BRIEF HISTORY OF DUNSTER VILLAGE
It is generally recognised that Dunster is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval villages in England, with its origins dating back to the times of Bronze and Iron Age Britain.
Fifteen hundred years or so before Dunster Castle was built, people were living on the hills above the River Avill, which runs through Dunster from the hills of Exmoor to the Bristol Channel. Round about 350 B.C.these peaceful users of bronze and iron built and occupied circular enclosures on Gallox Hill, within what is now Dunster Deer Park. Here they can be clearly seen with ditch and double banked settlement boundaries. The more complete fortification of the two, known as Bats Castle, has been attributed to the Romans, but this is more conjecture than fact. The first Saxons invaded the area around 700 AD and soon settled on the present Dunster site. The first written reference in the Domesday book names the site as Torre, but it was probably called after a Saxon Thane, Dunna, who founded the settlement with its strategically placed hill, with the last Saxon lord being Aluric.
One of William of Normandy's chief supporters in his conquest of England was William de Mohun, who came from St. Lo, not far from Bayeux in Normandy. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William de Mohun was granted sixty-nine West Country Manors including Dunster. This is where he decided to build the castle which was to become the administrative centre of his estates. William's choice of Dunster as the site for his castle was the making of the town. In 1197 it was described as a borough and by 1222 known to have a market. While the De Mohuns were living in the Castle, Dunster thrived as a well established centre in the cloth and woollen industry, with the first recorded fulling mill noted in 1259.
In 1376 Dunster Castle came under the ownership of the Luttrell family, who also had French origins, and it stayed in the family for the next 600 years. During much of this period, up until the 17th. century, sea-going ships used a small harbour at the mouth of the River Avill , but sadly no sign remains today as the whole river estuary has silted up. Also in existence at this time, and mentioned in the Domesday Book, were various corn mills. Two of these, called Newmylle and Nethermylle, were combined in 1620, and it is still operating today.
The organisation of the woollen industry varied, but by the 17th century it was centred around wealthy clothiers and independent spinners which resulted in Geoffrey Luttrell, in 1601, building theYarn Market in the High Street. During the Civil War, Dunster Castle was a focal point of military activity in the west, with both sides keen to hold a fortress so well placed strategically. After a five month seige the Royalists finally left the Castle in 1646 with drums beating and colours flying. The Yarn Market was damaged and had to be rebuilt, but a cannon ball hole in one of the beams can still be seen.
In 1607 an Act of Parliament laid down regulations which standardised the kersey type cloth known as " Dunsters." This was a coarse narrow cloth, woven from long wool, and usually ribbed, but mechanisation and competition from the North of England saw the demise of the local industry over the next 200 years. One of the main routes into Dunster during this period was across the River Avill by way of Gallox Bridge, also known as the Pack Horse Bridge.This was built in the mid 14th Century.
Plans showing the Historical Development of Dunster, together with a plan showing the main places of interest, and included within the front cover of this document, are attached herewith.
Apart from the various changes to individual buildings that had taken place over the years, one of the main differences between the medieval times and the present was the disappearence of the "Shambles". This was a range of open stalls and cottages in existence in 1423 in the centre of North Street, now the High Street, but which were demolished in 1825 due to their dilapidated state. It is recorded that in 1791 there were 190 houses in Dunster, whereas at the beginning of that century there had been around 400. By 1840 Dunster had already turned it's back on the old days of the cloth industry and the weekly market, and was developing as a town of small businesses, and a full complement of craftsmen, ready to serve the local neighbourhood.
When Alexander Luttrell died in 1944 he had not made over either castle or estate to his heir. Crippling death duties were incurred and in 1949 Geoffrey Luttrell was forced to sell. The Ashdale Property Company bought the majority of the Dunster Estate in 1949 and shortly after, the greater part extending to just under 10,000 acres, and consisting of agricultural land, woodland and parkland, together with a number of non-residential properties, was acquired by the Crown Estate Commissioners.
In July 1951 over 125 houses, cottages and businesses, occupied by former tenants of the Luttrell family, were sold at public auction by the Ashdale Property Company. The vast majority were purchased by the sitting tenants and, at the drop of the hammer, a thousand years of a feudal system in Dunster came to an end.
The remainder of the Dunster Estate, comprising the Castle and Grounds, passed to Colonel Walter Luttrell in 1957 on the death of his father, Geoffrey. When Walter's mother, who had continued to live in the Castle, later died, he gave the Castle, the Gardens and Old Deer Park to the National Trust in 1976.
Today, and nearly thirty years on, Dunster still retains it's original charm and atmosphere, and continues to be an important focal point for people coming to West Somerset with the Castle alone having well over 100,000 visitors each year.
The buildings and constructions that make up the heritage of Dunster have, in recent years, been well preserved and protected either by their owners or sympathetic conservation bodies and organisations.
In 2004 those buildings which make this medieval village almost unique, such as Dunster Castle, St. George's Church, the Yarn Market, Dovecote, Butter Cross, Pack Horse Bridge, Water Mill, and Conygar Tower, will all be found to be in good condition and accessible to the general public.The one historic building missing from this list, being neither accessible to the public, nor in a good state of repair, is the early 16th Century Dunster Tithe Barn, originally part of a Benedictine Priory.