Dunster Castle in west Somerset, is one of three Wessex Norman motte and bailey castles now owned by the National Trust. Their 11th century designers all used natural hills. Each was a strategic location but history changed them.. only Dunster has remained a residence through 1000 years.. a grand mansion house, impressive in scale and outline, high above the road into Exmoor.
1754 painting of Dunster’s dramatic setting on display in the Castle
In south Somerset, Montacute Castle, on St Michael’s Hill , is now only visible as earthworks under trees. It ended its military life in the 12th century when the land was given to Montacute Priory.
Corfe Castle thrived as a royal castle, particularly in the 13th century, but had become old fashioned by Tudor times. Elizabeth I sold Corfe and it became a rich family’s trophy house.. They backed the King (the losing side) and so in 1646 it was made uninhabitable. Now it’s a craggy ruin.
Dunster is different.. It survived the turbulent years of the English Civil War. It progressed.. and was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries.. complete with stables, outbuildings designed parkland, gardens and summerhouses.
And so it was… that last August I took the long and winding road from Taunton to Minehead in search of a Dunster mosaic.
Don’t get me wrong… these are pebble mosaics not Roman ones .. but they are intricate designs, hidden and poorly understood.
The thing about Dunster Tor is that it’s got unstable slopes. The paths and access road, spiraling up the steep hill to the Castle’s front door, keep slipping away.
I arrived at the right time, morning tea-break in the bothy, and then Robin the Head Gardener guided me up the hill with drawing board, camera, notebook and measuring tapes.
Starting to clear the overgown path below the Castle.
A busy summer day, many visitors enjoying the sunshine but I was shown down a lost path. Closed because of health and safety. It doesn’t go anywhere now. After about 30m, it stops abruptly at a steep slope, where the old route has tumbled down the hill.
Robin found the spot and pulled some creeper plants which had grown across the abandoned path. There, was a pattern of pebbles set in a hard white mortar.
He wished me well and left me to it ..and that was my home for the day.. shaded by the bushes and tall plants and all around me the voices of happy holiday people walking along other paths. Nearby but out of sight.
The path had been cut into the hillside. On the uphill side, I pulled back the greenery and found the red sandstone blocks of the revetment wall. Where the path met the wall there was a heap of soil and roots. I moved the vegetation… and just above the mosaic surface were fragments of plaster and pieces of brick and slate.
The pebble mosaic running under the revetment wall.
There were also two blocks of stone joined together and forming an 120 degree angle as though they once formed the corner of a polygonal building. The revetment wall had been built above this corner and the mosaic ran up to it….The archaeological sequence .. first the stone corner, then the pebble floor built against it and then, at a later date, the revetment wall for the path built above them.
Now it was time to clean back from the wall and reveal the pattern of the white pebbles. It was edged with a curving fan of long, pitched, red-brown stones. Then there were zig-zag patterns of long grey stones among the white pebbles. In the centre of each zig and zag, was a rosette of long stones with a pebble in the middle. Beyond that and further downslope there were interlocking arcs of grey stones dividing up the white pebbles…but then I ran out of path.
The stone rosettes
Slabs of the mosaic had fractured and tipped down slope and then had been covered and resurfaced in the 1970s to repair the path and make it horizontal again.
Really good mortar… it held the pebbles fast as the floor cracked and slipped away down the hill.
By the end of the day I’d uncovered about half the surviving semi-circular design. Originally, it must have been about 5m in diameter but ….how old was it and what period in the Castle’s long history did it belong to?
I’ve been writing up the report and the answers are not easy to find.. definitely 18th or 19th century but surely we can do better than that.
There are two known Dunster mosaics. The other one, on the north side of the castle, was built against the 15th century gatehouse. This floor design is a series of concentric pebble petals and was carefully uncovered and drawn in the 1990s. Robert the excavator concluded that the mortar used in the floor was a kind of ‘Roman’ cement and was therefore at least earlier 19th century in date.
The one I had revealed was on the south side of the Castle and although it had a different design, the mortar and types of stone were similar. There is no reason to doubt that they are contemporary and part of the same period of garden design.
Dunster Castle has such a dramatic scenic profile: it has been drawn, painted and mapped many times since the early 18th century.
Changes usually take place when there is money and the Luttrell family (the owner occupiers of Dunster from the 1404-1976) didn’t always have large amounts of spare money.
In the early 18th century, Dorothy Luttrell had cash to spend and used it to redesign the gardens. A drawing of Dunster in 1735 shows a white building in the area where I drew the mosaic. There is a painting dated 1754 which also shows the building. Is this the building which covered the mosaic. There’s no similar structure for the north pebble floor and the the type of mortar doesn’t work for such an early date. ‘Roman cement’ was invented by James Parker in 1798 and is unlikely to have been used at Dunster until the early 19th century.
The early 18th century painting at Dunster showing a little white building on the left side of the Castle in the area of the pebble floor.
Henry Fownes Luttrell 1747-1780 had money and lived at Dunster much of the time as did his son John 1780-1816 but the next owners lived mainly in London and the Castle went into decline. Then, in 1867, George Luttrell inherited and took the place in hand. He commissioned fashionable architect, Anthony Salvin, to design a gothic revamp for the place.
The surviving later 19th century photos maps and plans give no hint that the mosaics were created at this time.
However, they may have been designed and seen for just a few years and any covering pavilion or summer house building may have been a light timber framed structure quickly removed.
My best bet… given the type of mortar …and the occupation history of the Luttrell family, is that the floors were commissioned by John Luttrell before 1816… can’t prove it though.
Unfortunately William Turner’s painting of 1811 shows nothing and neither does the tithe map of 1840. But they were not created to show garden detail….
Dunster’s Tithe Map 1840
so I must hope for a future researcher who one day.. at Taunton.. at a table in the Somerset County Record Office…working through deep pile of papers in the Dunster Archive, will suddenly alight on the conclusive document ….I hope he or she spots it.
Amazing post, Martin. Are you publishing elsewhere?
Good to hear from you Susanna. I may put a small piece in the Somerset Proceedings. I remember our discussions about Dunster. With best wishes Martin