A fort worth visiting

A 600-year-old castle is the jewel in Dunster's crown. But the old village cake crusher runs a close second. By Emma Haughton
DIMINUTIVE IT may be, but Dunster likes to present a dramatic face to the world. One minute you're driving past the seaside resort of Minehead, the next you're faced with Dunster's imposing castle, perched on a final wooded promontory before Exmoor hits the sea. Its sheer stone flanks tower over the village and surrounding parkland, looking more suited to a picture book than to coastal Somerset.

Indeed, everything about Dunster feels a little fanciful. Once well known for its woollen industry and for its status as a port, it's now sold as one of the tidiest villages in England, the kind of place that words such as "quaint" and "twee" were invented to describe. Its neat high street, rambling lanes, and higgledy-piggledy cottages, antique shops and tea shops make it the perfect day out, the best of olde England with oodles of clotted cream.

The castle is Dunster's focal point and its 17th-century buildings perch high above sea level on a site that has been occupied by castles for over a thousand years. Originally the 600-year seat of the Luttrell family (before it joined the portfolio of the National Trust), the phases of demolition and modernisation it has suffered give it the air of a comfortable country residence, rather than the Norman stronghold it once was.

That's before you step inside. Here are all the components of a fully qualified castle: a dining room complete with a 17th-century plasterwork ceiling, a Victorian billiard room, portraits of illustrious ex-inhabitants dominating the wall space and what is, apparently, the earliest bathroom in Somerset. More than that, though, you feel that dozens of pairs of eyes are creepily following you, making it clear why the property is popular for its ghost tours.

Even more captivating is the view over the surrounding area. It is a stunning, stomach-churning drop to the gardens immediately below and a sweep across to the Bristol Channel and Wales in one direction and to the 18th century folly of Conygar Tower on the Exmoor hills in the other.

The tranquil, terraced gardens encircle the castle in a testament to the mild local climate; its collection of rare shrubs and trees including palms, mimosa and a lemon tree. Beyond these is a 28-acre park, where a woodland stroll will bring you to the pet cemetery with its dozen pygmy- sized plots. Headed by stone plaques, each one bears the name of a well- loved family dog - or a solitary budgerigar.

In the other direction, the gardens lead straight into the village, its streets merging seamlessly into the castle grounds. Here, the houses of once-affluent wool merchants dominate the high street and contrast sharply with the more humble medieval cottages in West Street that once housed the woollen workers.

Like a strange spaceship bandstand, the circular yarn market that was built by one of the Luttrells in 1609 to sell Dunster cloth hovers at one end of the high street. Much more recent are the newly established town gardens, imaginatively planted for adults, but with plenty of grass for the kids to romp around on.

A lovely stroll away, whether ambling through the village streets and along the riverside, or approached briskly from the castle, is the town's water mill. The site it now stands on was mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, but the present mill dates only from the 18th century.

In 1979 it was brought back from the brink of dereliction by the Capp family, and these days the family operates the mill once more as a business, producing the wholewheat stoneground flour that is sold in the adjoining shop.

Upstairs is a fascinating collection of old agricultural machinery with nostalgic names like bitter churn, cake crusher, oat roller and horse-drawn sham, but down below is where the action takes place. After a day out, admiring the castle and its ghosts and walking off cream teas in town, you are brought back down to earth with a bang and a thump and a clatter with the hefty old machinery at work in the mill. When you stand and listen to the winnowing machine creaking and grinding and the soporific clanking of iron on iron, it takes almost all the imagination you have left to believe that the mill is powered merely by water.

Dunster is just off the A39 near Minehead in Somerset. The castle (01643 821314) is open from 30 March-1 November, everyday except Thursday and Friday. The garden and park are open daily from 11am-4pm during Jan-March and October-Dec and 10am-5pm from April-Sept. Admission to the castle, garden and park is free for National Trust members, otherwise pounds 5.20 for adults, pounds 2.70 for children or pounds 13.40 for a family ticket (two adults, three children).

The Water Mill (01643 821759) is open from 10.30-5pm every day except Saturday from April to October, except July-August, when it opens on Saturdays too. Admission is pounds 2 adult, pounds 1 child or pounds 5.50 for a family ticket