Prior Park

Ralph Allen Drive, Bath, Somerset, BA2 5AH
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Overview

Prior Park was owned by Ralph Allen (1693-1764) (Wikipedia). Allen was born in Cornwall but as a teenager moved to Bath to work in the post office. Within ten years he had become the Postmaster for Bath, ultimately making his fortune by improving the efficiency of the postal system in Bath and across parts of England. He used this fortune to buy local stone mines and had the house at Prior Park built to show off the versatility of the local Bath stone. Working with the architect, John Wood the Elder, the stone extracted from his mines was used to build the burgeoning Georgian city. After his death in 1764, he was buried in a pyramid-topped tomb in Claverton churchyard (Wikipedia).

There has always been an air of mystery concerning Capability Brown’s involvement with the landscape at Prior Park in Bath. There are no surviving plans or records of a visit by Brown to Prior Park, only a record of £60 being owed to him when Ralph Allen’s affairs were settled on his death in 1764. Brown was working in the area at the time, at Longleat, Bowood, Corsham, Kelston Park and Newton St Loe between 1750 and 1765.

The mansion at Prior Park was completed in 1742, the year Allen was elected Mayor of Bath. A more formal landscaping of the valley below the house was carried out at the same time as the building work. It appears that Ralph Allen soon decided to have this original vista altered, softening the woodland edges and extending fishponds further down the hill to create a chain of three lakes towered over by a Palladian bridge. The effect was to shift attention further away from the mansion all the way to the city of Bath which was rapidly expanding, using the famous Bath Stone (Wikipedia) from Allen’s mines. He is quoted as saying "To see all Bath, and for all Bath to see".

It is likely that the poet Alexander Pope (Wikipedia) may have influenced Allen, as he was a regular visitor to Prior Park and a keen gardener. Pope was influential in the shift away from formality to the more naturalistic style in gardens and landscapes, through both his poems and his own garden. Despite the lack of evidence of who was responsible for the landscape at Prior Park, the garden is very much in the English Landscape style, of which Brown was a key proponent alongside many others. Whatever happened in the 18th century, Prior Park survived remarkably intact as a small scale landscape garden.

Through mixed fortunes after Ralph Allen’s death in 1764 not much happened to obscure the original design, even though there were several changes in ownership and use.

Prior Park is now managed by the National Trust who acquired the garden in 1993 and set about restoring the landscape.