Geology, Bath stone, and Prior Park landscape design #priorpark

When exploring new areas, geology is often the one discipline that expresses how a community was developed over time. The availability of materials and the shape and texture of the land largely informs and dictates what occupations can be successful in harnessing the landscape for resources. It also informs how we can build structures in our locale. While recently exploring Greenfield, MA in the Pioneer Valley, i was intrigued by the use of reddish rocks in masonry projects for home foundations, chimneys, and walls. I learned that these rocks are called Sugarloaf arkose, and are typically found when sediments from nearby mountains are aggressively eroded. In this case, the occurrence is called Jurassic alluvial fans. The general idea of local geology shaping architecture is nothing new, but made me think of perhaps the most handsome example of this concept. And that is the honey-colored Bath stone that adorns its namesake city in Somerset, England. I had the pleasure of exploring the city about eight years ago, and this will be the first post of many covering the many National Trust properties in the UK that i visited around 2010.

I visited Prior Park in May 2010, and was initially intrigued about this National Trust property for its connection to Capability Brown. I’m a huge fan of naturalistic landscapes and harnessing the power of native ecology to enhance and beautify the land to activate place making and a sense of place. Brown helped to popularize a movement in England in the 18th century that rejected highly formalized gardens and instead celebrated the landscapes by simply improving upon them with naturalistic enhancements such as serpentine lakes, large greenswards, and choice placements of trees.

However, he was not the first to shape the land of the Prior Park property. The site was initially laid out by John of Tours the Bishop of Bath and Wells around 1100 to form a deer park. The small, 28 acre valley with excellent views looking down toward the Bath skyline was then transformed into a landscape garden by the poet and designer Alexander Pope while the house was being constructed around 1764. Pope prescribed the planting of at least 55,200 trees such as Scots pine and elm along the valley’s hillside and above, leaving the valley an open meadow of low growing grasses.

Capability Brown made his mark in the 1760’s, which included an extension of the gardens to the north and creating a more centralized green in the valley.  Going forward, the property was seen as an excellent model of the new English garden style, and was emulated by many other landscape designers. Key features include the Palladian Bridge [a copy of the one seen at Wilton House], which is one of only 4 left in the world, a Gothic temple, grotto, several outbuildings, and a serpentine lake.

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The Prior Park Palladian house was designed by John Wood, and built between 1730-1750 for Ralph Allen on the top of the valley to capitalize on the city views below. If you’ve ever visited the city of Bath, you’ll learn about Bath stone and how ubiquitous the material is as a building material in the city. The honey-colored limestone is very handsome and dominates the city facades. What i found interesting is that Prior Park was built to demonstrate the properties of Bath stone as a building material. We can also call Prior Park a Palladian house for its nod to the work of Andrea Palladio.

I spent half the day wondering the park, admiring the views of Bath, and inspecting the large scale planting efforts that began a few years earlier. It was amazing to be wandering the site knowing that many designers before used utilized this landscape as a precedent on rejecting ostentatious, formalized gardens that would go in and out of fashion for the next hundred years.

Check out my full album of site photos here. Thanks for listening!


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