect word ‘boggler' (pronounced baug'lur) refers to a horse which is always stumbling.
Chapter twenty-eight

Wassailing Orchards

Dunster is home to a relatively recently planted community orchard which has also revived the traditional January Wassail. The image above was taken in neighbouring Carhampton, where the tradition has never ceased and depicts a gathering where the ‘old man' of the orchard is being serenaded in order to gather favour for the following harvest.

There are special wassailing songs sung, and fresh bread is placed in the branches as shot guns are fired over the canopies to scare away the spirits. In some villages the wassail is a wandering affair as the ‘old man', the oldest tree in the orchard, is sought out at each orchard in turn.
Chapter twenty-nine

The End

This brings us to the end of this Storywalk although there are many others along the Somerset Coastline to enjoy. Why not post a picture on social media of your family or group enjoying the trail and tag us with @storywalks @ecpsomerset or #ecpStorywalks.

These trails have been researched and written by C Jelley and Dr Helen Blackman and have been made possible by grant funding from the England Coast Path scheme, managed by Somerset County Council and the Rights of Way team.
Chapter thirty


Directions - To return to the Exmoor National Park visitor centre and the point where our journey began, continue a short distance along The Ball and then drop down Dunster Steep which will retrace your initial steps at the beginning of this Storywalk.

For Storywalk app service issues and enquiries - Storywalks contact

For Somerset public rights of way issues - Somerset County Council
Chapter thirty-one


Images - in order of display

1 - The Yarn Market - Dunster High Street - Photograph - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DSJ/155 - The Clement Keely collection

2 - Dunster High Street - Photograph - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DWH/296 - from Reverend Derrick collection

3 - The Ashen Faggot at the Luttrell Arms Hotel - Photograph - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DWH/39 - The Clement Keely collection

4 - Dunster High Street - Photograph - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DWH/42 - The Clement Keely collection

5 - Dunster High Street - Photograph - Anon

6 - Dunster Castle - Photograph - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DWH/40 - The Clement Keely collection

7 - Jodhpur Polo team at Dunster Castle - Photograph - Anon

8 - Jodhpur Polo team on Dunster Castle polo grounds - Photograph - Anon

9 - Dunster St Georges Church - Photograph - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DWH/41 - The Clement Keely collection

10 Dunster Water Mill - Postcard - Anon

11- Hobby Horse - Photograph - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DWH/82 - The Clement Keely collection

12 - Wassailing - Carhampton orchard - Photograph - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DWH/64 - The Clement Keely collection
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