THE RIVER RUNNING BY
The River Avill rises on the eastern slopes of Dunkery Beacon, the highest point of Exmoor, at 1,703ft (519m) above sea level.
In the valley below the castle, the National Trust’s old, still-working watermill sits near the river. This tranquil spot was revitalised last year and is now home to a tea room and garden.
“There were mills recorded on the Avill in the Domesday Book, and there has been a history of milling ever since,” says Seamus Rogers in reference to Dunster Castle. “There were several mills in the short stretch from Frackford Bridge, less than half a mile upriver, to the site of the present mill, which dates from the 17th century. It was restored after the National Trust took ownership from 1976 and has been in production again since the 1980s. Today, we mill organic wholemeal wheat, spelt and rye flour, as well as mixing a unique muesli blend, which is very popular.
“The building that is now the tea room was originally a stable and store, and was first converted for catering by a Trust tenant in the 1990s. It has just been substantially rebuilt and expanded, with completion in summer 2021.”
The River Avill was reputedly the inspiration for ‘the river running by’, in the much-loved hymn All Things Bright and
Beautiful. Written by Cecil Alexander in 1848, it is one of many hymns attributed to her. Nearby, heather-clad Grabbist Hill may have been the ‘purple-headed mountain’ mentioned in the hymn, although there is some doubt about the veracity of this story: as an Irish lady, some say Mrs Alexander was inspired by landscapes closer to her roots.
On the edge of Dunster, the river runs beneath the curvy 15th century Gallox Bridge, originally named Gallows Bridge because it was overlooked by Dunster’s gallows. It once carried packhorses laden with woollen fleeces into the village.
The Avill reaches the sea at Dunster Beach, where Dunster Harbour once had its being, before longshore drift in the middle ages eventually cut it off, and Dunster Hawn was created. This long, inland lake is now surrounded by more than 200 beach huts, all painted in a variety of greens.
The coast here is Blue Anchor Bay; the name thought to derive from the colour of the mud on the anchors of boats. The coast is known for its fossils, and the lias cliffs erode to reveal veins of alabaster.
The England Coast Path runs behind the beach. When this is fully established and open, it will extend to 2,800 miles, and will be the world’s longest coastal path.