A DESCRIPTION OF THE CASTLE AND GARDENS

 

Outer Arch and Approaches

The arms of the Stradling family greet the visitor above the first arch reached after coming down either drive. When coloured the shield has six vertical stripes, alternately blue and silver, with a red diagonal band with three cinquefoils in gold. From the lettering and the content of the inscription above, which commemorates the marriage of Jane Stradling to a member of the Carne family in 1652, it would appear that this inscription was put up by Dr. Nicholl Carne in the nineteenth-century to show his descent from the original Stradlings.

Once inside this arch one can see the entrance to the castle straight ahead. On the left are modified Tudor farm buildings with the Tithe Barn, which is now the Art Department of the Atlantic College, nearest the castle. On the right are a number of temporary buildings.

 

Plan of the Castle

The castle was originally built about 1300 and is on the concentric plan, which was the most efficient type of fortification known at that time. It had already been used at Caerphilly and for Edward I's great castles in North Wales. As can be seen from the plan in the centre of this booklet, this early castle had the two near circular rings of fortifications, one inside the other, typical of this plan. Each of these was made up of a curtain, i.e. enclosing wall, with towers spaced round it.

 

The Outer Gate-house

Most of the original outer curtain wall is still present and can be seen stretching away to right and left on either side of the heavily fortified outer gate-house straight ahead. Arrow slits can be seen in this on both sides and on the left there is a crenellated parapet, with a walk behind it on which defenders of the castle would have stood to shoot. There is also a walk like this, called an alure, behind the parapet at the top of the gate-house and behind most of the parapets in all places on the castle.

It was not always easy to gain entrance to the castle as the way across the dry moat, which has recently been filled in on the right, was by a drawbridge until the sixteenth century. This had chains or ropes attached to its outer end and could be pulled up when necessary. The next hazard to overcome was missiles, traditionally of boiling oil or molten lead, which could be thrown down the wide shoot below the outer parapet of the gate-house. Below this shoot is the plumed helmet of a knight and possibly the Stradling arms and crest were there originally and have been eroded away. The whole castle is built of locally quarried liassic limestone and one can see stalactites below the projecting supports of the parapet.

The style of the two lancet windows on the outer side of the gatehouse and the Early English hooded fireplace of Sutton stone in the guard room, to which they give light, show that this gate-house cannot have been built later than the first quarter of the fourteenth-century. These two windows are set far apart so that the next defensive structure, the portcullis, can be pulled up between them. This is a massive wooden grille with sharp points at the lower edge which is suspended by chains from the guard room above. It can be lowered to make the entrance impassable. Behind it again are very heavy wooden doors.

 

Outer Court and Inner Gate-house

One emerges from the gate-house into the outer court of the castle which lies between the inner and outer curtain walls. This has had various domestic buildings built in it at varying times, as on the right of the entrance, but it stretches away unimpeded to the left.

Up above the inner arch of the outer gate-house is an iron plaque. The name of King Edward III can just be distinguished, but his clothes, which are not of his period, indicate that it was put up after his time. As it was during his reign (1327-77) that the Stradlings really began to establish themselves as a powerful family in Wales it may be that the Elizabethan Sir Edward Stradling, who was at pains to honour his ancestors, had it put up to one who had honoured them.

 

Ahead, and to the left is the inner gate-house leading through the inner curtain to the courtyard. It is defended on its left, or south side, by the Mansell tower. Between the corbels, i.e. external supports, of the room above the arch of the gate-house are more shoots for missiles and there are also large holes for this purpose in the floor itself which you can see as you pass underneath.

 

Inner Courtyard and Surrounding Buildings

Once inside the courtyard everything has a more peaceful air. However, if one stands just inside the gateway one can see two more towers. In the far right hand, i.e. north-west, corner stands the tall Gibbet Tower of the inner ring. Away in the south-west corner of the outer curtain is the Lady Anne Tower. This tower, which has been rebuilt several times, is now much higher than it was originally. It takes its name from the time when it was enlarged for the Elizabethan Sir Edward Stradling's wife, Agnes, (which would have become Ann or Annes in Welsh). It is now the residence of the headmaster of the Atlantic College and his family.

The buildings surrounding the courtyard are, in effect, those of a Tudor manor house built inside the medieval walls when times were more settled. The earliest parts, built in the second half of the fifteenth century, include the Stradling entrance, with its attractive early oriel window, and the Great Hall to its right, both on the left or south side; also the part on the north side immediately on the right of the entrance. The latter has a bell tower and a minute oriel window added in the nineteenth century. The room behind this little oriel window is traditionally known as the Priest's room. The bellrope from above used to pass down inside it and it is possible that a priest could have used it to call people to worship. No traces of a chapel in this part of the castle, however, remain.

The buildings, known as the Stradling apartments, joining the Mansell Tower to the Great Hall on the south-east side were probably built a bit later during the first quarter of the sixteenth century, as was all the west side of the courtyard and the main part of the buildings on the north side. The bay windows of the west range, i.e. the three bay windows straight ahead, when one first comes into the courtyard, are not the original ones and few of the early sixteenth-century windows remain here or on the north side. However two fireplaces which used to be in the west range, where the reception rooms of the Tudor building used to be, have been found and they confirm the date given to these buildings. It was William Randolph Hearst who abolished these reception rooms and incorporated a large old building from elsewhere behind the west front of the courtyard.

The main rooms in the north range were originally bedrooms. In this century the two panelled rooms on the first floor, one red and one green, were the bedrooms of Hearst and the film star Marion Davies, who was his constant companion on his visits to St. Donat's and is widely remembered for the glamour she brought to the district. The oak suite of rooms on the ground floor is where Lloyd George slept on frequent visits to the castle in the nineteen-thirties. The panelling in the red room was taken from one of the original drawing-rooms in the west range. This panelling had been one of the last additions to the castle made by the Stradling family at the end of the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries. It is of particular interest in that it is very similar to panelling in the Senior Common Room of Jesus College, Oxford, of which college the Stradlings were great patrons. The only other panelling of a similar date is on the other side of the courtyard in the first floor rooms of the Stradling Apartments. The latter panelling, which in one room is very elaborately carved and is gold and green, was brought by Hearst from an old country house, Eyre Court, in County Galway in Ireland. On that account these rooms are sometimes known as the Eyre Suite.

The Stradling arms appear again over the main entrance to the north range and the arms above the inner gate-house arch are those of the Berkerolles family, into which family an early Stradling married. Other decorations, as well as occasional gargoyles, are the terracotta roundels of distinguished Romans. On the west side is the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, accompanied by a Roman lady. High up on the Mansell Tower is the mad, tyrannical Emperor Caligula. His roundel is one of a pair, the other one of which used to be in the Great Hall. They were part of a set of twelve similar roundels sent to Wolsey by the Pope for Hampton Court in 1521 and eight of them can now be seen there. The father of the Lady Stradling of the time, Sir Thomas Arundell, was very close to Wolsey at court and he must have procured the pair for St. Donat's.

 

The Great Hall

Passing under the porch with the oriel window and turning right one enters the Great Hall, now the Masters' Common Room of the Atlantic College. Architecturally this is typical of a great hall of the second half of the fifteenth-century. There is a gallery on one side and on the other what was originally a raised dais for the high table. The whole floor has now been raised to this level except for the floor in the windowed recess in the far right-hand corner, to which there is therefore a step down. A fashion for lighting the high table by such a windowed recess came in at about this time.

 

The fireplace is the original and is a very fine example of a Tudor chimney-piece. Hearst had had it taken out, but luckily the pieces were left intact and were pieced together and put back in their original position when the castle was bought by the Atlantic College. The roof has superimposed Tudor roses, showing that it must have been put up after 1485 when Henry VII ascended the throne and married Elizabeth of York. In any case, an earlier date is unlikely as the family would not have been in a position to build it. The Sir Edward Stradling of the time, the fourth of that name, was a minor until late in the century; his father, Thomas, had died very young and his grandfather had had his resources much depleted by paying a ransom to a Breton pirate who had captured him.

The hall is built against part of the thick inner ring wall on the fireplace side. The parapet here has been replaced by a thin upper wall containing the clerestory windows. Opposite the fireplace the window is modern and was put there by Morgan Stuart Williams at the beginning of the twentieth century. The arms on the stained glass shields can be identified as follows : on the far left that of Einion ap Collwyn, the Welsh Chieftain, who together with the Welsh Prince Jestyn ap Gwrgant, whose arms are on the middle left, is said to have first invited the Normans into Glamorgan. Morgan Stuart Williams quartered these two in his own coat of arms. On the middle right the arms are of his wife's family, the Herberts, and on the far right the coat of arms has been borne by several Welsh families, one of which is the Jones family of Fonmon Castle.

 

A small window opposite the gallery gives a view from the Elizabethan long gallery which ran from here southwards to a window in the outer curtain wall, but this long gallery is now divided into separate rooms. Elizabethan ladies probably withdrew there but remained able to keep an eye on their menfolk below! It is there that the ghost of Sir Harry Stradling's wife is still said to walk, in silks and high-heeled shoes, waiting for her husband to come back from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from which he never returned. Some say that the sound of the tapping of her heels and the rustling of silk imply another impending disaster.

 

Library

Passing out of the Great Hall by the door in the corner of the windowed recess and continuing forward one comes to the stairs leading up to the present college library. This very large room and the suite of rooms above it and the dining hall below were all added by Hearst, in about 1929, from parts of buildings from other parts of the castle and from elsewhere. The original drawing rooms, which extended little further than the first part of the library, which Hearst used for his very splendid collection of armour, were pulled down. The rest of this very large room was used as a ballroom.

Out of the window at the far end one can see how these additions of Hearst's extend out beyond the outer curtain wall. Right down below the steep incline-there was no need for a moat on this side-is the parish church of St. Donat's, which is even older than the castle. This has not always stood in such isolation, but used to have the parsonage and some of the cottages of St. Donat's village standing near it and a proper road passing by. When Morgan Stuart Williams bought the castle in 1901 he did so partly to have a retreat from the incursions of people and machinery made on his estates at Aberpergwm consequent on the development of coal mines there. He therefore wanted his new residence to stand quite by itself so he had the parsonage and cottages moved to their present positions outside the main gate. Their ruins can still be seen near the church.

Across the other side of the valley one can see, except in full summer when the trees obscure it, the ruins of a fifteenth century watchtower put up by Sir Harry Stradling so that his men could keep perpetual watch for his captor, the Breton pirate, Colyn Dolphin.

 

Breakfast Room and Dining Hall

Down the main stairs and to the left is an ante-room to the dining hall known as the Breakfast Room. The fireplace here was brought by Hearst from the Prior's lodging at Bradenstoke Priory in Wiltshire and carries the name of John Walshe who was Prior there at the turn of the fifteenth-century. The roof is similar to that in the dining hall, which one reaches by proceeding straight ahead. The ceiling of this is a very fine wooden one, carved, gilded and coloured in the early sixteenth century. It is another of Hearst's purchases and it comes from the ceiling originally in the nave of the famous church at Boston in Lincolnshire, often called Boston Stump from its tall tower. In 1934 this ceiling was in a very bad state of repair and it was taken out of the nave and broken up and sold to pay for restoration. Hearst heard of it and bought this large portion for St. Donat's. The workmanship is probably Flemish, or certainly much influenced by craftsmen from Flanders, many of whom emigrated to that part of Lincolnshire.

There are extremely varied coloured bosses at all the intersections of the ribbing. One of the centre ones is of a head of Christ and it is interesting to note that there is a similar one carved in stone to be seen now in the porch of the Boston Stump church. Many Tudor roses, several angels, a whole series of griffins and two of the beasts of the apostles, an eagle and a winged bull, can also be seen.

The fifteenth-century stone screen which divides the passage from the dining hall was also imported by Hearst and it is probable that he bought it from a church in St. Albans. The fireplace is French, and behind the wall, on that side, there are large modernised kitchen premises.

 

The Bradenstoke Hall

Continuing along the passage, separated by the stone screen from the dining hall, and turning right one emerges again in the courtyard at the base of the Gibbet Tower. The largest hall in the castle, the Bradenstoke Hall, has not yet been described. One of the simplest ways to get to this hall is to enter once more through the Stradling entrance under the oriel-windowed porch. Then instead of going into the Great Hall, or Masters' Common Room, turn left and then right. The hall takes its name from the ruined Priory of Bradenstoke, in Wiltshire, from which Hearst bought the roof in 1929.

This roof, originally built about 1320, is one of the finest wooden roofs of such an early date in existence. Questions were asked in Parliament about the legality of an American millionaire moving such a part of England's architectural heritage, but eventually the Prime Minister's sanction was given. The rooms then in existence between the curtain walls on the south side of the castle were pulled down and the inside facings of the walls altered so that the roof would fit. Windows from the Prior's lodging at Bradenstoke were also bought and inserted into the outer wall of the hall, of which the external appearance is otherwise exactly that of the original south outer curtain wall. The Bradenstoke Hall, with its splendid roof, is now used as the Assembly Hall of the Atlantic College and is one of the things that makes this medieval castle so suitable for its present purpose.

Both the fireplaces are French, the more splendid of the two being at the end opposite to the platform. The door on the right of this leads to a passage outside the Lady Anne Tower. If you turn left there the door to the gardens is straight ahead. Above this on the outside is a roundel showing a stag, the crest of the Stradlings and the shortened form of their motto which was "Duw a digon", the Welsh for "God and enough". (In heraldic terminology the stag is described as a stag courant sable, around the neck a scarf argent. This was the more recent crest of the Stradlings. Earlier their crest was a pelican rising or.)

 

The Gardens

These were laid out in much their present form in the sixteenth-centuryThen there were also parks for red and fallow deer and a vineyard at St. Donat's and the Elizabethan Sir Edward Stradling's venison and wine were often highly praised in letters to him. Now there is only one large vine left, that against the outer wall of the Bradenstoke Hall.

The gardens slope down in terraces to the sea and the south aspect, together with windbreaks of cleverly arranged walls, hedges and trees, make this a beautiful place for a garden. Looking from the top lawn the view is framed by banks of trees on both sides and by the two towers on the sea wall, and the two tall pines in the centre cleverly enhance it. The coast of Somerset, about fourteen miles away, can be seen on clear days. Passing down the steps on the right, one comes to a second lawn and then a long herbaceous border protected by a very fine yew hedge which is on the upper side of the so-called Tudor garden. Until recently this was laid out in formal beds surrounded by small clipped boxed hedges as was the fashion in Tudor times. Statues were also common in such a garden and this one has a set of "Queen's beasts", put there by Morgan Stuart Williams at the beginning of this century. These beasts are heraldic emblems which the Queen is entitled to use and large statues of ten of them stood outside Westminster Abbey at her coronation. Other sets of "Queen's beasts" are to be found at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, and on the bridge over the moat at Hampton Court. Of the thirty or so beasts the Queen is entitled to use, only six are represented in this garden. There is England's Royal lion, two versions of the white greyhound, much used by the Tudors, and the ancient mythical unicorn of Scotland. There is also a griffin, first used in England by Edward III, but a mythical beast of such antiquity that golden models of it have been found in the tombs of Crete over 300 years ago. It has a lion's body with an eagle's beak and talons and the female, which is shown here and is the one usually used in heraldry, has wings. The remaining two beasts are probably the panther of Henry VI and an antelope. Each beast occurs several times.

Below this garden and to the left is the Rose Garden where there were also beautiful roses when the gardens were first laid out. An Elizabethan poet, Thomas Leyshon, praised them greatly in a Latin poem he wrote to St. Donat's, which now only exists in Welsh translation. Looking down on the Rose Garden is a little Italian-style summer house where Hearst had a telephone to keep in touch with his vast newspaper empire by long calls to California.

If one comes out of the Rose Garden the same way as one entered and turns down to the left, one sees the Blue Garden with a long summer house covered with wisteria. Below this garden the path turns down a slope to the right overlooking a lawn edged in the shape of a harp with a sun-dial in the centre.

Beyond this lawn are the ruins of the Cavalry Barracks where the Royalist Stradlings kept their horses in the Civil War. In more peaceful times they were retainers' quarters, and were built in early Tudor times. This can be seen by the nature of the fireplace in the central room, which is sometimes called after Hearst.

On the other side of these buildings is the magnificent open-air heated swimming pool constructed by Hearst on the site of an old jousting ground. It has now been divided into a deep, heated portion and a shallow, unheated end but it was originally all one. No American country house, even in the 1920's, was complete without such a pool, but surely this is more splendid than most and even Marion Davies' filmstar friends can have swum in few to rival it.

On the right are the boatsheds where the Atlantic College's sailing boats, canoes and inflatable rescue boats are kept and maintained. The slip-way passes through the sea-wall, originally put up in the sixteenth-century, and the west tower is used as a watch and signalling tower.

It is possible to walk along paths on top of the cliffs in both directions or along the shore, if the tide is out, but care should be taken in both cases as parts of the cliffs are liable to fall. However, if it is desired to return to the main gate without retracing one's steps there are two main possibilities. In both cases go back through the Cavalry Barracks. One can then take the road up to the right which leads to the junction of the drives just outside the castle. Alternatively one can turn left, and then right, and walk along the valley on the west side of the castle. On the castle side of this valley there is a raised walk overlooking a flat grassy area now used for athletics but possibly used in earlier times for mounted tournament. It is said that the sea came into this valley in the past and reached nearly to the churchyard to which the raised walk leads. The church is of considerable interest, both in itself and because of its connections with the castle throughout the ages. A road leads up from it on the north side of the castle to the same point where the drives meet.