Magazine article History Today

Green Priorities for the National Trust at Prior Park

Magazine article History Today

Green Priorities for the National Trust at Prior Park

Article excerpt

`In all, let nature never be forgot' - wrote the poet, Alexander Pope, in his Epistle to Lord Burlington in 1731. This is an appropriate maxim in more ways than one for a recent initiative by the National Trust at their newly-opened Prior Park Landscape Garden on the outskirts of Bath.

The original owners of Prior Park - a fine example of eighteenth-century landscape design when a more `natural', less contrived, appearance was becoming the vogue - were recipients of on-the-spot advice from Pope, a keen pioneer of the landscape movement, in the first phase of the garden's design in the decade 1734-44.

Prior Park belonged to Pope's friend, the wealthy business entrepreneur, Ralph Allen (1693-1764) where he had built a vast Palladian house, ostentatious testimony to the source of his livelihood and enterprise, in Bath stone, which he both quarried and exported. The poet stayed with the Allens several times, and evidence of his encouragement and advice about landscaping their magnificent valley setting, with its fine view of the city of Bath, exists in letters he wrote to them.

The Allens continued to develop the Park after Pope's death in 1744. A superb Palladian bridge spanning an ornamental lake was added in 1755, while in the 1760s the famous landscape designer, `Capability' Brown, is thought to have been responsible for the final phase of the design, when the grassed terraces sloping down from the house to the water were cleared of an artificial cascade and structured planting was carried out on either side to create a more informal, less fussy impression.

Following his death, Prior Park passed to Ralph Allen's niece, Gertrude Warburton, and to a series of tenants, becoming a Roman Catholic seminary in 1829 and subsequently home to several other schools. The current occupant of the house (since 1921) has been Prior Park College, a Roman Catholic public school. In May 1993, conscious of the burden of responsibility for a difficult site that over the years had become overgrown and neglected, the College and the Order of Christian Brothers gifted the 28 acres of parkland to the National Trust.

One of the appeals of the garden as far as the Trust was concerned, was that it had been largely left alone, design-wise, since the eighteenth century and retained many original features, albeit in a state of decay, although little original planting. It was not difficult, therefore, to decide to pitch the massive restoration project (the first phase of which has now been completed) to around 1764, the year of Allen's death, when the grounds of Prior Park had been laid out and planted according to his ultimate vision.

The team working on the restoration project are not sentimental about additions occurring after this point. Such is the opportunity to recreate a complete example of an eighteenth-century landscape garden that, eventually, they are hoping to restore what was known as the Serpentine River. At present completely earthed in, this was an original feature running through the area called the Wilderness. Its restoration will mean destroying a round Victorian pond that currently sits in front of an eighteenth-century sham bridge. …

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