Few people realise that Durban has its own castle, complete with tower and battlements. Now open to the public by appointment only, you’ll find Coedmore Castle tucked away in a corner of the Stainbank Nature Reserve in Yellowwood Park.
It was built in 1882 by Dering Stainbank, who arrived in Durban in 1857 on The Lady of the Lake after a three-month sea journey from England – and it still looks exactly as it did 130 years ago.
The story starts when Stainbank wanted to find a place to settle and make his home. He met an elderly Zulu man who took him to a site on the south bank of the Umhlatuzana River, an area regularly used by Shaka’s riding party on their way to Pondoland.
Stainbank knew immediately that this was the perfect place for him and, with the help of two Scottish stone masons from Aberdeen, began to build his home from local stone quarried on the premises.
It took three years to complete – but it was no ordinary home. It was a castle with all the grandeur of its European counterparts, the only difference being that instead of peacocks roaming its extensive gardens, there were zebra, bushbuck, deer, duiker and hundreds of monkeys.
Four years later Stainbank married Ethel Lyne from Pietermaritzburg and the couple had seven children. Kenneth, his third son, inherited the castle after his two elder brothers were killed in World War I, and his daughter Elizabeth Keith and her family still live on the property which, apart from the installation of electricity and running water, is unchanged.
The castle’s rooms still have intricate steel-pressed ceilings, beautiful carved panelling and a circular iron staircase leading to the tower room above the battlements. Its original furnishings and household contents are still intact and in regular use, giving a fascinating look into life as it was 130 years ago. Its other priceless heritage is that many of the rooms contain sculptures by the well known artist Mary Stainbank.
Mary, born in 1899, was Dering’s daughter. After she returned from studying in London, she began working in “Ezayo”, the name she gave to her studio in the castle grounds where, between 1926 and 1940, she produced some of her finest work.
Though her talent was recognised, she was discriminated against because she was a woman and because of her subject matter, which was predominantly African.
Years later she was credited with introducing the modern school of sculpture to South Africa. After World War II she lectured in the Sculpture Department at the Durban School of Art until she retired in 1957.
Soon, however, all her work will be given the posterity it deserves and will be housed in a gallery in the grounds of Coedmore Castle where a Stainbank Memorial Gallery is planned in the old granary located over the cowshed, once the site of her original studio. When this is opened it will be the largest intact collective body of work remaining by a single sculptor in South Africa. This building, though it once housed animals, has a beautiful façade.
The Stainbank legacy, however, is greater than the castle and Mary’s talent.
In the early 1940s Kenneth decided to establish a nature reserve for the people of Natal to enjoy and his offer of land was accepted by the Administrator of Natal in 1946.
In order to afford this, he created the township of Yellowwood Park where the first houses were built in 1960.
The adjoining 253ha was proclaimed the Stainbank Nature Reserve in 1963, and is today managed by KZN Wildlife.
Today this is regarded as one of the finest reserves in the Durban area. It also has 13km of walking trails, a challenging 10km biking trail and a picnic site. Entry is R15 for adults and R5 for children.
Coedmore Castle is open to the public, and tours are conducted by appointment for groups of 10 or more at a cost of R45 per person which includes tea and scones served in the Grand Dining Room. All tours by appointment only. Its grounds are also perfect for weddings and other functions.
To complete a day’s outing, you can visit CROW, a centre for orphaned and injured wild animals and birds, which opens to the public on the last Sunday of the month.
l Telelephone 031 462 3005, 031 469 8811 or 083 419 6428. E-mail: [email protected]
l Stainbank Nature Reserve 031 469 2817, CROW - Sunday Tribune