JUN 6, 2023
Prior Park Gardens, Bath.
I’ve been visiting Bath since the early 1960s but somehow have never got around to taking a walk around Prior Park Gardens. And so one afternoon in May I parked my bicycle at the entrance and paid the £9 entrance fee – realising the entrance fee was probably the reason it took me so long to visit.
A helpful chap who I assume was a guide or volunteer pointed at a map in a wooded shelter and suggested I took a photo of it with my phone – which I did. It turned out to be a very sensible move as with all the winding paths it is easy to take a wrong turning. As he explained which way to go he suddenly reached out and plucked a goldfinch in his hand that had perched in the shelter and let it fly off into the woods. “They’re only young and keep getting lost and staying up there in the shed,” he explained.
The park is a deep but short narrow valley with specimen trees on its steep sides and open ground, streams and lakes on its floor – including the famous Palladian bridge. It slopes down beneath the shadow of Prior Park School affording views of Bath below. In short, from its various viewpoints it’s a photographer’s paradise. The paths are narrow and steep so no problem for mountain goats but more of an issue for those who may have consumed Georgian levels of gin, or are pushing a pram. There’s a café near the entrance down a twisting path with a comprehensive range of coffees, cakes and teas which I am sure the original workers who must have toiled under the direction of Capability Brown would have appreciated. Designed by Alexander Pope the gardens were laid out at huge expense from 1734 to 1764 by a small army for the benefit of the wealthy owner Ralph Allen.
Despite it being half term I was surprised there were so few other visitors. There’s no car park (apart for a small zone for blue badge owners) so it’s a taxi, a bicycle or a hike up the hill for most – which no doubt puts off a lot of folk from visiting this green and pleasant National Trust property.
There’s an ice house, a false or fake bridge by a curving pond near the entrance and of course the Palladian bridge – the centre piece of the gardens. On the grassy stretches nearby a few visitors had settled in for the afternoon on deckchairs with picnic hampers – making this sun soaked valley an attractive spot to chill out in the peace and quiet that Jane Austen would have approved.
The bridge is a delight – but caution to those who leave their unwanted graffiti tags on public buildings. A sign requests visitors not to add to the graffiti carved into the soft golden sandstone. In places the arches and columns are thick with signatures, odes to love and romantic relationships – with the offenders leaving their names so they could potentially be tracked down and punished. Most of the culprits are dead however as the dates range from the late 18th century to the 20th century but they are a reflection of that very human trait: to leave a mark for eternity. A sort of landmark (or scratch mark) for posterity – the same motive one assumes that drove Ralph Allen to commission Prior Park Landscape Gardens.
Tickets and information: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/bath-bristol/prior-park-landscape-garden