Use Places & People to search over 6,600 parks and gardens in the UK and 2,100 biographies of people associated with them. Image location: Bedgebury National Pinetum

Learn about the rich heritage of parks and gardens in Topics.
Image location: Powis Castle

Follow News & Events, updated regularly with the latest information affecting historic parks and gardens. Image location: Sheffield Botanical Gardens

Visit the Schools for ideas and activities to encourage the interest of children and young people in their local parks. Image location: Trentham

Join us as a volunteer and Research & Record historic parks and gardens in your area.
Image location: Cirencester Abbey

View the Illustrated Glossary which provides definitions and accompanying images for terms and concepts associated with historic parks and gardens. Image location: Pannett Park

The name ‘Prior Park' dates from 1100, when John de Villiula, first Bishop of Bath and Wells, made a park on the site. This ‘reminiscence of an ancient monastery' was sold to a Mr. Humphrey Colles, who later sold it to a Mr. Matthew Colhurst. When he died in 1560, his son Edmund took over and sold the Abbey House with the park ‘Prior Park'. The Prior Park portion was subsequently sold to Ralph Allen in 1742.

Ralph Allen was an extremely influential figure in Bath during the 18th century, and was several times Mayor of the City. He rose from humble origins in Cornwall, and made a fortune from his re-organisation of the postal service in the 1720s. He gained the attention of General Wade, and was promoted to Postmaster.

He went on to exploit the oolitic limestone quarries on Combe Down in the Bath area, and employed John Wood the Elder to design his country house at Prior Park. He deliberately set out to demonstrate the qualities of Bath stone in the design and construction of the house at Prior Park. The main building was completed by Richard Jones, Allen's Clerk of Works, after Wood's death in 1754.

Landscaping at Prior Park started in 1737, very much under the influence of Alexander Pope, who was then a good friend of Allen's. Pope was one of the key figures in the shift of ideas that took place in the early 18th century, and that affected garden design in a dramatic way. Pope believed in accepting as far as possible the natural character of the site, seeking not to change it, but to enhance it: ‘Nature's rules discovered, not devised'. Pope loaned his gardener, John Serle, to help at Prior Park, and he visited and corresponded regularly, keeping a keen eye on progress there.

During 1737, no less than 55,200 trees, mostly elm and Scots pine, were planted on the slopes of the valley and along the tops of the downs. This exaggerated the height of the downs. The floor of the valley was left bare, and water collected in a group of fishponds at the bottom.

Allen was obviously very much aware of the creations of other great landowners, and there are many similarities between individual features of the garden at Prior Park and other great contemporary gardens. Thus the Sham Bridge at Prior Park is reminiscent of Kent's cascade at Chiswick House, or Venus' Vale at Rousham. The arch over Pope's walk at Prior Park is similar to one at Mount Edgecombe in Cornwall, and the Palladian bridge was copied from that designed by Robert Morris at Wilton House.

An engraving of 1752 by Anthony Walker gives us a clear picture of Prior Park at that time. The western slope of the valley is clothed in ‘natural' woodland, with sinuous paths winding through. By way of contrast, the eastern slope is more formal, with paths and rivulets descending between beds of planting. There was a cascade leading to the serpentine lake in the grove.

The following description of the grounds comes from Defoe's tour of 1748:

‘The level ground near the house and buildings were used for chicken runs and guinea fowl. Greenhouses were also situated near the house. Below the house and gardens were laid out on two terraces and two slopes, but all these are adorned with vases, ornaments and other stonework; and the affluence of water is so great that it is received in three places; and after many agreeable little falls, at the head of one, there is a statue of Moses, down on his knees, in an attitude expressive of the emotion he must have shown after striking the rock and seeing the water gush out of it. The wandering walks were made with great labour; and although no broader than to allow two or three persons to walk abreast, yet in some places they appear with little cliffs on one side and small precipices on the other.'

This statue of Moses is no longer in evidence today. A statue commemorating General Wade has also disappeared.

Allen died in 1764, and the estate passed from his niece Gertrude to William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, who had been a frequent visitor. Gertrude died in 1796, and the estate passed to another niece, to her son, to a half-brother and then to a Mr. Brown. It was subsequently purchased by John Thomas, a Bristol Quaker.

In 1829, Prior Park was bought by Bishop Baines for £22,000. It was turned into a Roman Catholic theological college. He commissioned the architect H.E. Goodridge to add the immense Baroque flight of steps to the north front of the mansion in 1836, and the house was gutted by a serious fire in the same year. Baines died in 1843, and the college was closed in 1856.

The estate was re-purchased by Bishop Clifford for £23,000 in 1867.

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):

www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list

HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT

Prior Park originated as part of a deer park owned by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, laid out by the Norman bishop, John of Tours, who moved from Wells to Bath after he was granted the Abbey and City of Bath in 1091 by William Rufus. The western half of the park was granted to the Prior of Bath in the C13, and a grange and other buildings near the fishponds at the northern end of the area here registered constituted the Prior's county seat. The grange was reached from Church Lane on the line of an ancient track from Bath to Limpley Stoke, following the Saxon boundary of Widcombe. In the C14 and C15 the Priory suffered as a result in the decline of the woollen industry, and when Leland visited in the 1530s he found that the park walls were ruinous and that there were no deer (Bond 1998). After the Dissolution in 1534-9, the park and other priory lands were subdivided between several owners and continued in agricultural use for the next two hundred years.

In 1726 Ralph Allen purchased part of an estate between Widcombe and Combe Down, including the old priory lands. Allen was by then a leading citizen in Bath, with interests in the postal service and in the Bath stone quarries on Combe Down from which he built a railway down what is now Ralph Allen Drive to his wharf on the River Avon. In 1728 he purchased further lands including the Prior's park. Later that year he commissioned designs for a new house from John Wood the Elder (1704-54), who was already leading the renaissance of Bath as a fashionable spa town.

Between 1734 and c 1740, with advice from Alexander Pope (1688-1744) as well as Wood, Allen developed a formal landscape north of and below the house and a rococo wilderness to the north-west, with a triangular lawn north of the house descending to a formal pond and a boundary wall. The design featured a grotto, the serpentine river with a sham bridge and cascade, a statue of Moses, and the green 'cabinet' at the foot of the cascade with arti-natural winding paths around it. Wood's employment ended in 1748 before the house was complete, and Richard Jones, Allen's clerk of works at Prior Park, took over. In a second phase of works in the 1750s, the landscape was extended northwards and a Palladian bridge and a central cascade were introduced. Finally, a third phase can be identified after c 1760-4 when Allen employed Lancelot Brown (1716-83), who suggested removing the central cascade to make the whole of the combe a single sweep. Allen died in 1764 and his wife in 1766, after which the estate had a succession of owners, and over the next sixty-five years little was done to alter the designed landscape.

In 1828 the estate was purchased by Bishop Baines, who founded a seminary in the house. Works were carried out to the house to designs by H E Goodridge in 1834. In 1836 there was a serious fire, and restoration costs crippled the seminary, which closed in 1856. After a period of neglect, it was bought by Bishop Clifford to found a Roman Catholic Grammar School. Works to the landscape were carried out in the 1880s. The school closed in 1904 and it was occupied by the army during the First World War and then by a series of tenants until, in 1921, the Christian Brothers took it over and founded a boys' boarding school in 1924. The school, Prior Park College, has continued to occupy the house, but in 1993 11.3ha of the park and pleasure grounds were acquired by the National Trust and have been the subject of a detailed restoration programme.

Site timeline

1828: The estate was purchased by Bishop Baines, who founded a seminary in the house.

1836: There was a serious fire, and restoration costs crippled the seminary, which closed in 1856.

1867 to 1904: The house became a Roman Catholic Grammar School.

1914 to 1918: The site was occupied by the army during the First World War.

1924: The Christian Brothers took over the site and founded a boys' boarding school.

1993: 11.3 hectares of the park and pleasure grounds were acquired by the National Trust.

People associated with this site

Designer: Lancelot Brown (born 1716 died 06/02/1783)

Architect: Henry Edmund Goodridge (born 1797 died 26/10/1864)

Builder: Richard Jones (born 1703 died 1778)

Designer: Alexander Pope (born 21/05/1688 died 30/05/1744)

Builder: John Wood the Elder (born 1704 died 23/05/1754)

Features

Palladian bridge

Feature created: 1755

Creator: Richard Jones (born 1703 died 1778)

The Palladian bridge was built in 1755 by Richard Jones. It is reminiscent of that at Wilton House. Apart from the plain plastered ceiling and the slated roof, the bridge is of Bath stone. The internal and external frieze is pulvinated, and the balusters are of a type which is not common in Bath. They have something of a Venetian character about them.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade I

arch

Feature created: 1750 to 1759

This is the arch in the Priory grounds. It is in the Palladian style, sited to the south of the Priory. It was built in the 1750s.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

boundary wall

To the south the site is bounded by a stone wall about 4.5 metres high.

folly

Feature created: 1762

Sham Castle was built as an eyecatcher from Allen's town house in Bath.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II*

gate lodge

Feature created: 1750 to 1759

Creator: John Wood the Elder (born 1704 died 23/05/1754)

This feature is the porter's Lodge North. Both Lodges were designed by John Wood in the Palladian style, virtually identical but much altered in detail. They date to the 1750s.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

gate lodge

Feature created: 1750 to 1759

Creator: John Wood the Elder (born 1704 died 23/05/1754)

This feature is the porter's Lodge South. Both Lodges were designed by John Wood in the Palladian style, virtually identical but much altered in detail. They date to the 1750s.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

grotto

Pope's Grotto was built by Stephan Ginstan Tibb on the site of the grave of Allen's Great Dane. All that remains is a solitary arch, constructed of 'sponge' stone, which was probably obtained from Allen's quarries at Combe Down. A diary entry of T. Clark Jnr., Salop, in 1836 reads:

'The roof and sides of this sweet retreat presented to the eye such a dazzling assemblage of shells, fossils, minerals, etc. as perfectly astonished us. The floor was almost as beautiful as the roof, being composed of a curious kind of stone perforated and inlaid with pine-cones, fragments of bone etc. arranged in tasteful forms, and the whole place exhibiting such a profusion of ornament and such a combination of taste and skill as I had never before witnessed.'

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

gate

Feature created: 1740 to 1750

This feature is the middle gateway. It was built between 1740 and 1750. The gate piers are of random construction in vermiculated 'sponge' stone. The gate is wooden with a ramped upper rail. The feature was restored by Bishop Baines in the 1830s, but has fallen into disrepair. This is unfortunate, as it is an important surviving element of the 18th century garden.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

ornamental bridge

Feature created: 1750 to 1759

This feature is the Sham Bridge. It terminates the view of the circular pool from the Serpentine walls. It was probably designed by Richard Jones in the 1750s. The feature consists of a low ashlar hemicycle wall with a central pedimental break with a low arch rising from the ground. There are vermiculated voussiors and vermiculation to the tympadun. There are smaller but similar terminal breaks without pediments. The feature is now much overgrown.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

walk

Feature created: 1764

This feature is Pope's Walk. It was laid out ten years after Pope's death in 1754. It starts at the western gatepost at the Top Lodge and goes down to an old arch.

garden house

This feature is The Priory. It is a small gothic house intended for the head gardener. It appears on the estate map of 1742. It was much extended and altered in the 19th century, possibly by Bishop Baines.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II

garden building

Feature created: 1830 to 1839

Creator: Henry Edmund Goodridge (born 1797 died 26/10/1864)

This feature is the gymnasium. It is an Italianate structure, possibly to a design by H.E. Goodridge in the 1830s. It has been vandalised.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II