A Fine Day Out

PUBLISHED: 16:39 21 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:44 20 February 2013

Dunster Castle

Dunster Castle

Margaret Powling enjoys a journey into the past in <br/><br/>West Somerset

Margaret Powling enjoys a journey into the past in
West Somerset

Aday out that includes a nostalgic steam-train journey through West Somerset, a tour of a romantic castle which sits dramatically 85 metres above sea level atop a wooded hill, and the pure indulgence of a mouth-wateringly delicious cream tea can leave you with serious sensory overload. But, rest assured, it is worth it.

This special day, which I recently enjoyed, commemorated a new partnership between the National Trust and the West Somerset Railway, who are offering visitors to and residents of Somerset a chance to take a steam excursion with views across the Quantocks and the Bristol Channel and a visit to a castle with its thousand years of history.

By working together to create this full-day itinerary we are offering something unique to visitors, and hopefully we will attract new audiences to both the West Somerset Railway and the Castle, said Seamus Rogers, National Trust Property Manager at Dunster Castle. The Luttrell family, who owned the Castle for 600 years, were instrumental in the coming of the railway and many visitors used the train to arrive. We are delighted to be reaffirming the link with this joint initiative which we hope will introduce more people to the delights of West Somerset.

Dunster Castle

It is often the details that fascinate. For the historian this might be how, in 1650, following the Civil War, the Castle was considered such a threat that Parliament ordered its destruction. Seamus Rogers explains: The curtain walls were ordered to be torn down by Cromwell after the six-month-long siege and capture by the Parliamentary army in 1646, as he was so infuriated by the Castles resistance. Just the gatehouse, one bastion tower (part) and some of the wall was spared.

For the social historian it might be the snippets of information from the Castles guides, such as how in the early 1920s, a polo ground was laid out in the meadows to the east of the River Avill. Among those who played was the Maharaja of Jodhpur whose kingdom in Rajasthan gave its name to the riding breeches. In 1928 the Maharaja brought a crack team and a string of 62 polo ponies by special train for a match against the West Somerset Polo Club, says our guide. Indeed, the stalls where the polo ponies were stabled were repaired in 1980 but still show untouched historic paint layers and the bare stone walls as they were when last used.

Even though indoor plumbing had been installed in Victorian times, bathrooms were still not the norm. Until the mid-19th century hip-baths or even wash-stands with ewers and jugs were the order of the day, and servants would have had to carry water up to the bedrooms, a truly exhausting task. However, when in 1868 George Fownes Luttrell engaged the services of architect Anthony Salvin to redesign and rebuild the Castle, a cast-iron bath was installed with nickel taps and a mahogany surround.

Because the bathroom was something of a thoroughfare (private bathrooms being a relatively recent invention) Seamus Rogers explains: Rumour has it that once a bather was immersed, a modesty board, or hood, could be raised and lowered onto the bath; reputedly it was removed because it dropped onto someone. Perhaps a servant would have lowered, rather than placed it, onto the bath? Obviously, it is now long gone!

There is, of course, much more to Dunster Castle than stabling and modesty boards. From the principal rooms there are magnificent views across the Somerset countryside to the Bristol Channel; looking inwards, at every turn there is something on which to feast the eyes. The oak and elm staircase, installed in the 1680s, was probably the work of Edward Pearce the Younger, one of the most accomplished sculptors of the age. Each panel is carved from a single plank of elm 23cm thick. It can be dated accurately by the Charles II silver shillings shown in the third panel on the stairs which were issued in 1683-84.

The Castle displays many reminders of its rich heritage: its fortress-like position, its 15th-century Gatehouse and its spacious Tenants Hall, where tenant farmers would come to pay their quarterly rent and where meetings, feasts and celebrations would have taken place.

Dunster Castle Express

There can be no better way of arriving than by the Dunster Castle Express, which you board at Bishops Lydeard Station. Then, a special coach awaits you at Dunster Station, ready to take you on the final leg of your journey to the Castle entrance.

The original West Somerset Railway was opened in 1862 from a junction two miles west of Taunton. In 1870 the Luttrell family, who then owned Dunster Castle and much of Minehead, were alarmed at the increasing prosperity of Watchet at the expense of Minehead and succeeded in promoting a Parliamentary Bill and raising funds to build an extension of the track to Minehead. Decline set in during the 1960s and the branch was closed in 1971. Preservationists took over the line and eventually succeeded in opening it from Minehead to Blue Anchor in 1976, with an extension to Bishops Lydeard in 1979.

The Dunster Castle Express runs Weds from Apr-Oct.

www.nationaltrust.org.uk / www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk

Time for tea

Why not enjoy a delicious cream tea on your visit or other refreshments in the Castles tea garden? And, of course, there are several tea rooms in Dunster village, just below the Castle.

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