The grand Palladian mansion of Prior Park is one of the landmarks of Bath. Sitting on the green slopes to the south of the city, the house sits above picturesque landscaped grounds, still dotted with interesting historical features. These grounds, incorporating woodland walkways, lakes, a famous Palladian bridge and excellent views of Bath, are open to the public and cared for by the National Trust.
The gardens make a pleasant outing from the centre of town, are interesting for students of garden history, and also lie conveniently close to the National Trust’s Skyline Walk, a ramble above the town. I’ve also written directions for a scenic circular walk from the railway station which visits the gardens (more below).
The garden’s history is tied up with the history of Bath. Ralph Allen was an important local figure in the eighteenth century; a businessman and notable philanthropist, reputed to be the inspiration for Squire Allworthy in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Among his business interests were the stone mines from which the honey-coloured local limestone was extracted. To demonstrate how effectively the Bath stone could be used, Allen built this splendid show-mansion on a hillside overlooking Bath. The gardens of his house were landscaped in a fashionable ‘natural’ style, with advice from two other eighteenth-century luminaries: Alexander Pope and Capability Brown. The most famous feature of the garden is its rare Palladian bridge.
Don’t expect flowerbeds at Prior Park; this garden is all landscape, architecture and wildlife. At the centre of the garden is a shallow green valley, where cows (and occasionally wild deer) graze. The grassy slope drops from the house towards a series of small lakes and a Palladian bridge at the foot of the grounds. The path which circles the gardens winds around the wooded slopes on either side of the valley. Various follies and architectural features have been uncovered during the work to restore the garden, including a grotto and ice-house. The restoration work on the gardens is ongoing, and there is almost always something new to see.
The gardens are open daily in summer months, but have more limited opening in winter – it is always a good idea to check up-to-date opening details before you travel. There are steep slopes, so wear sensible shoes. Note that the house is a school and isn’t open to the public; the entrance to the landscape gardens is on Ralph Allen Drive, downhill from the Prior Park School entrance. The garden is a good starting point for joining the 6-mile Bath Skyline Walk (a leaflet can be picked up at the visitor desk). The National Trust organises a calendar of special events at the gardens – see their website for the latest programe.
How to get to Prior Park Garden
There is no parking at or near Prior Park, and the National Trust are keen to encourage green modes of travel. It is possible to walk to the gardens from the centre of Bath – through Widcombe and straight up Prior Park Road and Ralph Allen’s Drive (see my alternative route below). The walk takes 20-30 minutes, and the hill is steep, so visitors may prefer to use the public bus service. Bus number 2 to Combe Down/Mulberry Park departs from Bath bus station in Dorchester Street (the stop is near the railway station), and stops at the entrance to the gardens. Buses are generally every 20 minutes and the journey takes less than 10 minutes. Ask the driver or a fellow-passenger where to alight. The open top bus company City Sightseeing run a ‘Bath Skyline’ route which stops at the gardens.
If you fancy a longer, more scenic walk to Prior Park Landscape Garden and beyond, returning into Bath via a stretch of the National Trust’s Skyline Trail with superb city views, see my walk directions: Prior Park & Skyline variant walk.