Prior Park

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Prior Park
Location Bath, Somerset, England
Coordinates 51°21′54″N 2°20′40″W / 51.36500°N 2.34444°W / 51.36500; -2.34444Coordinates: 51°21′54″N 2°20′40″W / 51.36500°N 2.34444°W / 51.36500; -2.34444
Built 1742
Built for Ralph Allen
Architect John Wood, the Elder
Architectural style(s) Palladian
Listed Building – Grade I
Official name: Prior Park (Now Prior Park College)
Designated 12 June 1950[1]
Reference no. 443306
Prior Park is located in Somerset
Prior Park
Location of Prior Park in Somerset

Prior Park is a Palladian house, designed by John Wood, the Elder in the 1730s and 1740s for Ralph Allen, on a hill overlooking Bath, Somerset, England. It has been designated as a Grade I listed building.[1]

The house was built to demonstrate the properties of Bath Stone as a building material. The design followed work by Andrea Palladio and was influenced by drawings originally made by Colen Campbell for Wanstead House in Essex. The main block had 15 bays and each of the wings 17 bays each. The surrounding parkland had been laid out in 1100 but following the purchase of the land by Allen 11.3 hectares (28 acres) were established as a landscape garden. Features in the garden include a Palladian Bridge which is also Grade I listed. [2]

Following Allen's death the estate passed down through his family. In 1828 it was purchased by Bishop Baines for use as a Roman Catholic College. The house was then extended and a chapel and gymnasium built by Henry Goodridge. The house is now used by Prior Park College and the surrounding parkland owned by the National Trust.



Prior Park, Bath and Ralph Allen's railway in 1750 from an engraving by Anthony Walker

Ralph Allen, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, was notable for his reforms to the British postal system. He moved in 1710 to Bath, where he became a post office clerk, and at the age of 19, in 1712, became the Postmaster of Bath.[3] In 1742 he was elected Mayor of Bath,[4] and was the Member of Parliament for Bath between 1757 and 1764.[5] The building in Lilliput Alley, now North Parade Passage in Bath, which he used as a post office became his Town House.[6]

He acquired the stone quarries at Combe Down and Bathampton Down Mines.[4] Hitherto, the quarry masons had always hewn stone roughly providing blocks of varying size. Wood required stone blocks to be cut with crisp clean edges for his distinctive classical façades.[7] The distinctive honey-coloured Bath Stone, used to build the Georgian city, made Allen a second fortune. Stone was extracted by the "room and pillar" method, by which chambers were mined, leaving pillars of stone to support the roof.[8] Allen built a railway line from his mine on Combe Down which carried the stone down the hill, now known as Ralph Allen Drive, which runs beside Prior Park, to a wharf he constructed at Bath Locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal to transport stone to London.[9]

Following a failed bid to supply stone to buildings in London, Allen wanted a building which would show off the properties of Bath Stone as a building material.[10] Bath Stone is an Oolitic Limestone comprising granular fragments of calcium carbonate laid down during the Jurassic Period (195 to 135 million years ago). An important feature of Bath Stone is that it is a freestone, that is one that can be sawn or 'squared up' in any direction, unlike other rocks such as slate, which forms distinct layers. It was extensively used in the Roman and Medieval periods on domestic, ecclesiastical and civil engineering projects such as bridges.[11]

John Wood, the Elder's planned layout for Prior Park

John Wood, the Elder was commissioned to build on the hill overlooking Bath, by Ralph Allen: "To see all Bath, and for all Bath to see"[4] John Wood, the Elder, was born in Bath. He is known for designing many of the streets and buildings of the city, such as The Circus (1754–68),[12] St John's Hospital,[13] (1727–28), Queen Square (1728–36), the North (1740) and South Parades (1743–48), The Royal Mineral Water Hospital (1738–42) and other notable houses, many of which are Grade I listed buildings. Queen Square was his first speculative development. Wood lived in a house on the square,[14] which was described by Nikolaus Pevsner as "one of the finest Palladian compositions in England before 1730".[15]

The plan for Prior Park was to construct five buildings along three sides of a dodecagon matching the sweep of the head of the valley, with the main building being flanked by elongated wings based on designs by Andrea Palladio. The plans were influenced by drawings originally made by Colen Campbell for Wanstead House in Essex.[9][16] The main block had 15 bays and each of the wings 17 bays each. Between each wing and the main block was a Porte-cochère for coaches to stop under.[9]

Construction work began in 1734 to Woods plan but disagreements between Wood and Allen led to his dismissal and his Clerk of Works, Richard Jones, replaced him and made some changes to the plans particularly for the east wing.[9][17] Jones also added the Palladian Bridge.[18]

Drawing from 1875 by W.Wills after Thomas Hearne incorrectly showing 13 bays in the main house

In addition to the stone from the local quarries, material, including the grand staircase and plasterwork, from the demolished Hunstrete House were used in the construction.[19][20]

Later use[edit]

Main article: Prior Park College

After Allen's death in 1764 William Warburton, Allen's relative, lived in the house for some time and it was passed down to other family members and then purchased by John Thomas, a Bristol Quaker.[10] After William Beckford sold Fonthill Abbey, in 1822, he was looking about for a suitable new seat, Prior Park was his first choice: ""They wanted too much for it," he recalled later; "I should have liked it very much; it possesses such great capability of being made a very beautiful spot."[21]

Peter Augustine Baines, a Benedictine, Titular Bishop of Siga and Vicar Apostolic of the Western District of England, was appointed to Bath in 1817. He purchased the mansion in 1828 for £22,000 and set to work to establish two colleges in either wing of the house, which he dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul respectively, the former being intended as a lay college, the latter as a seminary. The new college never became prosperous, however. Renovations were made according to designs by Henry Goodridge in 1834 including the addition of the staircase in front of the main building.[9][22] A gymnasium was also built in the 1830s including a courtyard for Fives,[23] and three barrel vaulted rooms on the first floor and a terrace roof.[24]

The seminary was closed in 1856 after a fire in 1836 that resulted in extensive damage and renovation and brought about financial insolvency. It was bought in 1867 by Bishop Clifford who founded a Roman Catholic Grammar School in the mansion.[10] The grammar school closed in 1904 and the site was occupied by the army during World War I and afterwards by a series of tenants until, in 1921, the Christian Brothers took it over, founding a boys' boarding school in 1924.

The main building (the Mansion) has been badly burnt twice. The 1836 fire left visible damage to some stonework.[25] The 1991 fire gutted the interior, except for parts of the basement.[26] Rebuilding took approximately three years. Unusually, the blaze started on the top floor, and spread downwards.

The site continues on in use as a School, Prior Park College, one of three schools owned by The Prior Foundation (the other two are Prior Park Preparatory School, in Cricklade, Wiltshire, and The Paragon School in Bath, located just down the hill from the main College in the vale of Lyncombe).


The house described by Pevsner [27] as “the most ambitious and most complete re-creation of Palladio's villas on English soil” was designed by John Wood the Elder, however, Wood and his patron, Allen, quarrelled and completion of the project was overseen by Richard Jones, the clerk-of-works.

The plan consists of a corps de logis flanked by two pavilions connected to the corps de logis by segmented single storey arcades. The northern façade (or garden façade) of the corps de logis is of 15 bays,[1] the central 5 bays carry a prostyle portico of six Corinthian columns. The southern façade is more sombre in its embellishment, but has at its centre, six ionic columns surmounted by a pediment. The terminating pavilions have been much altered from their original design by Wood; he originally envisaged two pavilions at each end of the range; an unusual composition which was ignored by Jones who terminated the range with a single pavilion as is the more conventional Palladian concept.[27]

The total length of the principal elevation is between 1,200 feet (370 m) and 1,300 feet (400 m) in length. Of that, the corps de logis occupies 150 feet (46 m).[28] The two storey building with attics and a basement is topped with a Westmorland slate roof.[1] The central flight of steps and urns, in Baroque style, which front the north portico were added by Goodridge in 1836.[1]


In the 1830s Goodridge put forward plans for a large cathedral to be built in the grounds. However this was never proceeded with and instead was replaced by a plan for a small chapel to be incorporated in the west wing of the mansion.[29] In 1844 Joseph John Scoles created the Church of St Paul which, along with the remainder of the west wing, is Grade I listed.[30]


The Palladian Bridge

The first park on the site was set out by John of Tours the Bishop of Bath and Wells around 1100, as part of a deer park, and subsequently sold to Humphrey Colles and then Matthew Colhurst.[10] It is set in a small steep valley, with views of the city of Bath. Prior Park's 11.3 hectares (28 acres) landscape garden was laid out by the poet Alexander Pope between the construction of the house and 1764. During 1737, at least 55,200 trees, mostly elm and Scots pine, were planted, along the sides and top of the valley. No trees were planted on the valley floor. Water was channeled into fish ponds at the bottom of the valley.[10]

Inside the Palladian Bridge

Later work, during the 1750s and 1760s, was undertaken by the landscape gardener Capability Brown.[31][32] This included extending the gardens to the north and removing the central cascade making the combe into a single sweep.[10] The garden was influential in defining the style of garden known as the English garden in continental Europe.[33]

The features in the gardens include a Palladian bridge (one of only 4 left in the world), Gothic temple, gravel cabinet, Mrs Allen's Grotto,[34] ice house,[35] lodge[36] and three pools with curtain walls[37] plus a serpentine lake. The Palladian bridge, which is a copy of the one at Wilton House,[9] has been designated as a Grade I listed building[38] and Scheduled Ancient Monument.[39][40] It was repaired in 1936.[41]

The rusticated stone piers on either side of the main entrance gates are surmounted by entablatures and large ornamental vases,[42] while those at the drive entrance have ornamental carved finials.[43] The porters Lodge was built along with the main house to designs by John Wood the Elder.[44]

In 1993 the park and pleasure grounds were acquired by the National Trust. In November 2006, the large-scale restoration project began on the cascade, serpentine lake and Gothic temple in the Wilderness area, this is now complete.[33] Extensive planting also took place in 2007. The Palladian Bridge is also featured on the cover of the album Morningrise by Swedish progressive metal band Opeth released in 1996.


  1. ^ a b c d e Historic England. "Prior Park College: The mansion with linked arcades) (1394453)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  2. ^ Historic England. "PALLADIAN BRIDGE IN GROUNDS OF PRIOR PARK (1394463)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  3. ^ Staff, Frank (1966). The Penny Post, 1680–1918, p. 57. London: Lutterworth Press
  4. ^ a b c "Ralph Allen Biography". Bath Postal Museum. Retrieved 21 August 2009. 
  5. ^ "Ralph Allen". The City of Bath. Retrieved 21 August 2009. 
  6. ^ "Ralph Allen's House, Terrace Walk, Bath". Images of England. Historic England. Retrieved 10 January 2009. 
  7. ^ Greenwood, Charles (1977). Famous houses of the West Country. Bath: Kingsmead Press. pp. 70–74. ISBN 978-0-901571-87-8. 
  8. ^ "Combe Down Stone Mines Land Stabilisation Project". BANES. Archived from the original on 17 January 2006. Retrieved 13 July 2006. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Durman pp91-94
  10. ^ a b c d e f "Prior Park, Bath, England". Parks and gardens UK. Parks and Gardens Data Services Ltd. Retrieved 9 June 2013. 
  11. ^ "Tales From The Riverbank". Minerva Conservation. 
  12. ^ "The Circus". Images of England. Historic England. Retrieved 19 July 2009. 
  13. ^ "St John's Hospital (including Chapel Court House)". Images of England. Historic England. Retrieved 25 July 2009. 
  14. ^ "Queen Square". UK attractions. Retrieved 10 January 2008. 
  15. ^ "Queen Square". Bath Net. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 10 January 2008. 
  16. ^ "Wanstead House". Lost and hidden villas. Royal Institute of British Architects. Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  17. ^ Varey pp112-117
  18. ^ Curl p.44
  19. ^ "Hunstrete Grand Mansion". Wessex Archeology. Videotext Communications Ltd. Retrieved 10 February 2009. 
  20. ^ "Combe Down, "Alice is a sexy sl*t" Was Here: Modern vs. Historical Graffiti". Bath Daily Photo. Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  21. ^ Quoted in Lewis Saul Benjamin, The Life and Letters of William Beckford of Fonthill, 1910:322; the choice of capability is unlikely to have been accidental.
  22. ^ Richardson p.65
  23. ^ "The Gymnasium to north of North Road". Images of England. Historic England. Retrieved 29 September 2011. 
  24. ^ "Monument No. 204217". Pastscape National Monument Record. Historic England. Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  25. ^ Colvin p.1143
  26. ^ Gillie, Oliver (6 April 1994). "Craftsmen restore country house to former glory: Sculptors use delicate skills to recreate rococo ceiling destroyed by fire". London: The Independent. Retrieved 7 April 2009. 
  27. ^ a b Pevsner, p114
  28. ^ Kilvert p.11
  29. ^ Goodridge
  30. ^ Historic England. "CHURCH OF ST PAUL, WITH WEST WING (1394459)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  31. ^ "Green Priorities for the National Trust at Prior Park". Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  32. ^ "Prior Park Landscape Garden". National Trust. Retrieved 7 April 2009. 
  33. ^ a b "Prior Park Landscape Garden". Minerva Stone Conservation. Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  34. ^ Historic England. "Grotto in grounds of Prior Park (1394467)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  35. ^ Historic England. "Ice-house in grounds of Prior Park (1394461)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  36. ^ Historic England. "Prior Park Lodge (1394608)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  37. ^ "Screen wall to pool below the West Pavilion and Church of St Paul". Images of England. Historic England. Retrieved 29 September 2011. 
  38. ^ Historic England. "Palladian Bridge in grounds of Prior Park (1394463)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  39. ^ "List of Scheduled Ancient Monuments". Bath and North East Somerset Council. Retrieved 1 October 2010. 
  40. ^ Historic England. "Palladian Bridge, Prior Park, Bath (1004514)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  41. ^ Borsay p.161
  42. ^ Historic England. "Gate Posts at entrance to Prior Park (1394605)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  43. ^ Historic England. "Gate Posts to Drive at Prior Park (1394606)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  44. ^ "Porters Lodge". Images of England. Historic England. Retrieved 29 September 2011. 


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