“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.
The 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.
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!
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.
‘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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 two top terraces are now mainly lawned areas with fine views over the Bristol Channel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: