Conygar Tower

Dunster is a beautiful village, set in an idyllic location, and almost every building or structure is of architectural interest. But as I am participating in The Society of One-Place Studies blogging challenge, this month’s topic is landmarks, so for this blog post I need to choose something that is visible from a distance. Dunster is surrounded by hills and has two famous structures, each located on a hill, punctuating the beginning and end of the High Street, which are visible from many directions. One is Dunster Castle, set on a wooded hill in the middle of the village. The other is Conygar Tower, built on a hill a few hundred metres north of the Castle. Dunster Castle is much more than a landmark, and deserves a deeper discussion, which I will undertake at a later date.

This map (above) and postcard (below) illustrate the proximity of Conygar Tower to Dunster Castle, and the impact it would have had on the view from Dunster Castle. Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence.

Eagle-eyed visitors travelling along the A39 just east of Minehead might notice a tower peeping out from above the trees on top of a conical, wooded hill. This hill is known as Conygar Hill, and is so named because it was once pasture land, and home to many rabbits; ‘Conygar’ derives from two medieval words – ‘cony’ (rabbit), and ‘garth’ (garden). This probably indicates that this land was once used for breeding rabbits for food. 

Conygar Tower is a circular tower, 18 metres (59 ft) high, built with mortared local red sandstone. It is 7.9 metres in diameter and the walls are 0.8 metres thick. The tower is hollow, and the top is crenelated (castle-like). Each of the three storeys has four arched window-like openings, which become smaller as the tower ascends, with two-stage buttresses between. There are holes on the inside wall, as if joists had once been present to support a floor, but there is no evidence it ever had floors or a roof (Holt, 2007).

In 1774, Henry Fownes Luttrell, the lord of the manor at Dunster Castle, commissioned an artist, Richard Phelps, to enhance the landscape around Dunster Castle. Phelps’s improvements within the Castle grounds included beautiful bridges, arches and waterfalls, and a pottery and lime kiln behind The Luttrell Arms, which are still standing today. Phelps designed Conygar Tower to enhance the view from Dunster Castle. Building work commenced in the summer of 1775. All the stone, lime, clay and water all had to be brought uphill to the site of the tower.

Conygar Tower as seen from High Street, Dunster, looking north

Hilary Binding’s excellent book ‘The Book of Dunster: A Changing Community’ (2002) she describes how the masons worked on wooden scaffolding, tied with tarred rope. Fifteen men were involved in the work. As this was summertime, it would have been hot, sweaty, exhausting work and the men were kept cool with cider – the cider bill totalling £4 2s 6d. and they were rewarded with an entertainment costing £2 5s on completion of the work. The tower itself cost £76 11s 1/2d (Jordan, 2009).

Conygar Tower was approached by a ruined gatehouse, then the hill could be ascended via a winding circular road, cut into the side of the hill. Travellers along this path were greeted by other features such as modern ‘ruins’, archways, towers, a small thatched building and a large statue of Neptune on a high pedestal, which faced the sea, and acted as a landmark to sailors in the Bristol Channel (Binding, 2002; Jordan, 2009).

Conygar Tower was awarded Grade II listed status on 22 May 1969.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, and you would like to see Conygar Tower and its surroundings for yourself, you can visit here

References

Binding, H (2002) The Book of Dunster: A Changing Community. Halsgrove. p55

Historic England
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1057596
[Accessed 26 Jan 2021]

Historic Environment record for Exmoor: MSO9432 – Conygar Tower, Dunster (Building)
https://www.exmoorher.co.uk/Monument/MSO9432
[Accessed 26 Jan 2021]

Holt, Jonathan (2007) Somerset Follies. Bath: Akeman Press. pp. 78–79

Jordan, Joan (2009) The History of Dunster Church and Priory: volume 2. Ryelands Publishing

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