There are several reasons to visit Prior Park Landscape Garden in Bath. The gardens and the woodland walks, the Palladian buildings, and the views across the city. Prior Park also has an important place in the history of the city, and in the history of garden design. The house and gardens were the home of Ralph Allen, a local entrepreneur whose vision helped to shape the city of Bath as we know it today. Then there is the – perhaps unexpected – connection between Alexander Pope and Prior Park Landscape Garden.
History of Prior Park Landscape Garden
John of Tours, Bishop of Bath and Wells, created a deer park on the steep hillside overlooking Bath in the 11th century. Part of the park was subsequently granted to the Prior of Bath, but it later reverted to agricultural use. Ralph Allen purchased the entire site in the 1720s.
Ralph Allen (1693-1764) originally made his fortune through major reforms to the British postal system. He then made a second fortune by investing in the quarries around the city of Bath, and extracting the characteristic yellow Bath stone. His quarries supplied the raw material for the buildings of John Wood the Elder, the architect who was responsible for much of the Georgian city. Allen was also a philanthropist, and later became mayor of Bath.
Ralph Allen purchased Prior Park with a view to building a house for himself that would demonstrate the potential of Bath stone. He worked with John Wood to create a massive Palladian style villa at the top of the hill, with sweeping views across the city. He then set about redesigning the parkland to create a new landscape garden. In this he was assisted by Alexander Pope.
Alexander Pope and Prior Park
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was a friend of Ralph Allen, and often visited him in Bath. Although he is now better known as a poet, Pope was also very interested in garden design. He worked on his own garden at Twickenham, and also influenced others including Marble Hill House in London. So it was not surprising that he should have helped Ralph Allen in drawing up the plans for his new garden at Prior Park.
English garden design changed radically around the beginning of the 18th century. There was a move towards a more natural landscape, a rejection of the formal flower beds and clipped hedges that had previously been popular. As a classicist, Pope drew on his knowledge of Roman gardens, seeking to work with the contours of the land, and to blend the garden with the surrounding countryside. Parts of Prior Park known to have been influenced by Pope include the wilderness, the grotto and the serpentine lake. (Unlike modern usage, the term “wilderness” here refers to a cultivated area with lots of trees, winding paths and concealed buildings.)
Another name associated with Prior Park is that of Capability Brown (c1716-1783). He was the most famous English landscape gardener, creating more than 170 parks across the country. Although there is no firm evidence that Capability Brown contributed to Prior Park, it is known that Ralph Allen made payments to him, and that there are several other gardens by Brown in the area.
Certainly Prior Park bears many of the characteristics of Brown’s other gardens, with its sloping lawns, carefully planted trees, and artificial lakes. It is also true that changes were made to the garden during Ralph Allen’s lifetime, and that some of the main features were installed after Pope’s death. In practice it is likely that the final design was influenced both by Pope and by Capability Brown.
Prior Park and the National Trust
Ralph Allen died without an heir, and subsequent owners changed, or neglected, the gardens. The National Trust acquired the estate in 1993, and have undertaken significant activity in restoring the gardens to their original design. This has involved a certain amount of detective work, and the reconstruction of some of the original buildings.
Current plans include work on the dams that separated the three lakes at the bottom of the garden. This project will result in reinstatement of the middle lake and the original cascade. Pope’s grotto, which is currently closed, is also due for renovation.
The Design of Prior Park Landscape Garden
As you walk around Prior Park you can see all of the features that you might expect of an 18th century landscape garden. There are grand vistas, surprise views and secret corners. There are winding paths and woodland walks, lakes and hidden buildings.
The dominant feature of the park is the two Palladian buildings. Right at the top of the hillside is Ralph Allen’s mansion, now in use as a school. And near the bottom is the Palladian Bridge, built in 1755. Both buildings were influenced by the architect Andrea Palladio, who was himself influenced by classical designs. This style was much in vogue for the grand buildings of 18th century England.
Visiting Prior Park
There is an entrance charge to the garden, but admission is free for National Trust members. Note that the gardens include steep slopes, steps and uneven ground, and are not fully accessible.
The Tea Shed – which sells drinks and snacks – is shortly due to close for renovation. However visitors are welcome to bring picnics.
Ralph Allen’s House
Ralph Allen’s house is now used by Prior Park College and is not open to the public. However, mansion tours are occasionally available during the summer.
How to Get to Prior Park
There is no public car park, apart from a small amount of disabled parking. You may be able to park in a nearby street, or in the centre of town (but note that Prior Park is a one mile steep uphill walk from the city centre). The easiest way to get there is to take the No 2 bus. Alternatively, Prior Park is a stop on the Hop-on-Hop-Off Bus route (take the Skyline tour).
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