A half-day walk (2-3 hours, 4-5 miles) visiting Prior Park Landscape Garden on foot from the city centre, via footpaths offering a variety of natural scenery and some of the best views over Bath.
Map of walk (Ordnance Survey)
This walk starts and finishes at Bath’s railway station, though at the end I’ve added an alternative ending which heads through the Georgian streets to Pulteney Bridge. It heads uphill from Widcombe taking a shady footpath and brings you to the entrance of Prior Park Landscape Garden (paid admission, free to National Trust members). The route includes a visit to the gardens and then another short uphill through fields before joining a stretch of the National Trust’s Bath Skyline trail (in my opinion, the best stretch). After some of the finest views of the city, my circular walk then brings you back down into Bath and along a canalside path back to Widcombe.
The aim of the walk is to take you a scenic way to the gardens, and in the space of one short-ish walk from central Bath, give the walker a variety of landscapes and terrains to experience, as wall as a taste of the local history and a city panorama. If you’re on a short break, it could be a refreshing escape from the city streets into nature, all on foot and without covering too much distance.
The walk is an easy one, but does involve a relatively steep and prolonged uphill to reach Prior Park and another within the landscape garden itself. There are steps at several points in the walk. In winter, be prepared for part of the route to be wet, and there is some rough surface, so I’d recommend good walking shoes. Check that Prior Park Gardens are open – times vary during the year and it’s generally only opened at weekends in winter – and that you will arrive in time for last admission, usually an hour before closing (National Trust page). The only refreshment stop directly on the route is within the gardens, where there is a Tea Shed – again check the site’s website to see if this is open. Take water for the walk. In hot summer weather the uphill is easier thanks to being mostly in the shade.
Walk part 1: Bath Spa railway station – Widcombe – Pope’s Walk – Prior Park Landscape Garden
From the open square lined with restaurants alongside Bath’s railway station, head under the open railway arch (between a bike shop and Franco Manca). Once under the railway, head left to cross the pedestrian bridge across the river. This crossing of the Avon is called the Halfpenny (Ha’penny’) Bridge, as this was at one time the toll to cross it. It replaced an earlier bridge which collapsed when hundreds of people were crossing it to go to the Bath and West Show in 1877; 8 died. The bridge’s toll house (1862) is an interesting original feature. This stretch of river used to cause big flooding problems for Bath; even now the levels in the river can get very high at times, and the toll house is at risk; I’ve seen water halfway up one of its windows. Flood levels are marked on the building with dates.
Once across the bridge, turn left and walk a few yards to a pedestrian crossing, cross the road then walk up and around to the left to Widcombe Parade, a charming little high street of shops, cafés and pubs. At the far end, cross the road and turn up Prior Park Road, the first right.
After the first row of terraced cottages, take a short scenic detour starting up the steep cobbled lane on the right, Prior Park Cottages. After a few yards take the paved pedestrian route on your left, which continues above Prior Park Road between a terrace of fine Georgian buildings and a small stream. As you start along this picturesque walkway, look back to admire the unusual and charming Gothic-windowed cottage behind you, called ‘Good Hope’ – this view is one of my favourites in Widcombe.
At the end of this promenade, rejoin the pavement on Prior Park Road and continue up the road as it begins to climb and bend around. Ignore the first road on the right, and take the second, Perrymead, which turns off just before the entrance to Bath Abbey cemetery. As Bath was supposed to be a health resort, it was decided that burials should be discreetly away from the city centre to avoid discouragement for health tourists.
A bit more history: the building ahead on the other side of the road is one of the lodges of Ralph Allen’s house, Prior Park. The road up the hill is called Ralph Allen’s Drive. One of the most important figures of Bath history, Ralph Allen developed stone mines at the top of the hill in Combe Down. A trackway here brought the stone down into Bath to a riverside wharf, for transport and for construction of the Georgian city. He built his own mansion near the top of the hill, with its gardens and pleasure grounds extending over the hillside.
Walk up Perrymead, past some fine 18th and 19th-century villas, until you reach the LH turning up Pope’s Walk. This lies next to an arched gateway and lodge and climbs uphill past Bath’s Catholic Cemetery. From here the lane turns into a footpath, running through trees and between fields – visitors may be surprised to find real countryside and farmland surviving – for now – so close to the city centre. This path is an old route linking the hilltop village of Combe Down with the city, and it’s called Pope’s Walk after an association with the writer Alexander Pope, who visited Ralph Allen and advised him on his landscape gardens.
Continue uphill until you pass under a fabulous rustic bridge (more like a tunnel). This would have carried one of the ‘rides’ from Prior Park out through the pleasure grounds and surrounding estate. After this historic feature, take an alley on the left, with a fence one side and hedge the other, to emerge into a suburban street, Priory Close. Walk up the street and then turn to the left to head down onto Ralph Allen’s Drive. When you reach the main road, you can see the main entrance to Prior Park, Ralph Allen’s house, to the right. This is now a private school. The entrance to the National Trust gardens is a short way down the road from here, so cross with care and descend until you reach a stone gateway at the entrance to the gardens.
Walk part 2: Prior Park – Bath Skyline – Widcombe Hill – Bathwick Hill – Kennet and Avon Canal
This walking route takes you into Prior Park Landscape Garden, where you’re free to explore, then out of the gardens through a footpath exit on the opposite side by the summerhouse. Staff at the entrance should be able to give you any directions you need as you plan your tour around the gardens. Don’t miss the watercourse at the top of the slope, just below and beyond the ticket office, the cascade below it or the grotto above the entrance (if open). At the time of writing, restoration is taking place on the lakes and dams at the bottom of the valley, so parts of the grounds are not accessible (hopefully due to reopen by 2022).
For the purpose of this walk, though it’s not really important, I’d suggest starting a garden tour by contouring from just below the ticket office around the top of the slopes, with a fine view of Ralph Allen’s Palladian mansion above you, and a glorious view down across the sloping meadow to the ornamental lakes and famous Palladian bridge below. A businessman, Ralph Allen built the house in its conspicious position partly as an advertisement for the Bath stone from his quarries nearby.
Beyond the short ‘canal’, take a flight of steps down to the foot of the cascade. Depending on what parts of the garden are open, you could drop down to the lakes through a woodland path to the left, or down the central meadow (which has great views). After seeing the picturesque bridge, hidden ice house and the lakes at the bottom, it’s time to climb uphill again, taking the path on the far side of the meadow, if open, or up the meadow if the further slope is still closed. Head through a pretty woodland to the summerhouse.
Leaving the garden on the Priory Path, head through the meadow to a viewpoint with information boards detailing the sights you can see. From here, instead of following the path around and downhill, turn your back on the sign and climb uphill. This fainter path leads up across grassland to another panormaic spot near a dead fallen tree, and joins the NT’s Skyline Walk. Head through the gate to join a shady path contouring left beside the railings, with views downhill and across to the picturesque Rainbow Wood House.
Follow the path as it climbs up a flight of steps, and head left following Skyline Walk signs. Where the path splits at an open field, you can take either branch; they meet up at the far side of the field where the route heads through a narrow gateway. Keep to the left along a field edge beyond, then take a narrow path on the left, signposed as part of the Skyline Walk (from there the wayfinding should be easy, following the National Trust’s signs).
This path descends through trees to Widcombe Hill, where a row of enviable houses enjoys a fine view across fields and over the city. Cross the road. A short way down the hill, the footpath branches off down the fields, before looping down to the bottom of the valley by Smallcombe Farm and Smallcombe Cemetery. The footpath continues ahead, up the other side of the valley and emerges into one of the finest spaces around the city: open fields (sometimes grazed by cattle) with glorious views over Bath, the elegant houses of Bathwick Hill ahead, and seas of buttercups if you visit at the right time of year.
Paths popular with dog-walkers head in a number of directions across the fields; we follow the Skyline Walk through a couple of gateways onto a long sloping field, then abandon it, aiming instead for the bottom corner of the long meadow, keeping the Bathwick Hill houses and gardens on our right. Take the path/alleyway heading downhill, cross Sydney Gardens and continue straight downhill. You’ll find yourself on a footbridge crossing the Kennet and Avon Canal, near the top of the Widcombe flight of locks.
Once on the canal towpath, you have a choice. This walking route was designed as circular, so if you turn left you will complete the loop, following the canal into Widcombe. Where it joins the river Avon, turn left along a short stretch of pavement to return to the railway station via the Halfpenny Bridge.
As an alternative ending, if you turn right along the towpath you can follow the scenic canalside to Bathwick Hill, or continue to Sydney Gardens, the attractive park by the Holburne Museum. These canalside scenes are views of Bath that many visitors never see. Leaving the canal at Sydney Gardens you can walk back into central Bath along Great Pulteney Street and across Pulteney Bridge.
- OS Maps: Map of walk – if you are an OS Maps subscriber (highly recommended) you can see this walk in full detail, ideal for navigating. Non-subscribers can use the free version, with the options of a basic map or an aerial view, which I wouldn’t normally advise for wayfinding, but should be enough to give a good idea of this route; a fairly straightforward circuit.
- Google Maps version – again, I wouldn’t recommend Google Maps for country walks, as the relevant detail is lacking, though it’s great for towns. However it will help to give an idea of this particular walk.
What if Prior Park Landscape Garden is closed?
I’ve created this circular route for visitors to the National Trust garden. If the garden is closed, I’d suggest skipping the first half of the walk, and instead beginning up Widcombe Hill, head above Widcombe Crescent, and along Church Street then Church Lane, take a footpath on the left straight up the hillside aiming to the right of Rainbow Wood House, and join the Skyline Walk at the foot of the flight of steps on the panoramic path.
If you get to the garden entrance and find it closed, or you’re unable to use the footpath exit, you can still continue and complete the walk, but it requires some road walking. From the gates of the garden, follow Ralph Allen’s Drive uphill to the stone gateposts at the top of the hill, turn left along North Road and walk until you reach Rainbow Wood on the left. Head through the wood on the main, wide trail (second entrance on the left), turn left at the nearest edge of the playing field and join the Skyline Walk as it dips down to the viewpoint over Bath, then ascends the flight of steps.