Saturday, 23 April 2011

Dunster Castle - Somerset

Dunster Village

Brooding Edifice

The King Charles Bedroom

The Grey Lady is frequently seen on these oak stairs

Connecting corridor featuring three "dust halos"

Grand Oak and Elm Staircase, where not everything you draw is intentional

The quaint medieval village of Dunster lies within the picturesque hills and valleys of Exmoor National Park and just a stones-throw from the Bristol Channel.

What is most striking about the village as you enter it from the High Street, apart from its Englishness of course, is the castle, which is perched high up on a Tor, partly hidden by trees but still managing to tower above the village below.

The castles strategic position commands views of the Avill Valley to the south and the coast road to the north an obvious place to construct a hill-fort. The Bristol Channel that used to lap at the base of the Tor has long since receded and now resides a comfortable two miles away.

Prior to 1066 the site belonged to the Saxon - Aelfric, who constructed the first fort from wood. The stone castle was built by William de Mohun, one of the Norman warlords who came over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. The castle was to remain the domain of the Mohun Family for 300 years until their successors - the Luttrell Family, acquired it in 1736. Dunster has been home to eighteen generations of the Luttrell Family, although no longer living at Dunster, the Luttrells’ still maintain their links with this part of West Somerset, with their equally ancient home at East Quantoxhead. The castle and grounds were eventually passed to National Trust by Walter Luttrell in 1976.

Dunster Castle has had a turbulent 1000 year history, besieged by King Stephen in 1138 and again by the Parliamentarians in 1645; the medieval fortress was demolished by order of parliament in 1650; Sir Hugh Luttrell renovated the castle in the 1420’s, which was in a state of disrepair, adding a Gatehouse; Anthony Salvin is commissioned by the Luttrell’s and begins rebuilding the castle in 1868 into what we see today, a wonderful Victorian castle and estate. Salvin's remodelling works were to include a major project to emphasis and return Dunster Castle to its medieval origins.

The Ghosts of Dunster Castle

Ghostly sightings have been reported at Dunster for hundreds of years. Probably the most famous of the castle’s ghosts and the one most frequently seen is the 'Grey Lady' and on occasion the ‘Foot Guard;‘ a shadowy figure who wears a tricorn hat. The Grey Lady especially, has been seen so many times that National Trust staff have lost count and now consider her part of the family. More about the Grey Lady later.

The pair tend to manifest as blurred shadowy shapes or reflected images but occasionally their presence is announced by strange noises, cold spots and general feelings of unease by those sensitive to such things.

The Leather Gallery

The Leather Gallery, so-called because of its leather hangings, depict the story of Anthony and Cleopatra. Originally a banqueting hall would have been adorned with wall tapestries made from fabric, as apposed to leather which were introduced much later to help disguise the nasty niffs from cooked meat and fish that fabric tapestries tended to retain. It is considered this area to be the most haunted part of the castle.

During the Civil Wars the castle was seized by Royalist soldiers and The Leather Gallery was used as their dormitory. It would seem that the soldiers liked it so much they chose to return after their deaths, for it is here where sounds of men shouting, heavy footfalls and the slamming of doors have been heard by National Trust staff long after the castle’s visitors have left. Even during the day, some people claim to have been tapped firmly on the shoulder only to turn and find nobody there.

Many have reported a distinct chill or 'cold spot' here, though try as I may I felt nothing. One of the Trust’s conservationist was recently cleaning when she suddenly became aware of a dramatic drop in temperature along with a feeling of being watched. Turning around she was confronted by the ghostly figure of a man dressed in Royalist military uniform. Within seconds the temperature climbed and the figure vanished. This is not an isolated case, ghostly soldiers are a regular occurrence in the Leather Gallery.

King Charles Bedroom

The King Charles Bedroom, adjacent to the Leather Gallery,  is said to be the most haunted room in the Castle, taking its name from Charles II, who as Prince of Wales, slept here in 1645. This room supposedly has an atmosphere that some find very unpleasant indeed, even to the point of refusing to cross its threshold which has happened countless times, those effected claim to have experienced a feeling of malevolence or in some cases uneasiness.

The Grey Lady

The Grey Lady, mentioned earlier, is Dunster’s most frequently seen apparition. She has been sighted in several rooms including the Library, the Billiard Room and the connecting corridor that flanks the latter two, but most often she is seen on a flight of oak stairs that lead down off said corridor.

The wife of the first administrator often complained that she felt a feeling of foreboding, 'that something evil was haunting those stairs.' So much so, that she convinced her husband to have the stairs exorcised. Several days later a spirit medium attended a seance here and claimed to have banished several spirits. However, the story takes a twist at this point, for a few days later, a staff member returned from holiday totally unaware of the mediums visit. On ascending the stairs in question, she became aware of how unusually cold it felt and what's more she had a feeling that she was not alone. It would appear that the mediums endeavors to rid that stairs of its ghostly presence failed.

It is said that generations of the Luttrell Family have been terrified by repeated encounters of the Grey Lady at this particular spot. She glides up and down the staircase then vanished into a wall leaving an icy chill in her wake. Legend has it, that she may have been a servant girl abused by the castle keeper and possibly died at his hands.

Another spooky spot and indeed another staircase, is the elegant late 17th century grand carved oak and elm staircase that leads off the main hall. The impressive, elaborate balustrade was likely carved by Edward Pearce the Younger, one of the most accomplished sculptures of his day. Each of the panels is craved from a single plank of elm 23cm thick and together they form a continues rhythmic pattern of curling acanthus leaves intertwined by scenes of fox, beagle and stag hunting. It is on these stairs that the Grey Lady has also made several unexpected appearances.

One of the strangest stories was reported by a local artist who recently visited the castle. She took up position at the foot of the stairs and started to sketch. Immersed in her project she suddenly had an overwhelming compulsion to include the figure of a young girl descending the stairs, the inclusion of this mystery figure was not intentional and what’s more, there was no one on the stairs at the time to draw.

Sightings of the Grey Lady continue to this day, as many National Trust guides and visitors have testified. So it would seem, that despite earlier attempts to eradicate her from Dunster she remains very active.

Gatehouse leading to the oubliette

The Giant in the Oubliette

The castle’s gatehouse dates back to 1420 and would have formed part of the barbican entrance which protected the gateway. The right-hand tower contained an oubliette, or pit, constructed from stone and some 25 feet (7 meters or so) deep. The pit held a dark secret, for an oubliette was a place where men and women were thrown and left to starved to death during medieval times.

A story, verified by excavations during the late 19th century, confirmed that during the early 1700s an excavation was undertaken of the oubliette which unearthed its macabre secret. A male skeleton was found, some 7 feet tall - a giant of a man, bearing in mind the average height of an adult male at that time would have been around 5 feet 3 inches. The skeleton was discovered manacled to the wall by his wrists and ankles, presumably left to starve to death like so many others. It is said that his remains still lie in-situ at the bottom of the oubliette. The oubliette is now covered and tiled over but just standing there and being aware of what lies below is a little creepy. Haunting cries of men and women have been heard coming from the area of the oubliette.

Next to the gatehouse is a flight of stone steps, clearly visible in the photograph, which seem to unnerve some dogs. Several owners have mentioned how their animals have refused to climb the steps, seemingly troubled and wary at this point. The present head gardener often struggles to coax his dog to climb the steps, the animal preferring to wait patiently at the door.

The Stable Block

The old stable block, which is adjacent to the National Trust shop is the haunt of the Man in Green. The stables are yet another area of the castle were some folk have experienced a feeling of dread, some even going as far as to suggest that murders may have taken place there.

One story concerning the appearance of the Green Man happened as the shop was closing late one afternoon. A previous shop manager caught sight of someone dressed in green walking past the entrance to the shop en-route to the stable block. Thinking he was a visitor who had not seen the closed sign she went after him but by the time she reached the shop doorway (the only way to the stables is past the shop entrance) the figure had completely disappeared.

This was not an isolated case, for the mysterious Man in Green has been witnessed at the far end of the stable block on several occasions and many who have attempted to enter that area complain of feeling a deathly chill. Even during hot sunny days, the far end of the stable block is chilly. I don’t personally think this has any supernatural connotation, it is simply that the stables are constructed from stone, timber with a cobbled floor, all of which will render any building chilly.

We chatted at length with the current shop manager about the ghostly goings on in the stable block, he told us of an encounter that had happened only recently. A rather portly, elderly gentleman got the shock of his life and was seen running from the stables as white as a sheet and in obvious distress as he pushed his way through throngs of visitors. Apparently, whilst at the far end of the stables, he saw a man step out of the wall in front of him then abruptly disappear. There are also stories of people claiming to have witnessed strange, floating green orbs at the far end of the stable block.

In the stockroom opposite the shop, books and boxes are often found on the floor in disarray, as if they have been pushed over. What is more unpleasant, is the feeling of unease and being watched that some members of staff have felt when in the stockroom. But most curious of all, was an occasion when several boxes were ruined by a inexplicable green slime. Now I know what you're thinking - Slimer, the disgusting little green guy form the movie Ghostbusters, you can be forgiven, for I too found this one hard to swallow and the little green guy kept jumping into my head. But I have it on good authority that it did actually happen. There you go, green slim at Dunster Castle - cool!

Dunster Castle is a lovely place to visit, not just for its history and creepy ghost stories but also for its stunning views across Exmoor National Park and out towards the Bristol Channel. Just strolling atop the ancient Tor, then passing on down through fragrant gardens, briefly stopping at the little Victorian pet cemetery, then on down through the tranquil wooded walk that takes you to the Old Water Mill and 16th century Lovers Bridge, which crosses the River Avill.


Special thanks must go to - Peter, one of the National Trust’s Room Guides, who’s extensive knowledge of the castle’s hauntings, along with his often amusing ghostly anecdotes, were invaluable in compiling this piece.

Readers Photographs

Just what are the strange ghostly images photographed by Tracy Myers when she recently visited Dunster Castle during a holiday break in 2011?

In Tracy's email, she writes: 'The photo of what looks like a couple sat together is strange because they are completely out of context compared to other things in the room, namely the reflection in the mirror of the woman visitor stood next to me, the strange couple look too small and high up to be anything I can think of, and I do remember that apart from the other woman visitor the only other person in that room at the time was her small granddaughter. The more I enlarge that photo and look at the detail and out line the more I am convinced I have captured an old couple in old fashioned costume.'

'The other picture really gives me the creeps as I am convinced it is a figure from the civil war times, and he is in the Leather Gallery, what appears to be his legs go behind the chair, which is strange as it was against the wall, the style of dress is uncanny, when I first looked at my holiday pictures I went cold when I saw this one, I couldn't believe what I saw. He is in front of one of the leather wall hangings, they are dull, not highly reflective. The more I zoom in on this one the less I can explain it, I am convinced this one is a ghost. Especially as it is my own photo and I know for certain that it hasn't been set up or faked.'

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