Plants and gardens to explore

Toby in the Parkland at Dunster Castle

The result of 100s of years of planning, building and restoration a walk around the gardens at Dunster Castle takes you around the world and through four different microclimates.

A brief history of the parkland and garden

Records from 1543 refer to a walled kitchen garden east of Dunster church, but there is nothing left of this today. There are, however, the remains of landscape designs from each of the last four centuries as well as exciting 21st-century features. 

Very little is known about the appearance of any garden at Dunster Castle in the Middle Ages. George Luttrell had commissioned William Arnold to create a Jacobean mansion in the castle buildings but we don’t know where or what its gardens were. 

Nathaniel Buck’s North East View of Dunster Castle of 1733 shows the New Way and the slopes just below the castle formally planted with rows of shrubs, possibly topiary – old yews still survive. The motte – the mound where the castle keep had stood – had formal planting and a flattened top, now the Keep Garden, surrounded by a wall enclosing a bowling green and summerhouse created by Dorothy Luttrell. George Wood’s painting of 1735 shows a large walled formal garden below the castle in the park near the river, with a straight central walk, a pavilion and an open loggia. It was altered at some point; a plan of about 1750 shows a central round pool. Archaeological investigation has found many traces of this garden.

Creating the pleasure grounds

Henry Fownes Luttrell instigated major changes to the castle’s parkland and garden. In 1755 he created a new larger deer park at the castle, replacing two older, smaller parks near Blue Anchor Bay.

Accommodating the new deer park, just south of the castle, involved evicting several tenant farmers. Their leases were cancelled, hedges removed and a strong, wooden fence was built to contain the deer. When the deer were moved to their new home villagers from Dunster, Carhampton and Withycombe lined the route from the old deer parks so none could escape.
In 1775 Henry commissioned Richard Phelps to develop Picturesque-style garden. Lawns’ and Lovers’ Bridges and the rocky cascade on the River Avill were the result, along with the folly, Conygar Tower.

Today the garden areas are known for their diversity of plants and features, with sub-tropical, Mediterranean and temperate plants beside the river, in herbaceous borders and the terraces. The castle grounds are also famous for their spectacular views over the Somerset countryside and the waters of the Bristol Channel.

The Lawns, 20th-century polo grounds, lie below the garden, surrounded by the Dunster estate. Its farmland, woods, forests and quarries are all now managed by the Crown Estates.

Dunster Castle's garden

The South Terrace

With far reaching views across the Bristol Channel and Deer Park the present day layout of the South Terrace stems from the Victorian period. In the 1820s, at the behest of George Luttrell, the architect Salvin demolished the existing Thornhill Chapel which had been built on the south facade in 1721. A new wing was constructed in its place and the resulting South Terrace was formed.

The South Terrace in spring
THe South Terrace in spring
The South Terrace in spring

To reflect its history, the flower beds are planted in the Victorian style with spring bulbs giving a spectacular floral display and in summer there is an abundance of brightly coloured bedding plants. The area has a Mediterranean feel due to its fortunate micro-climate which enables tender plants to thrive including the row of Chusan Palms.

This part of the garden also contains the Orangery, (now renamed the Camellia House) where you can pick up take away coffee and snacks, the Swan Pond which is home to goldfishes and newts and the Lemon House.

Blossom in March
Blossom in March
Blossom in March

The River Garden

A native micro climate the River Garden is a wild, wooded area. Green throughout the year during spring it's full of colour as the magnolia trees bloom. During summer the giant rhubarb reaches its peak in growth, getting so big they make an unusual umbrella when caught in the rain. Home to some rare species including the Handkerchief tree was grown from seeds smuggled back from Australia by Alys Luttrell in her purse in the 1920’s.

Bridges cross the River Avil which runs through the garden and lead to walks on the wider estate. At the end of the garden is the working watermill and tea-room.

The Yew bank

There have been yews on this bank dating back to the eighteenth century when the original drive - The New Way - was commissioned in 1720 by Dorothy Luttrell. In those days, it was very fashionable to create areas of light and shade within a garden and yews were perfect in this respect for shade. However, over the years, the yews grew too large and they were coppiced in 2012 and are now kept within bounds.

Keep Garden in April
Keep Garden in April
Keep Garden in April

The Keep

This area was originally the Upper Ward of the Norman Fortress of Dunster and, therefore, is the highest point in the Dunster landscape. In 1721, at the request of Dorothy Luttrell, the area was levelled and turned into a Bowling Green. To offer shelter and a dining area for the participants and the ladies, the Octagon Tower was constructed this now houses an exhibition exploring the garden's history.