“What God would have built if he had the money…”

Willaim Randolph Hearst on the steps of St Donat's Cuntry Life Picture Librray

William Randolph Hearst on the steps of St Donat’s
Country Life Picture Library

“What God would have built if he had the money…” is what  George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have said on visiting William Randolph Hearst at St Donat’s Castle in South Wales.  It’s not surprising that Shaw was impressed!   St Donat’s  is a picture-book mediaeval castle that has been continuously occupied since the twelfth century.  Not far from Cardiff and set high overlooking the Bristol Channel  its gardens  are  quite simply amongst the most spectacular and outstanding Tudor gardens in Britain.

DSCF2026 - Version 2The home of the Stradling family from 1298-1738 the castle then  passed through several hands before eventually being bought in 1925 by American press magnate,  William Randolph Hearst, the model for Citizen Kane, who ‘modernized’ the castle without destroying its character. From 1962 the castle has been occupied by Atlantic College, the first of the United World Colleges founded by the German educationist Kurt Hahn.

Aerial view of St Donats Castle , 1934

Aerial view of St Donat’s Castle , 1934

I visited this summer with Liz Whittle, former Inspector of Historic Parks and Gardens at CADW, and I am very grateful to her for permission to use her notes as the basis for this post.

In the interests of historical accuracy I should also add that I have also seen Shaw’s words in a slightly different form used about his visit to Hearst Castle at San Simeon in California, and I have been unable to track down the source or veracity of either attribution – but its too good a quote to ignore!

from  the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

from the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

The gardens were originally built by Sir Edward Stradling (1529– 1609) in the second half of the sixteenth century and the majority of the surviving garden layout and walling date from Sir Edward’s time.  He was a cultured and scholarly man who became  a prominent Tudor courtier. He had travelled through Italy and was familiar with classical architecture and literature,  and this influenced the way he planned the development of the gardens at St Donat’s.

from  the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

from the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

‘A place there is, sloping down an inclining rock away from the castle founded under the auspices of Donatus, and in its deep valley it touches upon the stormy shores that are swept by the rain-bringing South Wind.’   So begins a poem [originally in Latin] in honour of the gardens by Sir John Stradling, Sir Edward’s heir.

from  the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

from the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

It goes on to  describe how the site was “at first noted for its high rocks and wild ash trees, and heere the shades of untrimmed briers grew ever thicker and thicker” and that it was known only to “frisky goats, nimble rabbits and wild boars dwelling in the woods”.  But “now its fortune was changed, as if Vulcan himself himself, the worker god had descended to earth from high heaven and had by his authority… put the work underway.”

from  the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

from the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

It might indeed seemed as if divine intervention was necessary for the site is steeply sloping  and must have taxed Sir Edward’s engineering skills to the limits.  Not only was the steep drop to the sea in front of the castle terraced, with massive retaining walls, but the entire neighbouring valley floor was levelled out, and a great sea wall constructed.

The scale of the earth moving, terracing and levelling involved is almost overwhelming, as the gardens descend some 40m down to the sea.

The view from Mansell Tower, 1926, from  the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

The view from Mansell Tower, 1926,
from the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

The fronispiece of Thirteen Views of the Castle of St Donat's", 1871 https://archive.org/stream/thirteenviewsofc00clar#page/n5/mode/2up

The frontispiece of Thirteen Views of the Castle of St Donat’s”, 1871
https://archive.org/stream/thirteenviewsofc00clar#page/n5/mode/2up

A series of drawings of St Donat’s were published in 1871. This one looks over the deer park and flat-bottomed valley , with the church tower just visible in the centre ground, and a watch tower on the right.

From Thirteen Views of the Castle of St Donat's", 1871 https://archive.org/stream/thirteenviewsofc00clar#page/2/mode/2up

From Thirteen Views of the Castle of St Donat’s”, 1871
https://archive.org/stream/thirteenviewsofc00clar#page/2/mode/2up

It would appear that no major changes were made to the gardens between the 17thc and the first years of the 20thc, and then they were mainly embellishments rather than major alterations.

David Marsh 2014

David Marsh 2014

This account of St Donat’s   is not meant as a full history of the castle and its estate, much of that that can be found in Liz Whittle’s  article  “The Tudor Gardens of St Donat’s Castle, Glamorgan” which was published in Garden History in 1999 [Vol.27, No.1,pp. 109-126).

South front and Upper Terrace David Marsh 2014

South front and Upper Terrace
David Marsh 2014

 

 

 

 

Instead  it will be a walkabout, through the gardens and grounds, in the hope that it will inspire you to visit, or at least find out more.

The view south from the Upper Terrace David Marsh 2014

The view south from the Upper Terrace
David Marsh 2014

DSCF1955

The upper two terraces David Marsh 2014

The two top terraces are now mainly  lawned areas with fine views over the Bristol Channel.

The Upper Terrace David Marsh 2014

The Upper Terrace
David Marsh 2014

 

 

 

The steps bewteen the upper terraces From Thirteen Views of the Castle of St Donat's", 1871

The steps between the upper terraces
From Thirteen Views of the Castle of St Donat’s, 1871

 

 

 

The third terrace is now an Edwardian re-creation of a Tudor garden which I featured in a recent post on heraldic beasts. It was created by Morgan Stuart Williams between 1901 and 1909. although the present layout is much simplified from his original. He also replaced the scarp between the upper two terraces with the present wall. To one side he built an elegant Italianate pavilion  built into and out from the terrace wall – and height of luxury – this  was fitted with electricity and a telephone connection in Hearst’s day.

The Tudor Garden with royal beasts, 1926 from  the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

The Tudor Garden with royal beasts, 1926
from the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

The royal beasts David Marsh 2014

The royal beasts
David Marsh 2014

The Blue Garden seen from the Tudor Garden David Marsh 2014

The Blue Garden seen from the Tudor Garden
David Marsh 2014

Looking over the walls and hedges from here you look down into the interconnected  lower terraces:  the Rose Garden to the east and the Blue Garden to the west.  These also have Edwardian layouts set within the Tudor structure.

The Rose Garden, 1926 from  the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

The Rose Garden, 1926
from the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

The terrace walk belwo the Tudor Garden and linking the Blue Garden and the Rose Garden David Marsh 2014

The terrace walk below the Tudor Garden and linking the Blue Garden and the Rose Garden
David Marsh 2014

The Rose Garden seen from the Tudor Garden David Marsh 2014

The Rose Garden seen from the Tudor Garden
David Marsh 2014

 

 

 

The Rose Garden, with the Italian pavilion which stands next to the Tudor Garden David Marsh 2014

The Rose Garden, with the Italian pavilion which stands next to the Tudor Garden
David Marsh 2014

 

 

 

 

The Rose Garden David Marsh 2014

The loggia in the Blue Garden
David Marsh 2014

The Rose Garden David Marsh 2014

The Rose Garden
David Marsh 2014

 

 

 

 

DSCF1985

Hydrangeas and agapanthus line the lower terraces David Marsh 2014

 

Wilder, more informal terrace walks lead further down the slope to the large and level area outside  the buildings known as the Cavalry Barracks also built by Edward Stradling.

Overgrown but still pretty terracee walks led down to the Calavry Barracks David Marsh 2014

Overgrown but still pretty terrace walks led down to the Cavalry Barracks
David Marsh 2014

 

 

 

It seems a bit strange having a barracks almost at sea level, but Stradling was the local Commissioner concerned with coastal security both against pirates and with the Spanish invasion scare in 1588.

Part of the Cavlary Barracks, now converted into student accomodation David Marsh 2014

Part of the Cavalry Barracks, now converted into student accommodation
David Marsh 2014

The Stradlings were also closely involved with the Royalist cause in South Wales during the Civil War and the building may have been converted to cavalry barracks at that period. They could also have been grand stables for the hunt at some time. They fell out of use, and a photograph in Country Life in 1907 shows them complete but roofless. They were restored by Randolph Hearst in the 1930s but his work was dismantled by Atlantic College who then had Alex Gordon and Partners rebuild them fully in 17thc style and convert them to student accommodation in 1978-81.

Part of the cavalry barracks, looking back up to the castle David Marsh 2014

Part of the cavalry barracks, looking back up to the castle
David Marsh 2014

Looking up at the castle from the Cavalry Barracks David Marsh 2014

Looking up at the castle from the Cavalry Barracks
David Marsh 201

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The swimming pool and cavalry barracks,  1936 from  the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

The swimming pool and cavalry barracks, 1936
from the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

And then one arrives at the sea wall.   Originally built by Sir Edward, it was described in a poem of c.1592 as being where “the enraged sea foams and roars in such a way that the wild waves… hurl incredibly massive rocks against those well constructed bulwarks, but all in vain.” [From a Latin poem by Thomas Leyshon, now lost but published in a Welsh translation in a Welsh grammar book financed by Sir Edward Stradling]. Sir Edward’s wall has been much modified, strengthened  and “gothicized”.

DSCF1997

The Sea Wall David Marsh 2014

DSCF1993

The sea wall David Marsh 2014

 

 

 

DSCF1995

The view east from the sea wall David Marsh 2014

DSCF1996

The view west from the sea wall David Marsh 2014

 

 

St Donat' s Castle and Gardens from the 1914 Ordinance survey 25 inch map, surveyed 1876, revised 1914

St Donat’ s Castle and Gardens from the 1914 Ordinance survey 25 inch map, surveyed 1876, revised 1914

 

 

 

screenshot

Aerial view of St Donat’s castle, church and western deer park, 2006 Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales

On either side of the castle there were deer parks,  one for fallow deer and one for red deer.  They are probably mediaeval in origin and are mentioned by John Leland in his description of the castle of about 1536-38.  The deer, or rather the venison, is mentioned several times in Edward Stradling’s correspondence because it was used as gifts  in the patronage network.   The deer were probably removed soon after the demise of the Stradlings in 1738, but were reintroduced  by Morgan Stuart Williams, although they didn’t last long because they were culled  after his unexpected death in 1909.

StDonat's Church from the castle terrace http://www.atlanticcollege.org

St Donat’s Church from the castle terrace
http://www.atlanticcollege.org

 

St Donat's church from the valley David Marsh 2014

St Donat’s church from the valley
David Marsh 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Sir John Stradling’s poem  continues by describing the valley with its open and levelled floor: “lower down there is a spacious level area, luxuriant with grass and resplendent in beautiful to behold between two groves. A stream, flowing in a curving channel, marks the end of the wood, and finally loses itself in the vast deep.”    The valley can be seen on the Ordnance survey map, marked with the  regular tree pattern that symbolises its use as an orchard.  The 12thc parish church at the head of the valley, and tucked underneath the castle walls, contains monuments to the Stradling family.

William Randolph Hearst  with Marion Davies,  1931. (AP Photo)

William Randolph Hearst with Marion Davies, 1931. (AP Photo)

So given all this it’s probably not surprising that in 1925  William Randolph Hearst took one look at the article in Country Life and decided to buy the castle!  It cost him $120,000 and was his third “mediaeval castle” after the famous San Simeon and a building on Long Island. It was probably a gift for Marion Davies, the film star with whom he lived much of his life.

Portrait of Davies for the June 1920 cover of Theatre Magazine

Portrait of Davies for the June 1920 cover of Theatre Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

In 1928 Hearst visited St Donat’s for the first time and employed Sir Charles Allom, who had recently worked on Buckingham Palace for George V, to modernize the 135-roomed castle. He spent a fortune – estimated by the Times in 1937 to have been around £250,000 – on the work, which included buying entire rooms from historic buildings under threat of demolition. The Great Hall came from Bradenstoke Priory  along with the priory guest house, the Prior’s lodging, and great tithe barn which were used to create  St Donat’s banqueting hall. Hearst’s own bedroom contained a bed used previously by Charles I and a collection of priceless Restoration furniture.

Bradenstoke Hall, 1961 National Monuments Record of Wales

The Great Hall at Donat’s formerly at Bradenstoke Priory, 1961
National Monuments Record of Wales

Apart from installing running water and electricity Hearst installed  34 green and white marble bathrooms for his guests who included Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Winston Churchill, and even John F Kennedy as well as George Bernard Shaw. Sadly I can’t find any photographs of any of them actually at the castle.

In fact, Hearst and Davies didn’t actually spend a huge amount of time at St Donat’s despite all this lavish expenditure. And sadly, following Hearst’s severe financial problems many of the contents were auctioned in 1937, and  the castle itself was put on the market in 1938 after Hearst had stayed there for a total of just four months.

The Arts Centre Image courtesy of the BBC

The Arts Centre
Image courtesy of the BBC

There was no immediate sale and in 1939 the castle was requisitioned as an officers’ training centre. After the war, it continued to be looked after by the managing director of Hearst’s National Magazine Company, in the name of which it had originally been bought, until it was finally bought by Antonin Besse in 1962 and gifted to Atlantic College. Apart from the college itself there is also a thriving arts centre on the site.

For more information about St Donat’s  other than the article by Liz Whittle mentioned above see:    Clark, G.T., Thirteen views of the castle of St Donat’s (1871) ;   ‘St Donats Castle, Glamorganshire’, Country Life, 24 August 1907, pp270–79;  Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Glamorgan, IV (1981), p351 ;  The story of St Donat’s Castle and Atlantic College, ed.byR.Denning(1983) ;  Newman, J., The buildings of Wales. Glamorgan (1995), pp. 552–57;  and of course the entry on our database: 

St Donat's Castle, John Buckler  1815, British Library

St Donat’s Castle, John Buckler
1815, British Library

North West View of St. Donat’s Castle, Paul Sandby, 1775, British Library

North West View of St. Donat’s Castle, Paul Sandby, 1775, British Library

 

About Parks and Gardens UK

Parks & Gardens UK is the leading on-line resource for historic parks and gardens providing freely accessible, accurate and inspiring information on UK parks, gardens and designed landscapes. Email - info@parksandgardens.org. Website - www.parksandgardens.org
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s