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December 12 2013 Latest news:
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There can be few more impressive surroundings in which to absorb the atmosphere of a traditional Christmas than in the great halls of a medieval castle, set high on a hill. Words by Elizabeth Edwin
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At Tyntesfield, the spectacular Victorian house at Wraxall, in the north of the county, visitors can plan a green Christmas by taking part in craft workshops, using natural materials, on Sunday 28 November, and the Christmas wreath-making workshops on Sunday 28 November, Thursday 9 December and Friday 10 December. In the chapel, choir concerts will be taking place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday 3-5, 10-12 and 17-19 December. And Father Christmas will be visiting on 4-5, 11-12 and 18-19 December from 10am-3pm. Booking is essential for all these events. 0844 249 1895
At Montacute House, near Yeovil, the Levels Best Craft and Farmers Market will take place on Saturday 11 December, from 10am-2pm. There will be carol-singing, with festive mulled cider and apple juice served, and visitors to the stalls will find prize-winning craft and the best of local produce from the regions farms. Santa will be in his grotto in the Courtyard Caf. Montacute House, 01935 823289
Or why not try a spot of Christmas shopping at Barrington Court, where Chasty Cottage Antiques will be presenting a special Christmas Antiques Fayre, with 50 stands of fine antiques including Lalique, watches, Royal Worceter, silver, Royal Doulton, Edwardian and period furniture, vintage clothing, objets dart, Georgian glass, fine art, oriental silk and rugs.
At Dunster Castle, the National Trust provides such an experience during its special opening times at the start of the festive season. These will be on Friday and Saturday 3 and 4 December, when visitors will be able to enjoy Dunster by Candlelight. This spectacular annual event at the illuminated castle will include festive entertainment and refreshments in the halls, from 5pm to 9pm each evening. The shop in the stables will be open, with plenty of ideas for last-minute present-buying.
On Saturday and Sunday 11 and 12 December, Father Christmas will be visiting the castle, and children who visit him in his grotto will receive a special gift. He will be receiving his visitors between 11am and 3pm.
Dunster Castle retains its mediaeval aura thanks to the remodelling by a Victorian owner, George Fownes Luttrell and his wife, Anne, who employed the architect Anthony Salvin to restore it in a style akin to its earlier origins.
The Luttrell family have been associated with the castle for 18 generations, beginning in 1405. The otter on their coat of arms is a reference to their Norman ancestry by a play on words: loutre being the French word for a young otter. The castle was given to the National Trust in 1947. The Luttrell familys home is at East Quantoxhead, where their association is even longer, dating back to the 13th century.
Visitors to the castle, during its main opening season from March to October, find the style of living in earlier times all around them. The furniture contains such interesting items as a chair made of ash bobbins in the Outer Hall; in the Inner Hall the floor has an underlay of sea shells, placed there to reduce the noise when dancing was taking place, and always a fascination are the leather tapestries in the Leather Gallery.
Here the 12 panels tell the story of Anthony and Cleopatra. A type of work that began in Moorish Spain in the 13th century, it involves the pasting together of pieces of leather, covering them with silver leaf, burnishing, outlining of the design in silver leaf, hand-tooling key highlights and then painting the figures in oils a final stage carried out by several different craftsmen.
This gallery was originally a banqueting hall. Leather hangings were often chosen for dining areas as they do not retain the smell of food as other materials do.
A late 18th-century sideboard in the Dining Hall has the decoration of a panache of five ostrich feathers, which are part of the Luttrell crest.
The eyes of visitors are always drawn to the magnificent oak and elm staircase, which was built into the medieval tower in the 1680s. The carved balustrade, which is made of panels carved from individual 23cm thick planks of elm, is probably the work of Edward Pearce the Younger. It has fascinating detail, and can be dated from the carved replicas of Charles II silver shillings, which were first minted in 1683-84. Portuguese, Turkish and Irish coins, with a swallow, a crescent and harp motifs included, are also shown.
Paintings in the Morning Room show the house in the 18th century from different viewpoints. Among other works of art are portraits of members of the Luttrell family. As well as doing military and naval service for their country, they played a major part in the life of their home county as Members of Parliament, Justices of Peace, and in other public offices.
The Justice Room, as well as being where the landlord met his tenants, was also where the magistrate dealt with miscreants until a change of the law in 1848. Estate matters were also dealt with in the Tenancy Hall, on the upper floor of the Gatehouse; this area now houses an exhibition on the history of Dunster and the people who have lived and worked there.
Summer season visitors have an opportunity to visit the servants quarters in the house. These were extensive, including the pastry larder, a room well away from the heat and steam in the kitchen, which provided ideal conditions for pastry making. There was also a still room, where the housekeeper made the special preserves and each morning prepared the breakfast trays for the family. She was a person of importance, and had her own sitting-room where she would take afternoon tea.
The world of service was a complex one, with a social life of its own. It was at times a very hard one, as anybody visualising the continually demanding work, especially in winter-time when the early morning fires had to be lit and kept burning throughout the day in the individual rooms, will realise.
The meals that the butler, housekeeper and their staff served to the family and their guests were all produced at the castle and included beef, bacon, fish caught locally, sweetmeats, chocolate, pastries, biscuits, bread, butter, cheese and beer.
While the Christmas offerings at Dunster in 2010 will not be of such vast proportions, the festive fare will give visitors a taste of enjoying the season in a grand manner.
Details of these events, and those for the new year at the castle, are available on 01643 821314