Somerset’s western sector, delineated by the M5, has quite a few castles of every variety plus, as you progress further west into the county, you’ll find yourself in the middle of one of the most beautiful national forests you may ever see. For those who love to walk, Exmoor offers 620 miles (or 1,000 km) of footpaths which wind through beautifully dramatic and colorful scenery and landscape. Within the Somerset portion of Exmoor you’ll see Dunkery Beacon (southwest of Minehead), the highest point of the forest and the beautiful Brendon Hills along with seaside entertainments, picturesque villages and ancient churches. You’re liable to run into many small, medium to large natural history museums all over this particular area in part, because of the rich mineral and stone deposits from all periods.
Two castles that stand out and look almost too good to be true, – Dunster (completely rebuilt alongside its ruins) and Taunton (portions kept up so well that it was converted to a hotel mid-20th century) thrive in spite of their long history. As a matter of fact, Taunton boasts of an eyebrow-raising history, at that, and the Somerset Museum (once the Great Hall of the castle) is a major part of it. Mid-20th century Taunton was converted over to a hotel and is magnificent inside and very well run. Pepperpot Castle in the middle of the aforementioned Exmoor Forest was built only to appear to be a medieval castle and is primarily in use as a wedding chapel. Yet another, Stogursey, a Landmark Trust property, offers lodging in the converted gatehouse. One can wake up each morning to stroll around the grounds and view the ruined walls of a once great castle. These, among hill forts and earthworks of motte and baileys make for one of the best chances to study the diversity of castles in modern England. If you love castles you’ll be very much at home in west Somerset so bring your beach bag and comfy walking shoes and hurry on along…
Bridgwater is located along the edge of the Somerset Levels amid well-wooded country just west of the heart of Somerset and the M5. The Mendips lie to the northwest and directly to the west, the Quantock hills. Beaches along the northern coastline of western Somerset lead west into Exmoor Forest and the River Parrett wends its way southeast ten miles from the inlet of the Bridgwater Bay at Burnham-on-Sea to Bridgwater. As a result, this inlet and town have been a major port and trading center and relatively large industrial base from medieval times, once used to transport Ham Stone from a quarry on Ham Hill.
Bridgwater’s host is Willow Man, a woven sculpture of black maul willow withies around 40 feet tall and 3-tons steel frame of a man which stands just west of the M5 motorway. This creation by Serena de la Hey was installed in September of 2000 and surrounded by a 130 feet circular moat as a security measure after being vandalized. Six years after its installation the willow had to be revamped and rewoven because birds had been using the material to build their nests!
King John granted William de Briwerre three charters in 1200 for the construction of Bridgwater Castle, the creation of a borough around it and a market site. The king rarely visited except on the occasions he wished to hunt at nearby North Petherton Forest. Considering that it was a substantially large quadrangular concentric castle, the entire commission was quite a remarkable achievement given the time frame. Built of red Wembdon sandstone and trimmed with fawn-colored Ham stone, the corner towers were round and the foundation was of blue lias. St. John’s hospital was also built by de Briwerre along with the town’s first stone bridge. Most of Bridgwater Castle no longer stands but even though it was completely demolished during the Civil War there are interesting vestiges to be seen on tour which can give you some idea of its former appearance and size.
One remarkable surviving feature is the archway of the Watergate on West Quay which would have been a well-used postern gate because of its position to the River Parret. The presence of a Borough Seal suggests that there was a portcullis defense for it. Other vestiges around town, in red sandstone quarried from the Mendips, include a stretch of medieval wall along Queen Street (uncovered in 1993 during a reconstruction and thought to be part of a building inside the bailey), the foundations of the northeast tower- now buried beneath Homecastle House and buildings along Fore Street which follow the line where part of the curtain wall once stood. The original castle site occupied between eight to nine square acres of land parked on the highest point which is now called Kings Square. Completely surrounded by a tidal moat, which followed the line of Fore Street, Castle Moat (a street), Northgate and Chandos, the adjacent entrance was the west main gate, opposite Cornhill and the Watergate fronted the river. Inside the curtain walls, besides Mortimer’s Hall, St. Mark’s church was built beside the keep along with a bell tower and dovecote.
The town itself was surrounded by ditches with a depth of thirty feet, filled by the tides of the surging river on all sides and linked with the four town gates- three on the west bank of the river and the East gate across the river. Fortifications and a drawbridge fronted the southwest corner of the castle linked by a medieval stone bridge. Currently, as you walk the solidly Georgian architecture of Castle Street and uphill from the river, you will be walking across what was the lower bailey in medieval times. As you reach King’s Square at the top, the site of Bridgwater’s war memorial comes into view and this level ground is the site of the former upper bailey. It has been suggested that the rather steep slope of Bond Street down to West Quay may be where steps led up to the castle.
Bridgwater became a royalist stronghold, officially, by being incorporated by a charter of Edward IV in 1468. Garrison capacity is said to have been between 2,000 in troop numbers for peacetime and up to 3,000 men during a siege or threat of one. When the civil war broke out the castle was held by the Royalists under the direction of Colonel Edmund Wyndham, appointed officially and personally by the King. Wyndham’s wife, Lady Crystabella, was in charge when Cromwell showed up and took a shot at him with a musket but unfortunately hit his aide de campe instead. Not only was the castle eventually destroyed a year later but the town had been devastated as well and surrender to the Parliamentarians occurred on the 21st of July of 1645. It is interesting to note that in 1651 it was Colonel Wyndham who made arrangements for Charles II to flee to France following the Battle of Worcester.
The town was redeveloped in 1720 by James Bridges, the Duke of Chandos, who built King’s Square on the former castle site and a manor house for himself and much of the old town but made no attempt to save anything of the castle. The tunnels he installed were rediscovered most recently by water engineers who were excavating to revamp the sewer system. As a result, the foundations of the old castle walls have been revealed and shown to be in excellent condition! King’s Street became filled with houses for merchants. It is not known whether the Duke of Chandos rebuilt the Watergate but speculation suggests that what is there today may have been rebuilt or altered. Castle House, the manor which also no longer stands, was built mid-19th century of concrete, primarily, made to appear as masonry at the former site of the keep. Also sited on the former castle grounds you’ll find Bridgwater Arts Centre, completed and opened in October of 1946 which was the first community arts centre built with financial assistance of the Arts Council of England. It is situated on Castle Street and was designed by Benjamin Holloway for the Duke of Chandos.
At the town center you’ll see a bronze statue in front of the former Cornhill Exchange, erected in 1900, which is a full-size replica of Admiral Robert Blake, a general-at-sea and one-time MP considered to be an historical hero of the town. His former childhood home is the location of the Bridgwater Museum which is a short distance from the statue on the end of Blake Street, a quiet back street, at number 5. You can park at the nearest car park on Dampiet Street and walk to the end to find it- marked by a large sidewalk sign, often. Besides supplying details of Admiral Blake’s life and career you’ll find exhibits of local history and archaeology. An official guide book on Bridgwater can be purchased here and has a good street map for revelers. For more information, check out Bridgwater’s local author and historian Roger Evans.
Blake Museum 5 Blake St. Bridgwater TA6 3NB T- 01278 456127
A bit further south, the town is linked to Taunton by the Bridgwater and Taunton Canals. As you move southeast you’ll come to Westenzoyland where the famous Battle of Sedgemoor was fought and James Scott, the first Duke of Monmouth, who escaped the battlefield and eventually captured along with his followers was put down in 1685. He had been proclaimed King on the Cornhill at Bridgwater (and at other localities, as well) by his troops and supporters during his rebellion and on that treasonous impetus he challenged King James II on the night of July 6th. The surprise attack was quelled when a musket was accidentally discharged defeating the Duke. Eventually he was taken to the Tower of London along with his troops and was beheaded alongside nine others.
Just north of Bridgwater at Puriton the earthworks of Chisley Mount, which is now called Bally Field has clearly delineated bailies surrounding a reduced motte on its north side and all formed along a natural ridge known as Polden Hills which run northwest to southeast above the Somerset Levels. Although there is no medieval documentation of this castle, a partial excavation in 1908 revealed evidence of Norman remains and even earlier occupation. Pottery found was identified as being pre-Conquest in origin, possibly Roman. There is, however, no stone in evidence to suggest that there was ever a rebuilding beyond the earliest Norman period.
Athelney is also close which, if you’ll recall from my entry on King Alfred at the beginning of this year, is where the hidden fortress of this Saxon King once stood. It is still referred to as the Isle of Athelney because the Somerset Levels were swampy marshes at that period, usually flooded with water. A monument dedicated to him and erected in 1801 at the highest point here marks the site of the monastery Alfred built. It is on privately-owned land belonging to Athelney Farm just off the A361 and quite visible from a distance, as in this photo.
Further south of Bridgwater and off the A38 and west of the M5, approximately two and a half miles southeast at North Petherton (via North Newton), a 13th century manor, Maunsel House is centered on a hundred acres of beautiful parkland. As mostly Elizabethan additions abound, some early medieval features can be distinguished on the exterior particularly the porch and entrance. The interiors also have some interesting medieval features but have been renovated in a most delightful regency style and as the house is for hire you’ll find it extremely impressive for almost any event or conference with a grand ballroom for large functions and the Oak room for more intimate gatherings.
The park consists of over 2,000 acres of farms with ancient barns, four medieval cottages and lakes, woodlands, walnut groves and orchards, here and there. As the ancestral seat of the Slade family, Maunsel remains the home of the 7th baronet, Sir Benjamin Slade. (Historical visitors to the house included Geoffrey Chaucer who was writing the Canterbury Tales during his stay so many centuries ago!) The beautiful grounds can be admired any time during the day for casual visitors and interiors are filled with spacious rooms, the aforementioned large regency ballroom and dining room and a walled garden provides areas, such as the antique bandstand, for outdoor weddings or events. Thirteen bedrooms, many with four poster beds, crowned by the King’s Room (which holds a massive Elizabethan four poster bed) are also available upon hire and the cottages on the estate are within walking distance of the house affording a further fourteen bedrooms for additional accommodation.
www.maunselhouse.co.uk T- 01278 6661076
Five miles southeast of Bridgwater, just off the A361, an historic hill site, Burrow Mump, which is topped by what appears to be a beautiful replica of a medieval church, overlooks Southlake Moor in the village of Burrowbridge. This strategic point is where the River Tone and the old course of the River Cary conjoin with the River Parrett seventy-nine feet above the Somerset Levels. Surroundings are mostly farmland and the hill site is rich in Triassic sandstone and capped by Keuper marl.
Some evidence of Roman remains have been discovered here but the first fortifications were of a Norman motte and there may have been a church on the site from the 12th century. Because of the proximity to Athelney it has been referred to as King Alfred’s Fort, but no proof has been found of his association with this hill site or the church. The medieval church folly, St Michaels, was rebuilt on the hill in 1793 (after a 15th century ruined church) with a west tower, 3-bay nave and a south porch. It was never completed, hence, the folly appearance. The land and ruin were donated to the National Trust in 1946 and a World War II memorial plaque was affixed after that time in honor of the Somerset men who died for their country. Interestingly, the church was occupied during the Monmouth Rebellion by royalist troops.
Barford Park is located on the other side of Durleigh Water only five miles directly west of Bridgwater, a bit north of Enmore. The stone and red-brick Queen Anne manor in the center of the estate had earlier beginnings revealed by the home’s surroundings. The original Barford family, who were documented as owners by 1253, occupied in full ownership up until 1987 with sad undertones of hardship by the heir. This unusual mansion looks out upon a large back-walled garden along the north, across a stone-fortified ha-ha. In addition, the estate is part of a large park filled with beautiful trees.
As a small country seat it is quite peaceful and very comfortable-looking inside, with decent-sized rooms and modern furniture. A medieval garden reveals that this was no common manor but the house- originally meant to be a mere two-storey farmhouse- has additions, such as the baroque wings on each side and the five bay façade added by the Stancombs in the mid-20th century. Although the restorations were late they appear quite authentic for the era depicted by its architecture. Much money spent at some point when Victorian pleasure grounds included an archery glade and racing stables which brought its asking price up to £1,650,000 by 2013! T- 01278 671269
At Enmore, some miles directly north of Taunton, you’ll find the site of a former courtyard castle, Enmore Castle, which was originally the seat of the William Mallet family in the early part of the 17th century. At that time it consisted of a hall, chapel and 20 hearths indicating a great size. The interiors included an armory, music and picture galleries, library and a state dining room with tapestries hung throughout. It stood so for nearly a hundred years until 1727 when it was taken over by John Perceval, the 2nd Earl of Egmont. He is responsible for the appearance of the current architecture which stands today but only in part.
Originally 86 by 78 feet square with square corner towers, relatively low walls and semicircular turrets- all battlemented- on all four sides with a drawbridge entrance over the wide surrounding moat (now dry), it was pulled down by the 18th century. A large mansion built around the moat was put up by 1779 in a more modern style and is but a remnant now of that building. The drawbridge was retained up until the end of the 18th century and the moat is represented by an underground brick lined cellar which surrounds the current house along the east, west and south. Today it is in two three-storied parts surrounded by the Enmore Park Golf Club and privately owned.
One and half miles southwest of Bridgwater, West Bower Manor House has the distinction of purportedly being the birthplace of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife and owned by Lord John Seymour, her brother. Situated on the edge of Durleigh reservoir, (a very lush and green area, by the way) much of the original 15th century manor was demolished after being altered in the 17th century. Except for the gatehouse exterior, West Bower was entirely rebuilt in the 19th century and underwent restoration at the end of the 20th century. What is now essentially a large farmhouse is rendered in decorated Perpendicular along the south front entrance porch on a rectangular plan with an east wing and a modern barn in the anterior of the complex. Primarily of stone and freestone, the main house has the look of a medieval hall surrounded by more modern buildings.
The earliest manifestation of this house was called Durleigh Manor when Richard Coker was given license to have an oratory there for a year, in 1339. This manor house included the chapel of St. John the Baptist by 1462. Eventually it evolved into a courtyard configured house and the south front entrance porch was an actual gatehouse. Its survival is testament to its beautiful construction and is definitely the best feature to examine on a tour. Garden walls which are connected to the complex appear to be original to the 15th century manor house. An amazing circular dovecote stood on the property and had 730 nest holes. Unfortunately, it was torn down in 1967. Of course, the earliest building in the area happens to be Durleigh Church which dates from the 11th century but was substantially rebuilt in the late 19th century and has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade II listed building.
As we head further west, just off the A39, to the village of Nether Stowey where Samuel Taylor Coleridge finished Kubla Khan in 1797, you’ll find a large motte, originally an Iron Age hill fort, which once was the location of a castle owned and most likely built by William fitz Odo. It is known by three different names and is most often referred to simply as Nether Stowey Castle but also as Dowsborough Castle, and Castle Mount. Earthworks that remain are testament to its former size and the motte and bailey was strongly positioned on the hill overlooking the village along with foundations of a rectangular keep tower which were discovered on the summit. This aerial photograph shows its outline clearly which is massive. The original Norman wooden structure is said to have burnt down in 1139, perpetrated by supporters of King Stephen. A later castle, held by the Audleys is said to have fallen into decay by the 15th century most likely built in stone as a square keep of which vestiges of walls over six feet thick have been found on top of a former bailey. Also, a stone cannonball was unearthed on the mound. Most of the foundation and base-court were formed by scarping rising up twenty five feet above the ditch and ramparts which are natural rock. At one time a mill and pottery kiln existed below the ramparts.
With a bailey along the east and an even smaller one along the north most of the site is covered over by good turf and only low square foundations are exposed from excavations carried out most likely in the 20th century. The bases of towers can be made out among small mounds of masonry along the edges. Most of these remains are a bit of a mystery because there is no documentation of the building but history alone fills in this gap. The castle was destroyed in the 15th century possibly as a penalty for the local lord’s involvement in the Perkin Warbeck rebellion against the Crown. Lord Audley, the lord of the manor, lost his head when he joined thousands of West Country rebels who marched to Wells and then on to London where the rebellion was crushed. He was executed after being paraded round London dressed in a paper coat with his arms painted in reverse. It would have been better for him if they had reversed their decision! There is a fenced footpath that follows the west side which imparts a magnificent view across Bridgwater Bay to the Welsh coast.
Further west towards Exmoor you’ll find that the forest sits on a high plateau where the River Exe rises and offers almost 700 miles of well-kept foot paths and bridleways. Exmoor National Park is situated along the Bristol Channel coast and occupies two counties with 71% of the park located in west Somerset and 29% on the northeast corner of Devonshire. Simonsbath, the furthest west town of Somerset, is a good starting point for hikers, however, the Southwest Coastal Path can be started at Minehead and stretches all the way from there, all along the southwest coastline, passing along Devon and Cornwall, to Poole in Dorset on a 600 mile marathon trek! 12,500 acres of Exmoor is owned by the National Trust, officially named the Holnicote Estate and includes four miles of the coastline between Minehead and Porlock as part of this estate along with 100 miles of footpaths which go through fields, woods, moors and villages. Dunkery Beacon is the highest point in Somerset at 520 miles high and is just seven miles southwest of Dunster Castle, both west of the Brendon Hills. As an unusually elevated area of southern England, the park supports a great variety of flora and fauna, including wild red deer (which were introduced to the park, a royal hunting preserve, in the 12th century) and Exmoor ponies which are deemed to descend from Iron Age ancestors! Exford, which is centered right in the middle of Exmoor, has been celebrated for stag hunting since Norman times and has a ‘hidden’ Iron Age hill fort referred to as Cow Castle with a single rampart and ditch. Exmoor National Park, plunging into the Atlantic along its northern coast is filled with lush, wooded valleys carrying many rivers from the high moorland down to sheltered fishing coves. Inland, wild rolling hills are grazed by the ponies, horned sheep and deer and curlews (a sandpiper with a curved bill) and buzzards are a common sight over bracken-clad terrain looking for prey! For walkers, the footpaths of Exmoor offer varied, dramatic scenery, while the tamer perimeters of the park have everything from traditional seaside entertainments to picturesque villages.
T-01643 862452 email@example.com
Only a mile off from the beaches of Bridgwater Bay, Stogursey Castle sits to the south of the village of Stogursey, very close to Fairfield House and eight miles northwest of Bridgwater. Stogursey was given to William de Curci (de Falaise) by William the Conqueror some time after the invasion and was recorded as Stoche in the 1086 Domesday Book. (De Curci’s lineage went all the way back to the Carolingian King Charles III of France!) Once called Stoke Courcy, the castle was founded by the de Curcis in Norman times and was rebuilt by William de Curci III in the 12th century during the reign of Henry II. The de Curci’s were stewards to the king so their loyalty was rewarded with enough to keep their castles fortified properly and in order. Unlike the town’s 12th century medieval St. Andrews Priory Church, which has survived the centuries quite well, the castle is now totally in ruins, but quite visible, belying a long and stormy history. The village itself sits at the junction of two ancient routes with one situated between the Quantocks and the coastline and the other from the river crossing at Combwich. (Stogursey’s placement was strategic along with Dunster, Taunton and eventually Bridgwater Castles, along with Corfe (in Dorset) and Sherbourne (in Wiltshire.) The castle can be found upstream and south of the Quantock/Combwich junction and is currently a Landmark Trust property with a completely restored and habitable gatehouse cottage for a small family to rent on holiday!
The castle’s beginnings were a motte atop a ringwork with two bailies built after 1100, rebuilt in 1166 according to documentation and then built in stone in a polygonal configuration by 1204 according to the layout of the foundational remains. King John officially took possession of Storgursey by 1215, most likely in reaction to having to sign the Magna Charta that same year and it was subsequently ordered to be destroyed. The Prior of the church was given the task which was not carried out because there was another similar order made in 1228. The second order was also ignored and by the time of Henry III, Fawkes de Breaute, a robber-baron, took over the castle for a time. His association may have been through his wife who was the daughter of Alice de Courcy- the last of the line in England. Four years before, the castle was held for the rebels against the regents of Henry II and was besieged although it held up quite well but was only repaired afterwards. At that time a semi-circular tower was added to the structure along the east side of the castle.
By the time of Edward I, it was owned by Sir Robert FitzPayne who was already a local landowner and extensively refortified the castle for a number of years after 1300. When the castle was besieged vehemently by Yorkists during the War of the Roses a few years before 1459, it was burnt down and sacked and was not rebuilt or refortified thereafter. The first print above by Sam and Nat Buck shows what the status and condition was by 1733 and even so, Stogursey had been used as a farmhouse in the 17th century. The evidential presence of a post-medieval stable and hayloft are the proof as they were a part of the modernizing which was carried out while the Fitzpayne’s had possession. Timber and stone structures within the curtain were discovered during incomplete excavations carried out in 1981 and 1982 before restorations by the Landmark Trust.
Delightfully, the enclosure is still surrounded by a wet moat which is fed by a brook and as reduced as it is now, much of the curtain survives, though deprived of the round flanking towers it once possessed. Foundations of the round towered gatehouse are surmounted by a 17th century Jacobean cottage, which is the habitable part and only one of the cross slits is original. The drawbridge is a modern stone replacement of the original wooden structure from 1983, after the surveys and excavations were carried out. Vestiges of bastions which were installed along the inside of the curtain walls are visible on the site and the presence of the outer bailey is mostly obscured by gardens, though quite captivating. If you plan to visit the site you will be perfectly safe against any possible sieges and the exterior is visible from a footpath. Along Castle Street you will see the Mill and mill pond once associated with the castle.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=409i7ovQma0 2 children give a video tour!
A bit further inland, Dodington Hall outside the village of Holford, a half mile from the A39, is worth a brief look from the outside for its unaltered Tudor remains which appear quite good. The restorations are too obvious but it is still worth a good look, just the same as Stogursey Castle and West Bower Manor are, and in the same vein. This rather small 15th century manor, although given new windows by mid-16th century and further alterations (exterior and interior) in more recent centuries, displays a genuine medieval house much as it was in the day. If given the chance of an interior tour you’ll see a magnificent oak vaulted roof, carved stone fireplace and plasterwork which, in part, displays the heraldry of the Saxon Thane, Dodo, whose home stood on or near the hall. This armorial device of three forester’s bugle horns was kept clear into the 18th century and is still recognized on the stonework of the porch and parts of the interior. This was the home of Sir Francis Dodington, part of the Dodington line descended from Dodo, who was the Forester of Exmoor and a person of considerable importance to the entire region. Wonderful surprises await those who can get a tour of the interior. By the way, Bryan Adams video for the song I do it for you was filmed at nearby Holford Glen! T-01278 741400 Contact: P. Quinn
Further west along the Bridgwater Bay coastline, at a place between Washford and Watchet and not far away from Dunster Castle, Cleeve Abbey is one monastic site you must see because of the portions that were saved from the Dissolution of 1536. Few such sites have a complete set of cloister buildings along with the refectory which has an intact, magnificent timber roof! This Cistercian Abbey escaped the destruction of some of its best features and the site is quite large with a working farm and housing. Don’t skip anything and you’re bound to be fascinated at this amazing late-medieval survival. At Washford it is a quarter mile south of the A39. Owned and protected by English Heritage, the entrance fee for adults is four pounds. T- 01984 640377
A neighbor to Cleeve is Orchard Wyndham near Williton- a manor home that spans the time between the 14th and 20th centuries. This incredible mansion has been a family home for more than 700 years and is a showcase for continuous building from the medieval period up to modern times. Seated one mile from the A39 from Williton, you must call ahead for a tour at 01984 632309 and further details.
South of the coastline and six miles northwest of Taunton, Combe Florey Manor House was once the home of Evelyn Waugh and, later, one of his sons, Auberon with his family. As a manor that dates from 1591, the red sandstone (which shows up primarily around the area of Taunton Deane) is very prevalent in the construction of this unusual and rather interesting manor house. It has been altered drastically from that time but its finest features are the plasterwork on the interiors, the heraldry and its gabled tower. The house was named from Hugh de Fleuri who was most likely the first lord of the manor ca. 1166. In 1086 the village was part of the Bishop of Winchester’s estate of Taunton Deane and the Taunton Deane Hundred. A matching stone gatehouse that was originally four-storied has been altered to two storeys and many of the 16th century fortification features are charming if not quite authentic. Plasterwork by Robert Eaton of Stogursey may take a bow for excellence and maybe that latrine tower. The window work is also impressive and one would have to be intrigued to see a former home of one of England’s premier 20th century novelists!
From here, you can head south down the A358 toward Taunton and just a mile before reaching Taunton, turn back up northward, off the A3259 to discover Hestercombe House and Gardens which is north of Cheddon Fitzpaine. Most famous for their fifty acres of historical landscaped gardens, Hestercombe has received numerous awards and listed Grade 1 on the English Heritage Register of Park and Gardens. A personal visit will prove that you do not need to be enticed with a pedigree, of course, because the sights and sounds of this architectural wonderland is a paradise unto itself. These gardens encompass work started by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde, mid-18th century, in Georgian style with large lakes, waterfalls, temples and woodland walks throughout. Formal gardens were designed much later by Sir Edwin Lutyens and planted by Gertrude Jekyll, completing work by 1906, with well-exemplified signature terraces, pools and an orangery graced with Ham stone below the house and up the slopes of the Quantocks. The secret landscape garden was united and reintroduced with the previous work of Bampfylde and were reopened in the Spring of 1997 after 125 years of closure to the public! When the house itself is opened to the public you’ll find it is a test to see what a normal and rather less dignified English country home can endure. Present occupants beside, the house was of the aforementioned Warre family from the 14th century and carried on to the end of the 19th century by the Warre-Bampfyldes. This Queen Anne house in local pink stone is overwhelmed by the beautiful gardens but it holds ground in dignity for what it is- a well-lived in old home. In 1873 the house was bought by Viscount Portman, owner of much of Marylebone and father of the builder of Bryanston in Dorset. His grandson, Edward Portman, commissioned Lutyens and Jekyll to reproduce the dramatic gardens at Hestercombe and the house has some fine features with a classical hall and staircase but the exterior architecture was forced to be restored into its current era with a Victorian tower while the rest faces the garden with a rather plain classical front- displaying bays, pediments and nondescript windows with recesses. At Hestercombe the gardens win the prize, hands down! A tea room and gift shop on the premises is open daily from 10-5 to complete a day in a truly beautiful oasis of green and floral splendour.
www.hestercombegardens.com T- 01823 413923
While in this particular locale you might want to try actual farmhouse cider which is referred to as scrumpy (for scrumptious?) in Somerset, still made using the traditional methods with a farm close by on the A38. Sheppy’s, not far from Taunton, makes it possible for you to watch the actual cider-making and sample it afterwards. Cider was once so popular that it was part of a farm worker’s wages! While Taunton may be famous for the best cider the most prosperous industry in the region during medieval times was the wool industry which financed the magnificent and massive church of St. Mary Magdalene and its beautiful tower.
Taunton is Somerset’s current county town and while it’s not the largest metropolis in Somerset, it is definitely the busiest and friendliest town of the west area with lots of shopping, restaurants and night life to liven up your visit. Taunton Castle is at the center of it all but is now only a portion of its former self and you may be surprised at its ecclesiastical exterior appearance. For hundreds of years, from Saxon times, the bishops of Winchester were lords of the manor and over the entire Vale of Taunton Deane until 1822 but retained ownership only up until 1648. The charter granted in 904 came from Saxon King Edward the Elder so Taunton’s origins are ancient! Early in the 12th century Bishop William Giffard built the original hall which survives, more or less, but his successor Henry de Blois (Henry I) converted the entire site into a royal castle making Taunton among several Episcopal palaces which he smartly fortified during the years of the Anarchy. Taunton endured three sieges throughout the Civil War on the side of Parliament and the castle defenses were largely destroyed after Charles II’s return.
You won’t find a moat on the premises as this feature was filled in long ago but on the western half of the inner bailey, administrative buildings prevailed and are well preserved or were spared heavy damage. The castle today consists of two converging ranges following the ancient triangular layout. Peter des Roches and William Raleigh, both early 13th century bishops, were responsible for building the south range which consists of a round tower projecting from a corner and a magnificent gate tower leads into the bailey. Between the two stood the chapel and the entire south range has a neo-Gothic appearance due to extensive renovations carried out in the 1780s for judges’ living quarters. Along the north side of the bailey the extended hall range is as complex as its history. The western half, an aisled hall built by Bishop Giffard along with the west wall remains recognizably Norman making it a miraculous survival. As early as 1240, Bishop Raleigh made the hall narrower and it was later extended to the east as late as the 18th century. During what is now referred to as the Bloody Assizes, this makeshift courthouse served as a venue for Judge Jeffreys, best known as the ‘hanging judge’. Following the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, Jeffreys condemned 508 rebels to death and also doled out fatal retribution on the Duke of Monmouth- all for their part in an uprising against King James II. Not all the sentences were fully carried out but hundreds died by hanging and other means, regardless. This former Great Hall and inner ward now houses the exhibits of the Somerset County Museum and covers Somerset’s history as a whole. A £ 7 million restoration was carried out in September of 2011, paid for by the Heritage Lottery Fund. One outstanding exhibit is a Roman mosaic found at a villa in Low Ham which depicts the story of Dido and Aeneas. There are displays of fossils and geological items within the museum and outside, a garden which displays part of the exhibition of building stone including a large sarsen brought in from nearby Staple Fitzpaine.
The north side and gate of the hall overlooks the River Tone and still bears the scars of Civil War bombardment! Henry de Blois’ oblong keep dominated the destroyed eastern half of the bailey. It is gone now, of course, but some of its base foundations have been exposed to view. Originally, there was a large outer bailey referred to now as the Castle Green. All that once stood there has vanished with the exception of a beautifully restored gate tower standing alongside the converted award-winning castle hotel which is simply referred to as The Castle Hotel. A Saxon castle once stood opposite the location of the former Great Hall.
In 2004 the 1100th anniversary of the original charter to the Bishop of Winchester was marked for celebrations during May of that year. The project group who set it in motion drew up a series of events which included historical exhibitions and reenactments which have become quite popular all over England as a matter of course. Much of that is quite fitting considering that Taunton eventually became the center of one of the richest ecclesiastical estates in European history. The overall appearance of the castle and related buildings at present was the work of Sir Benjamin Hammet who made quite a few alterations to all the structures associated with the castle in 1786. The remaining historical buildings were purchased in 1874 by the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society and took over the former Great Hall as its new location for a museum. Since 1958 Somerset County Council has been leasing several portions of Taunton Castle to keep the museum collections available to the public and visitors to the area.
The Chapman family became the custodians of The Castle Hotel starting in 1950 when Peter took over the running of this historic landmark. Currently, his son Kit and wife, Louise are the new proprietors, with Kit being appointed MBE at the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his work in hospitality and tourism and their sons, Dominic and Nicholas are a part of the family board, as well. In 2013 Nicholas took over his father’s position as chairman of the company. You can see the drama of it all on a BBC2 TV show called “Keep it in The Family” which originally aired in 2009 when they were still sorting it all out! Meanwhile, Kit has also become a well-known personality amongst the British hotel and restaurant owners and their personnel. As a writer and television emcee, he champions high culinary standards for the country as a whole. Along with his resident writing duties for the hotel, Kit has written four books- two award-winning volumes of Great British Chefs which illuminates the state of gastronomy in the U.K. and also has had two non-fiction titles published which illuminate his life at The Castle. The latest (his fourth book) being My Archipelago is all about the turbulent history of his family and published in September of 2010. Louise Chapman is a professional interior decorator and has taken on the embodiment of the castle employing all her talents to make the hotel as warm and welcoming as possible for guests and visitors while keeping its high standards intact.
A car park is available just opposite the museum. Try the Brazz Restaurant which is at The Castle Hotel or the Firestone Pub just opposite located at the Castle Bow !
Somerset County Museum at Castle Green (Taunton Castle)
01823 255088 & 01823 355504 T-Sat 10-5
While at Taunton, another place to stay would be Woodlands Castle just outside Taunton at a former house of Sir Benjamin Slade (the baronet of Maunsel House). This privately owned venue is primarily a hireling for weddings and events with their own in-house catering team. As a small secluded mansion located on twelve acres of woodlands but convenient to Taunton they offer period rooms in the house and a garden pavilion seated in the walled garden which overlooks the entire grounds. Accommodation is up to 200 people for events with enough spacious rooms to overnight the wedding party.
2 minutes from junction 25 off the M5 at Ruishton, Taunton TA3 5LU
T: 01823 444955 contact: Roxanne Stewart
A short distance away, Cothelstone Manor is decidedly early to mid-16th century although an earlier building is likely because one of the same name was given to Sir Adam de Coveston by William the Conqueror and there has been a house on the premises since that time. The present manor has had the good fortune to have been occupied and owned by only two families. The present house, listed grade II now, is believed to have suffered heavily when attacked by forces led by General Blake during the civil war. It was partially demolished by cannon fire but the remains were repaired and for the next 200 years after was used as a farmhouse. By the 19th century the manor was well restored to former glory and its appearance is remarkably authentic to its previous time.
The surrounding parkland has a fairy tale aura and Cothelstone, with its Quantock stone walls, reveals interesting and unusual features during an interior tour. The exterior wows the onlooker with a late 16th century gazebo- an unusual survival- a triple entrance archway and grade I listed gatehouse. A galleried interior hall has been used as a film location. Even though the house is still, amazingly, used as a family home it’s also made available for corporate and social events along with private escorted tours!
T: 01823 433480 contact: Nigel Muers-Raby firstname.lastname@example.org
If you enjoy reading authentic historical fiction you’ll definitely want to visit Gaulden Manor at Tolland in the Taunton Deane area. Seated in twenty acres of lush countryside nine miles northwest of Taunton (off the A358 & B3224) you’ll have a chance to see an historic courtyard manor home which most likely inspired the novel of Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This small but magnificently surviving medieval country home is a chance for a good look at the gentrified English in their humble estate which still displays the wealth of the ages. Gaulden goes back to the 12th century when it landed into the possession of the Priory of Taunton. It is also the past seat of the Turberville family which may have quite a turbulent history of their own, stemming from the fact that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Exeter, James Turberville was offered refuge here after he was released from imprisonment at the Tower of London in 1563. From 1966 it has been owned by the Starkies and kept up extremely well despite the fact that it is a lived-in family home. Tours are given in the summertime but appointments must be made in advance to do so. This is mandatory because the house has been put up for sale in more recent years. The Starkies may be the longest standing owners because during the Dissolution Gaulden’s owners and tenants came and went like fireflies!
The estate’s features include the sandstone manor itself, fronted by a two storey porch and the original casement windows. Magnificent gardens include separate rose garden, bog garden with primulas and other exotic plants and a butterfly and herb garden all surrounding a medieval stewpond from which you can see the house from every angle. Other buildings surrounding the courtyard are traditional former stables, granary, a brewery and a cider cellar and add to the charm of the property. Much of what remains looking Tudor on the outside involves the formal gardens and has been the work and restoration of the Starkies. The interior is a different story, however.
The interiors feature quite a bit of wonderful and beautiful plasterwork commissioned by the Turbervilles upon their return to the estate in 1639 after a buyout from the Wolcotts- specifically the Henry Wolcotts who emigrated to America after a brief occupation of the house. (Oliver Wolcott was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and was a direct descendant of Henry.) Inside, the entrance opens to a grand double flight of stairs leading to the second floor, six bedrooms, four reception rooms, dining room and a Great Hall decked out in Tudor style down to the furniture, drapes and oak screen. Here you’ll see niches and alcoves for bread and salt above the fireplace which is most likely a retained feature. Also, in the Great Hall, is the finest example of the plasterwork worthy of a great house, showing off a giant central pendant. An adjoining chapel has a singular plasterwork example on the ceiling of the Trumpeting Angel of Judgment Day.
Mrs. Starkie is very artistic and the entire house showcases her painting and embroidery which adds quite a bit of color. The walls are not white and the manor has an array of every color well known to man in each room. It’s no wonder that the house has a regular following of return visitors every year because it’s a very welcoming atmosphere of home without looking neglected or distasteful. This may be the best place in the world to take down a copy of Tess and settle in for a good read.
T- 01984 667213
The remains of Castle Neroche occupy a spur atop the Blackdown Hills high above the village of Curland, six miles southeast of Taunton and the M5. English lore states that Saxon kings and Norman lords alike hunted in these woods and it’s possible to see a great hill of East Devon from this castle area. Earthworks of Neroche can be found by following a signposted nature trail through woodlands. There have been many invasive surveys on these sizable earthworks which are comprised of a partially natural motte and bailey with a triple ditch and rampart guarding one level approach. Excavations have been carried out on the site revealing a layout of three or four phases during building. One phase may date back to the Iron Age (but has not been agreed upon, by any means!) and involves the outer ditch and rampart. After the Norman Conquest the oblong, embanked bailey was very likely installed by Robert, Count of Mortain. A third ditch and rampart followed a few decades later. It has been suggested that the motte was built later in the 12th century as an addition and did not belong in the original Norman scheme, but that is highly unlikely since it was previously determined to be a natural motte with which some scarping was done. This castle site has been compared to Berkhamsted, Launceston and Trematon which all have or had shell keeps. If Castle Neroche had a shell keep there would be evidence of such which may mean that portions of the castle were built later- but not the motte.
(Take the road south from the Greyhound Inn and turn left at the top of the hill. You can park at the start of the nature trail.)
Much further west and close to the Devon border, Cothay Manor nearly appears to be a Wasserschloss at Greenham which is a few miles northwest of Wellington. Termed an Edwardian restoration of a medieval manor, it may well be Eden as far as England is concerned and here medieval and renaissance are delightfully blurred. The romantic classic gardens for which it is famous overtake this tiny mansion by far exceeding the exteriors or interiors of the house. However, the appeal of the gardens is set off by the absolute authenticity of the house and any person who has visited it would quite agree with me.
Cothay is a bit hidden in the background with the encroaching fish pond, bog garden filled with azaleas and primuli here and there, landscaping trees everywhere and a cottage garden, a river walk and a yew walk which seems to go on forever. It is an evergreen paradise with garden rooms which are awesomely beautiful without being overwhelming. The buildings that exist in the present day were rebuilt from 1480 by the Bluetts, the first owners, then transferred to the Every family in the next century but was a mere farmhouse until 1925 when Colonel Reggie Cooper, a bachelor and diplomat decided to take it on and transform the place into his ideal. He did a lot in eleven years with the prodigious help of Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West! Only two decades ago a complete re-design and re-planting was finished by the current owners, Alastair and Mary-Anne Robb who both have family backgrounds in horticulture.
Restorations aside, the manor is actually a 12th century hall house with a gatehouse, courtyard approach and porch, screens passage and a Great Hall, all in pink-brown stone. Further along is a parlor and solar, showing its early medieval roots and on the service quarters portion- a gallery with an upstairs guest room and small chapel. During the Elizabethan period new paneling was installed during the construction of a concurrent dining room addition. Most of Cothay is unaltered except for an additional wing added by the Colonel for his personal use. There are surprises which reveal the medieval features retained. Between the solar and the parlor the old undercroft is revealed in what is now used as a library with a rich red decoration which Mrs Mary Ann Robb, a present owner, personally decorated and makes the thick beams, extending from ceiling to walls, all the more interesting in their medieval splendor. Some features appear a bit worn but this is more appropriate, after all. Once you stroll the gardens you may never want to leave. In fact, don’t leave until you’ve seen the Walk of the Unicorn. Nice! T: 01823 672283 open May to Sept http://www.cothaymanor.co.uk/history & /special-visitors-cothay (Mendip Morgan Sportscar Club)
Ten miles south, near Wimbleball Lake and the village of Dulverton at Upton, Pepperpot Castle sits in an enclave of Exmoor National Park and has an appearance of a tiny castellated church rather than a well executed medieval folly, despite its rather small stature. This whitewashed Georgian Gothic folly is believed to have been built by the Earl of Carnarvon for his bride. Up close, this is one of the most unusually conceived folly castles I’ve ever seen. Originally built early in the 19th century it was enlarged late in the 20th century mostly out of necessity rather than for appearance sake. It started as a triangular plan with its hexagonal towers placed on the corners with a single storey porch on the north and stairs in the south turret. A drive was added by Lady Harriet Acland during the period of her widowhood (1778-1815) to connect Pixton Park at nearby Dulverton where her daughter, Countess of Carnarvon lived at her own estates near Wiveliscombe. Set within a large garden, it is used and ideal for romantic wedding weekends and holidays. As a self-catering accommodation it’s suitably spacious for up to five people and has been used as a photographic and film location. T- 01398 341615
A few miles northeast of Dulverton, Bury Castle at Brompton Regis, northwest of Selworthy, is a former Iron Age hill fort where a 12th century castle was built as a promontory fort at the juncture of the Rivers Exe and Haddeo, a tributary. During the Anarchy, approximately 1135 and on, this motte and bailey was erected on the southern side by William de Say. The motte is 75 feet high along the tip of the promontory with the bailey stretching a further 197 feet across covering half an acre, internally. Indications of a single rampart and circular ditch are apparent with ramparts along the north, east and south sides which have been revetted with drystone walls. Along the south some work appears to end well short of the edge which has been suggested as the intended approach. As a scheduled ancient monument and property of the National Trust this castle site has been listed as ‘at Risk’ because of the heavy overgrowth.
Returning east towards historic Wiveliscombe (which is south and east of Dunster Castle near Gaulden Manor) you’ll find this town full of unexpected and surprising discoveries from an architectural and walking point of view. Set in a landscape of hills and wooded valleys and accessed by ancient greenways and paths, the town is at the center of the circular 23 mile Wivey Way, which can be walked in a day or broken down into manageable sectors with paths leading back. The gentle hills of the Vale of Taunton Deane rise to the Brendon Hills which offer stunning panoramic views of Exmoor, the Blackdown and Quantock Hills and further north to the Somerset coast and across the Bristol Channel to Wales and the Brecon Beacons!
A booklet, Wiveliscombe Circular Walks (ISBN 0-955286-0-0), describes ventures for all abilities- starting and finishing in the town, ranging from short local to long day walks, all culminating at the Wivey Way. Access to Wiveliscombe is possible by public transport from Taunton and several walks and the towns of Bampton, Dulverton and Wellington are on bus routes with bus walks becoming available on the internet soon, detailing the footpaths back to Wiveliscombe. Walking groups meet twice a month and meets are prearranged to fit in with many other activities that go on in this flourishing community.
On the west outskirts of Wiveliscombe, adjoining the cemetery, the Bishops Palace stood in ruins by the 18th century. It was built (or rebuilt) shortly after 1256 by John de Drokensford and was to be the official residence of many bishops of Somerset throughout the medieval period. A workhouse was erected with the ruins in 1735 on the palace’s former site and all that remains of the palace is its gatehouse with a north arch intact and a south arch which was rebuilt in 14th century. This particular Episcopal palace showed very little use through the centuries according to the closely kept registers. The longest residence by any bishop was that of Ralph Erghum who stayed on a regular basis only during the last five years of his life from 1395 to 1400. Mid-16th century Bishop William Knight’s register listed 17 signed documents there which was the most ever signed by a single bishop at Wiveliscombe! He was the last to die there which was on September 29, 1547. There are, of course, no photographs of the palace but accounts written later in tithe descriptions report outbuildings consisting of stable, coach house, yard, and several types of gardens. By 1883 the palace was reduced and being used as a wood house and garden storage with a close, cottages and service housing built in its stead.
Now it’s time to turn back north toward the coast of Minehead, one of four resort areas of Somerset (and nationally famous) so we can check out Dunster Castle which is only three miles southeast of Minehead and accessible from the A39. Owned by the National Trust since 1976, this stunning 19th century rebuild overlooks the lovely village of Dunster and is visible in photos from miles away! The ruins are surrounded by gardens and dense forest on its hill so much so that from some angles it is a bit difficult to see in its entirety but a first look from the coastal road up is truly a fantastic vision. The village was walled at one time but no obvious evidence remains of such. Mentioned in the Domesday Book as the Castle of Tor, Dunster is the conical hill which William de Mohun, among the Lords of Devon, used for his motte when he received the estate after the Conquest.
In 1378 the Mohun heiress, Lady Joan sold the castle to the Luttrell family who took possession in 1404 when Lady Joan passed away. They have been mere tenants since NT took over but their history connected with the castle is long and fascinating. Dunster’s elevated position lends enchantment to the entire region but the occupied castle, as it is today, is a Jacobean mansion given a picturesque castellated skyline by Anthony Salvin in 1868. The original medieval castle is now reduced to little more than the inner and outer gatehouses as a consequence of the Civil War. After resisting an attack on behalf of Parliament, the castle changed sides and became the staunchest Royalist garrison in Somerset! Under Colonel Wyndham it withstood five months of siege and after its surrender in 1643 by April of 1646 the old defenses were slighted but the new mansion was left intact. The only other recorded siege against Dunster was an unsuccessful assault by King Stephens’s supporters in 1139 who built a siege castle next to the old castle in an attempt to take possession.
You will witness authentic late-medieval remains on the steep approach from the village to the outer gatehouse which was added by Sir Hugh Luttrell in 1420. A massive oblong block, it features polygonal angle turrets and windows with tracery to stunning effect. This gatehouse is placed at right angles to the inner gate which is flanked on either side with truncated D-shaped towers. Work for this feature is attributed to Reginald de Mohun (died 1278) with the exception of the iron studded gates which are from the 15th century. Curtain walls which once surrounded the bailey are now reduced to a portion of wall along with one ruinous semi-circular tower. The courtyard which fronts the red sandstone castle is attributed to Sir George Luttrell (great-grandson of Sir Hugh) and its construction began in 1617 (carried out by William Arnold) where the medieval hall range once stood and incorporated parts of the original curtain. The former shell keep was swept away from the tor (a natural motte) in the 18th century to make way for a bowling green. Similar castles compared to Dunster are St. Briavels (in the Forest of Dean of Gloucestershire), Rockingham (in Northamptonshire) and Beeston (in Cheshire) for their large round-towered gatehouses, although Beeston was never rebuilt. Essentially, Dunster is a sister to Arundel, Belvoir and Windsor Castles because the most authentic features of the new builds are Victorian conceptions of medieval castles and palaces. They are Hollywood stars.
The 19th century portion, along the north is Salvin’s work in red Somerset sandstone combined with honey colored limestone to create a marvelous patina to the facade. The terrace of the anterior wall shows off this combination well and is stunning work. Basically the building has two halls. The outer Jacobean Revival room took the place of the former parlor taking a good portion of the castle and is hung with family portraits. There is a Salvin fireplace and a famous Luttrell portrait of 1550 which depicts Sir John Luttrell, Elizabethan commander in Scotland, rising from the waves- dripping with allegory and is a copy of the original which hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London. Of course, the inner hall dates from Elizabethan times and is Arnold’s authentic work.
Further afield you’ll see an oak Restoration staircase displaying acanthus decoration which runs over ceiling and the nine inch thick balustrades of elm! Hunting scenes and Luttrell military trophies adorn the gallery above and a dining room showcases a ceiling of fine 17th century plasterwork along with dark paneling. Upstairs you’ll see more of Salvin’s work in the completely renovated morning room, a gallery with leather walls and a series of bedrooms. A principal bathroom built after 1880 is said to be the first one in Somerset and the only one to be found in the house.
A King Charles Room tells a tale of its own but he actually occupied it as a young prince during his visit to gain support in the West Country during the Civil War. A mantelpiece in the room portrays the Judgment of Paris of 1620. All the rooms have names with each distinct purpose- Cleeve Drawing Room 1 and 2, Cedar Room, Klive, Miss Luttrell’s Room, East Quantoxhead Dressing Room and King Charles’ Dressing Room. On the ground floor there are the billiard room and library, both done by Salvin. When he built a new tower on the site of the former chapel he absolutely hit his stride because the view of the Bristol Channel is breathtaking and the outside terrace that runs along the south affords the same beautiful view.
There are veritable surprises on the grounds that may keep you here for a couple more hours. On the site you’ll find 17th century stables, open to visitors, and garden steps down the side of the tor lead to wonderful gardens along the slopes. They cover more than fifteen acres and the estate is set within an extensive park which has Gothic follies (work of Richard Phelps) and a deer park established in 1747. Sheltered from harsher north and east winds the gardens are very pleasant with soft Channel breezes. There is a working watermill on Mill Lane also owned by the National Trust and it dates back to 1086 as one of the few original medieval buildings on site from Norman times.
Dunster Working Watermill (by the castle gardens on foot)
T-01643 821759 Grounds are owned by the Crown Commissioners.
From Dunster, if you continue to drive ten miles west along the coastline you are bound to come to Porlock Bay and village where you must visit Dovery Manor Museum which is seated right in the middle of town. This late 15th manor was given additions in the 17th century and was restored late in the 19th century by Edmund Buckle for Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey and is a Grade II listed building at the present time. It is a relatively small manor house but very picturesque on the exterior and a treasure trove of artefacts, photographs, press cuttings, extraordinary paintings and display on local history. You’ll be delighted by the Great Hall and the stone spiral staircase retained from the manor’s inception along with the outside grounds’ medieval herb garden! http://doverymanormuseumnews.blogspot.com