Development of the garden at Prior Park

When you walk around Prior Park, the landscape you see today is very different to how it has been in the past.

The landscape has developed and changed over the years to suit the changing tastes of its owners and the times.

To begin with, the garden was very formal and without its iconic Palladian Bridge.

Tastes soon changed and the garden’s formality was swept away to make way for the design you see today.

We began restoring the garden in 1993, and it’s still very much work in progress - in 2006 a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund allowed us to restore the Serpentine Lake, and we hope to rebuild the Gothic Temple in the future.

    1734 1744

    View of railway transporting stone beside Prior Park

    Ralph Allen began work on the garden before his mansion at Prior Park was even finished.

    The style of the garden was much more formal than the one we see today, and only extended halfway down the valley.

    Alexander Pope, an influential poet and garden designer, visited regularly. He encouraged the building of the grotto and the Serpentine Lake in the Wilderness area of the garden, which took on a discrete character from the start.

    This part of the garden's history is beautifully illustrated on the Walker engraving of 1752, which also shows the railway transporting stone and curious visitors surveying the scene.

    1744 1760

    The Palladian Bridge at Prior Park

    The formal feel of the garden began to soften and emphasis shifted down the valley when the Palladian Bridge was built in 1755.

    There was a system of ponds at the bottom of the valley, which would have been an important feature of the site's original priory.

    Landscaping work enlarged the water area into the three lakes you see today, which are linked by a series of dams.

    The Palladian Bridge was built between the top and middle lakes. It was the third, and the last, of a series built in England at the time, the others being at Stowe and Wilton.

    Developments continued in the Wilderness with the Gothic Temple being built around 1754.

    1760 1764

    Thorpe and Overton plan of Prior Park

    There's evidence that Ralph Allen employed 'Capability' Brown at this time. He was working on other nearby estates such as Longleat and Bowood.

    The full extent of his input isn't certain, but the garden continued to develop a more natural feel.

    Woodland margins were broken up into flowing lines. All traces of the earlier formal style were swept away, including a short-lived cascade down the middle of the valley.

    A plan from this time (Thorpe and Overton, 1762) shows a simple layout for the garden, remarkably similar to its appearance today. There are more trees now, but the scene down the valley is quite unchanged, though the city beyond looks very different.

    Under our care

    Prior Park in 1993 when the National Trust acquired the garden

    After Ralph Allen’s death in 1764 the estate changed hands several times, as he had no heir.

    The garden went into a long decline, with trees seeding themselves and paths becoming overgrown.

    This was the situation in 1993 when we acquired 26 acres of garden below the mansion.

    Archaeologists got to work and uncovered much of the story of the garden, finding original features and piecing together how it developed.

    Armed with this knowledge, a team of volunteers embarked on a programme of work, which continues to this day. We cut back undergrowth, laid a new circuit path and put railings around the central pasture.

    Contractors carried out extensive repairs to the bridge and the dam on the bottom lake. The garden opened to the public in 1996.

    In 2002 we reinstated the Serpentine Lake and the cascade, and replanted the wilderness.

    Our future projects include building a replica Gothic Temple and putting a new roof on the grotto.