Donington Park is a medieval deer park still grazed by herds of deer and contains a population of magnificent ancient oak with a hawthorn understorey.
We were employed there to gain an understanding of the historic parkland and carry out a detailed survey. Then through an understanding of the historic evolution of the park create management recommendations for the next 10 years in detail and 50 years in outline.
Camila Beresford a landscape architect and historian helped us with the historical research element of the work and whilst doing so made an exciting discovery with regard to an unidentified Charles Bridgeman site map. Below is a little piece she has written about the discovery and the history surrounding the Donington estate.
Within Peter Willis’s seminal work on Charles Bridgeman (Elysium, 2002) are plans for four unidentified sites. These plans have always intrigued me and whenever I work on an early eighteenth century landscape, I check to see if it is one of the unidentified Bridgeman sites. Unidentified Site No. 2 has a distinctively shaped river running through the northern end of it (Willis (2002), pl. 242, Bodleian MSGD A4 fo.33). Whilst working recently on Donington Park, Castle Donington, Leicestershire, for the arboriculturalist Andrew Bowman-Shaw of Tree and Woodland Company, I recognised the site from the shape of the river (the Trent).
Bridgeman’s plans match one for Donington Park surveyed by William Gardiner in 1735 (ROLLR DG30 Ma 64 2 DE362) and the design is recognisable on historic plans and aerial photographs. The park was first recorded in the early thirteenth century and became a royal deer park. It retains ancient trees and is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Castle Donington estate had been owned by the Hastings family from the late sixteenth century and was in the hands of Theophilus Hastings, 9th Earl of Huntingdon (1696-1746) at the time that the plans were produced. Apart from the early eighteenth century design, the landscape incorporates phases of work from the late eighteenth century and mid nineteenth centuries. Humphry Repton remodeled the landscape in 1790s, incorporating many of the earlier features but probably realigning the drives and removing the formal ponds to the south of the hall. He also opened up parkland to the east of the hall with that to the west. He worked alongside William Wilkins senior, who redesigned the hall in a Gothic style in 1790-93 [fn: Repton and Wilkins worked together at Welbeck Abbey in the 1790s.] Wilkins also added a Gothic front to the water wheel at King’s Mill, sited on the river Trent to the north of the hall. The river had been used as a fishery and for corn and fulling mills since at least the sixteenth century. James Pulham II and James Pulham III designed a Pulhamite rock garden for the pleasure grounds to the north of the hall in 1866-7. A conservatory built in 1863 may have been designed by Joseph Paxton. There is also some suggestion that William Kent worked on the hall at Donington Park in the 1730s or 40s (Durham University Willis Papers: WIL/B1/6; WIL/B5/1-2) but the designer of the landscaping in the park in the early eighteenth century was not known. What was known and is recorded by Willis, is that Bridgeman worked for Lady Elizabeth (Betty) Hastings (1682-1739) on one of the families other estates, Ledston Hall, Yorkshire (Willis, pp61, 180-1; pl48b).
The Hastings family owned Donington Park until it was put up for sale in lots in the early years of the twentieth century. It was used as a shooting estate until 1929 when it was sold again and further divided. The Hasting family’s former estate steward, John Gillies Shield, purchased the hall and park and saved them from destruction. A nineteenth century extension of the park was sold separately and became the Donington Park Circuit. The property was later divided again with the hall becoming firstly the British Midland Airways headquarters and since 2013 the Norton Motorcycle Headquarters, whilst the park remained with the Shield family, and the Priest House at King’s Mill became a hotel.