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DUNSTER and HILL FORTS (10th August 2015)
Dunster is a small town/large village on the eastern edge of the Exmoor National Park. It boasts many well-preserved mediaeval features including a castle, water mill and the Yarn market. Jettied mediaeval buildings and thatched cottages are everywhere. Surrounding the village are wooded hills to the West and open views up the Bristol Channel to the East. Dunster even has a railway station, on the West Somerset Railway, the longest heritage train line in England. If you canít get to Dunster by steam train (from either Minehead or Taunton) there are buses from those same starting points.
Starting from the mediaeval Yarn Market in the High St., head down to the traffic lights. A short stiff climb ahead brings you to the entrance to Dunster Castle. Since Norman times, and possibly earlier, a castle has existed on this steep outcrop above a bend in the River Avill. Within the much modified mediaeval fortifications are traces of the original motte and bailey but much of the castle and its grounds were remodelled in the Victorian era to make it into a liveable mansion and gardens.
At the top of the slope, with the mediaeval gatehouse to the castle straight ahead, turn right heading downhill past public toilets and the intriguing Dream Garden (definitely worth a visit). Continue down to West St., turning left past shops. Turn left again at the signpost to a water mill at Mill Lane. A mill leat runs alongside the road, carrying water to drive the working National Trust-owned watermill. Turn right off Mill Lane after 400m unless you want to visit the mill or its excellent tea room which are both 100m straight ahead.
Back on the main path, walk along Mill Path, passing a few 20th century bungalows to join Park St. Go ahead past some beautifully maintained thatched cottages to arrive at Gallox Bridge, a mediaeval pack horse bridge owned by English Heritage. The bridge itself, dating from the 15th century, has two stone arches over the fast flowing River Avill. The carriageway is just wide enough for a pack-laden horse. There is a ford next to the bridge for carts and now cars etc. We saw yellow wagtails feeding in the shallows, quite unperturbed as a horse splashed across the ford right next to them.
Cross the bridge, passing some more beautifully maintained cottages to a small information board showing a map of paths in the area. Head straight forward to follow the bridle way towards Bat's Castle. The track up Vinegar Hill is wide and rises through mixed woodland (beech trees and pines) above the narrow Avill valley. After about 500m take the left fork, climbing higher and turning towards the left to reach a gate in the deer-proof fence. Through the gate the path emerges from the woods onto a bracken covered hillside, with the Black Ball iron age camp to the right. This fortified settlement had a ditch and a bank, both almost 2 m high, enclosing around 0.5ha.
From here our path goes downhill, passing a track going down to the left. Continue straight on, uphill again, to enter another hillfort, Bat's Castle. This is bigger and more elaborate than Black Ball Camp. It is not clear if these two camps were rival establishments or each part of a more complex defensive settlement (there is another linear fortification to the South). An information board gives some hints on how people lived during the few pre-christian centuries when the settlement was in use. Surprisingly there was another Iron Age hill fort just North of here, across the Avill River valley, on Grabbist Hill.
When you've seen enough of the stunning views in all directions, retrace your steps down to the path which goes right, steeply descending though trees. At the bottom of the hill go left to leave through the deer-park gate. Turn left and you are now back at Gallox Bridge and Dunster, with all its attractions, lies ahead.
Total distance walked 12.0km (7.5 miles) Ascent 310m Time 3 hours.
The North Downs Way is one of the official UK National Trails, running from Farnham to Dover, follows old routes and droveways. The total length is just over 245 kilometres (153 miles).
You can download this route to your GPS or mobile phone by clicking on the 'View route..' link on the map below (provided you have registered (free) with ViewRanger
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