Take a wonderful with your four-legged friend, exploring the heights above Dunster, with Simone Stanbrook-Byrne.

Dunster Castle towers above the village, the home of the Luttrell family for 600 years and now in the care of the National Trust. But towering even higher is another castle, the airy Iron Age settlement of Bat’s Castle, and this walk offers fabulous photo opportunities to ‘capture’ two very different strongholds.

It’s also great for dogs, with no tricky stiles – but domestic and wild animals will be about, so please keep an eye on the canines.

The highest part of the route follows moorland paths with no signage, so you need clear, settled weather and to feel happy about route-finding. A GPS might be handy and the full, paper map – during the walk we met a lovely couple visiting from London who were relying on barely visible maps on their phones. With a bit of navigational assistance, they continued on their way, but this is a reminder not to rely on phones in remote places.

This short walk will leave time to explore the many delights and enticing backwaters of Dunster (some places open seasonally). Plan your visit and perhaps package the walk up with a tea shop treat afterwards. Enjoy!


Great British Life: A waterfall on the river Avill in Dunster in SomersetA waterfall on the river Avill in Dunster in Somerset (Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Leave the car park and continue down Park Street, away from the A396. You soon reach the River Avill, a lovely Exmoor river that rises on Dunkery Beacon and flows through the famous Snowdrop Valley. Curvy 15th century Gallox Bridge spans the water beside the ford. Cross the river and walk straight ahead, passing a footpath fingerpost on your left which shows that you are aiming for Bat’s Castle and Carhampton.

Great British Life: Way to go, on the way to Bat’s CastleWay to go, on the way to Bat’s Castle (Image: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne)

In about 50m the path passes a pair of almost impossibly lovely, thatched cottages. The path reaches a four-way fingerpost just beyond the cottages. Go left here, towards Carhampton, passing through a tall wooden footpath gate.

Great British Life: A pair of almost impossibly lovely cottages near the start and end of the walkA pair of almost impossibly lovely cottages near the start and end of the walk (Image: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne)

Just after the gate is another fingerpost; our way lies straight ahead, still heading for Carhampton on the most left-hand of the paths – we will be back at this fingerpost later.

This rising path soon opens up and views to the left increase: Dunster Castle dominates the area with the coast beyond. The islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm rise from the distant waves, with Wales putting in an appearance on clear days. This lovely path wends its way through the deer park south of Dunster Castle.

The high left-hand fence, designed to keep deer on the desired side of it, gradually comes in to meet the path. As you crest a rise, spare a glance behind, back to Dunster, slumbering within its encompassing hills.
The fence wanders away; keep going, passing through a yellow-blobbed kissing gate and continuing through the parkland with the fence about 50m to your left. This line brings you to another tall gate, beyond which you find a crossing track beside a fingerpost.

Here turn right up the broad stony track, a restricted byway, signed for Withycombe Hill Gate; this is Park Lane and plods steadily upwards. Pause occasionally to get your breath and admire the view behind. The track passes a reservoir enclosure in 350m. Continue for another half-mile, passing moss-upholstered boundary walls and ignoring any tracks off until you reach a four-way fingerpost by a bench. This is Withycombe Hill Gate.

Great British Life: View across a beautiful dreamscape valley to the north-west of Bat’s CastleView across a beautiful dreamscape valley to the north-west of Bat’s Castle (Image: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne)

Turn right here, passing through a yellow-blobbed gate (with an information panel) to find another fingerpost beyond. From here we ignore the way back to Dunster and keep straight ahead on the rising path signed for Bat’s Castle. Although there’s nothing to indicate it, this section is part of the Macmillan Way West (MWW), one of Somerset’s long-distance paths, which we talked about last month.

The broad path to Bat’s Castle rises gently between scrub. This area is the home of Exmoor ponies, our oldest native breed, and red deer, our largest wild land mammal. Tread quietly and you may be lucky enough to spot both. In summer, the place is fragrant with the sweetness of heather. In winter, the wind can whip.

Keep straight on along the clear path which eventually levels out, with huge coastal views to the right. From up here, the meringue-topped Butlin’s at Minehead is glimpsable, a modern intrusion in an historic landscape.

The path passes through earthwork ramparts that surround the Iron Age settlement, and brings you to an expansive plateau, a place that has witnessed vast changes over millennia. The views are tremendous: across the Bristol Channel one way, and inland towards conifer forest in the other direction.

From up here, Dunster Castle looks quite diminutive. The hollow folly rising out of the trees above Dunster is Conygar Tower, suggesting that it was once an area where rabbits (coneys) were kept for meat in a warren.
The path passes a stone plinth on Bat’s Castle, which once supported an information board.

Great British Life: Bear on Bat’s Castle: walks mascot, Bossington, takes a breather in the heatherBear on Bat’s Castle: walks mascot, Bossington, takes a breather in the heather (Image: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne)

The discovery of the heritage of the site began in 1983, when two schoolboys chanced upon eight coins spanning a period from 102BC to 350AD. Imagine the history of the place, relish the views and, depending on when you’re walking, listen for the evocative toot of steam trains on the West Somerset Railway, way below.

The path continues, soon passing a memorial bench to Vera Dibble – she has a glorious panorama: a dreamscape valley way to the northwest (left, ahead) where cloud shadows chase across the land, and to the west rises Dunkery Beacon, the highest point of Exmoor.
The path begins to drop away from Bat’s Castle. The rising land ahead is Gallox Hill, another Iron Age settlement.

The path continues gently downhill until, 450m from the stone plinth, at grid ref: SS986425, it starts to rise again towards Gallox Hill – keep an eye open for this point. Just before the path rises there is a clear right-hand path heading downhill and that is our return route, though you may first wish to go up to visit Gallox Hill (6a), but then return to this descending path. (I have asked the Exmoor National Park if they might put a waymarker in here.)

Follow this downhill path, still the MWW, descending between the high lands of the two Iron Age settlements. Within 100m ignore a left fork and stay on the broader descending path, a scrubby hillside to the right and a conifer planation (which I hope hasn’t been felled) to the left.

About 300m after joining this path it opens out, with a tree-clad hillside dropping away in front (grid ref: SS988425). The path we’ve been following goes right, but here turn left, following an obvious downhill path with massed conifers to the left and a few to the right.

Look out for shiny dor beetles underfoot and don’t tread on them; these remarkable little creatures have an important job to do, we’d be ‘up to our necks in it’, if it weren’t for them.

The path descends through the woodland; go softly – we saw two red deer hinds through here, though they are more likely to see you first and make themselves scarce.

Ignore any paths off and stay with the main path as it occasionally bends. Eventually, Dunster Castle reappears and, more than 500m after joining it, the path passes through a gate and soon arrives at a fingerpost we’ve seen before.
Bear left away from the post, pass through the tall gate and go right along the track, passing those lovely cottages again.

Retrace your steps to the packhorse bridge over the Avill and beyond it you are once more on Park Street.
Dunster awaits.

Simone Stanbrook-Byrne is the author of ‘A Dozen Dramatic Walks in Somerset’ and other walking guides for the West Country simonestanbrookbyrne(at)gmail.com