25 years of garden restoration

When the National Trust started caring for Prior Park, not much was known about the garden. Many areas were overgrown, and views had closed in since Ralph Allen’s time. Archives suggested there were a number of features to re-discover, but it took painstaking work by a team of archaeologists to uncover the remains of the Grotto, the Gothic Temple site, the remains of the Serpentine Lake (reduced to just a small pool at this stage), and a broken cascade. The archaeologists pieced things together, in what were exciting times, as we slowly realised there was more to Prior Park than just a bridge and a view.

From 1993

There were lots of obvious projects to get stuck into in the early days; mainly at the lower end of the garden. The top lake was drained and cleared of silt. A silt trap was created to help maintain clear waters and the all important reflections and repairs were made to the dams and cascade

The Palladian Bridge was also in need of attention. Vegetation was cleared from around it, stone work repaired, and it was given a new roof of Cornish Slate – a nod to the Ralph Allen’s home county.

Railings were added around the Pasture, and the path network was established.


For the first three years there was no general public access to the garden, except by special guided tour. As a conservation charity, the National Trust is all about opening our special places for everyone, so it was important to get the garden ready to open to the public, and this happened in 1996.

Temporary structures were brought in – for Visitor Reception, and to cover and protect the Grotto. Some of these structures are still present in the garden today, as we continue our plans to restore the garden to its 1764 splendour, at the time of creator Ralph Allen’s death.


In 2000 a line of trees were planted to the right of the Palladian Bridge as you look down the garden. These trees are seen on a garden plan dated 1762 (Thorpe and Overton).


The Wilderness project involved restoring the Serpentine Lake, the Cascade and Cabinet, and lots of planting in this distinct area at the top of the garden. This was seen as something that could be tackled, with definite aims, and a process for achieving them.

An appeal was launched and a grant was received from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and preliminary work begun in late 2005. Trees were thinned out, and new paths created – the area is for exploring and discovery. Archaeologists worked on the historic line of the Serpentine Lake, and studied the original construction of the Cabinet to allow for an authentic restoration. There was a lot of work to do to create a sustainable route for the water that flows down from the Serpentine, to the Cascade, under the Cabinet, then ultimately down to the lakes at the lower end of the garden. The project was completed in 2007.

Planting is a constant theme in the work of the garden team; using historic plans to mirror the planted areas in Ralph Allen’s time, and always only using plants that were around in the UK in the mid 1700s. The addition of thousands of daffodil bulbs in the Summer House Glade has created the glorious spring displays that we enjoy year on year.

In recent years archaeologists have studied the remains at the Thatched Cottage site down alongside the lower lake. The remains are open for visitors to see, and we hope that this is a lost garden feature we can restore in the future.

The Grotto is another area where we have worked hard to protect the historic features, and also to improve the experience for visitors to the garden. In 2016 we worked with lighting company, Enlightened, to black out the old scaffold structure, and shine a light (literally!) on the historic Grotto archways. The beautiful mosaic floor was covered with sand to protect it, and a digital model of the garden, created by Bath University, was installed, to show visitors how the garden might have looked in Ralph Allen’s day.

Since the 1700s trees have self-seeded, and views closed in, so we are now undertaking a five year programme of tree felling, to open up those historic views. This work will run alongside the Dams Project – the next step in our conservation of this 18th-century landscape garden.