THE future of one of West Somerset’s largest Christmas season festivals was under debate this week as it faced criticism that it had outgrown its community roots and was shutting out local people.

Dunster by Candlelight was founded in 1986 to provide a boost for village traders over the first weekend in December, at a time of year when Dunster Castle was closed and not attracting visitors, and over the years it has raised nearly £200,000 for the St Margaret’s Hospice charity.

Now, the organising committee is to discuss on Monday (December 18) if and how it can continue putting on the festival given it has to raise on its own the whole £23,000 cost of staging it, a figure which has been rising year on year.

And it will eventually have to face the difficult task of finding a successor for founder Hannah Bradshaw when she steps down.

In the meantime, changes to the event which have seen cars banned from Dunster and bus route pick-ups reduced to four locations have upset residents of smaller communities who say they can no longer attend.

Buses now only pick up ‘Candlelight’ passengers from Minehead, Watchet, Williton, and Wheddon Cross, while the West Somerset Railway which used to drop off passengers in Dunster now runs through to a park and ride service in Minehead.

One resident, Anne Stamford, who lives in nearby Timberscombe, said she felt ‘barred’ from Dunster and was told she would have to ‘ catch a bus from some miles away in the opposite direction’.

Ms Stamford said: “This might be fine for those who have cars and are brave or foolhardy enough to drive up steep, narrow, winding, and icy roads in the dark, but what about the rest.

“Why the bus could not stop at a designated bus stop to allow us to board it remains a mystery.”

“So, for the second year running I missed the chance to mingle with the crowds in the brightly lit streets of Dunster, meeting old friends, visiting the stalls, enjoying the traditional entertainments which come back each year, or maybe wandering into the museum, the church, or the Tythe Barn, or making my way up to the castle or down to the mill.

“To do so fosters a sense of community and a chance to support our local hospice.

“Instead, I went to Dunster before the roads were closed and wandered around meeting people and chatting with them.

“There were dog-walkers whose families had lived in Dunster for generations and could remember the good old days from 1986 onwards when 'Candlelight' was a local happening.

“I realised that this year in particular the focus has changed.

“Dunster by Candlelight has become a commercial event when large numbers of visitors are brought in by the coachload from far and wide to spend their money.

“Several people that I met shook their heads gloomily, spoke of declining numbers, and forecast that this would be the last-ever Dunster by Candlelight.”

But Ms Bradshaw told the Free Press her committee was just not able to do anything about the parking situation because the village was so small and the event so large.

She said she had worked hard to find a solution to help visitors with disabilities but there was no practical way to do so, and the hospice minibus was in use all evening to take wheelchair users as close as possible.

Ms Bradshaw said the closing of roads in Dunster and arrangements for villagers to park their cars was hugely complex and with so many houses not having parking spaces there was no room to do anything else.

As for the Candlelight event attracting visitors from all over the country, Ms Bradshaw said: “We are not targeting them. They come because they want to come.

“In fact, it has been cut down dramatically. We do not have anything like the numbers we used to have, we only have three or four or five each night.

“There are not anything like the crowds we used to have, and it cannot get bigger because there is no room to get bigger.”

Ms Bradshaw said the feeling was that the 2023 event had been the best ever.

She said: “This ‘Candlelight’ was brilliant, it went back to how it had been.

“It was going downhill a bit and then we had Covid, and last year was all right but it was not the same ‘Candlelight’.

“But this year we changed a lot of things and made a lot of improvements.”

Ms Bradshaw said she understood the upset among people in the surrounding villages, particularly Timberscombe, about the lack of bus services.

She said: “I feel desperately sorry for these people but we cannot keep everybody happy.”