Bath’s Sydney Gardens is currently dotted with official B&NES signs giving notice of plans to inject £250,000 into this old public park and asking those who enjoy using it for their views on ways it could be rejuvenated.
You have until March 6th to pass on your comments and suggestions – but more about that later.
On the council website this elongated hexagonal of land is correctly identified as the oldest park in the city but it wasn’t planned as being somewhere for the general public to go!
From the start this was a private commercial venture – opened in 1795 – as a pleasure ground.
It was a profit-making enterprise designed for adult society and entertainment with a character quite different from the more formal, flower-bedded and free-to-enter Victorian parks to come.
According to Michael Forsyth – in the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Bath – the Gardens or Vauxhall – to give the venture its proper name – was funded by shares of £100 and you had to pay a fee to get in and enjoy the facilities.
The New Bath Guide for 1801 described ‘waterfalls, stone and thatched pavilions, alcoves, a sham castle, bowling greens, swings, a labyrinth, a fine Merlin swing, a grotto of antique appearance, and four thatched umbrellas as a shelter for the rains.’
It was a lot to cram onto a modest site – and all surrounded by a drive for carriages and individually mounted horses to ride upon.
A novel entertainment for the well-to-do in the middle of a vast Georgian development. These were the former virgin acres of the Bathwick estate that could now be easily reached across the newly built Pulteney Bridge.
It was a Bath ‘New Town’ that would spread out from a fine terraced avenue of houses named after the estate’s developer Sir William Johnstone Pulteney.
Great Pulteney Street lead down to Sydney House – which formed it’s closure at the eastern end. However the building – now the Holburne Museum – was also the entrance to the pleasure gardens beyond.
Thomas Baldwin – architect of Great Pulteney Street – initially designed Sydney House and Gardens in 1794, but in the end it was his pupil Charles Harcourt Masters who did the work and to a modified design.
The house offered coffee, tea and card rooms for those using the Gardens and with a ballroom on the first floor.
On the side facing the Gardens was a conservatory, orchestra stand and even – on the ground floor – a transparency. A picture painted on thin linen so that it glowed against the light.
There was also a public house in the basement – called the Sydney Tap – for chairmen, coachmen and other servants who were not allowed into the Gardens.
Events within these sylvan acres included public breakfasts and dinners – in open wooden supper boxes that jutted out in curved wings either side of the house.
There were evening promenades, gala nights with fireworks and illuminations and all accompanied by music.
All of this on offer in Gardens that were also planned to be enclosed by fine terraces of houses – that would all share a fine view of the pleasure gardens – and then the development would continue beyond.
Only two sides were completed. Bankruptcy and the French Revolution punctured this property balloon – so what remains is just a vision of what might have been.
The coming of the Kennet and Avon Canal – and then the Great Western Railway – produced further modification and disruption to the pleasure gardens layout – as both were to cut their way through its grounds.
As it was the canal – once built – was heralded as an additional ‘attraction’ while Brunel ‘landscaped’ his rail route through the Gardens – providing a visual theatre in which people could cheer his amazing trains as they sped – belching smoke and hissing steam – across this garden of delights.
Today the canal has been revitalised and the rail link to London is about to be electrified which will in itself involve some modification of the section through Sydney Gardens to address health and safety issues.
They will be digging a trench to keep people away from the line but not adversely affect the view.
Elsewhere the original features have all but disappeared but the central axis – which does continue the line of Great Pulteney Street – and some interesting garden structures of later dates do remain.
B&NES had applied for Heritage Lottery funding but failed in the attempt. At one time a joint application was to go in from both the Holburne Museum and the Council but – for various – reasons only the Holburne’s proposal for an extension was submitted.
It was successful and – for some – a controversial but award-winning glass and ceramic 11.2 million pound extension was added to the Holburne which re-opened in May 2011 after building work was completed.
The Museum building had lost its direct link with the Gardens after it became a college and its grounds were fenced.
It’s a well-known fact that – after adding an extension which turned the attention of visitors back to what lay outside – the Holburne would like to see a more direct link with the Gardens recreated. Some sort of balanced opening out into what lies beyond its rear boundaries.
No doubt B&NES will be aware of their feelings. Meanwhile they have called in a company called Place Studios Limited of Bristol to help them plan a course of action in Sydney Gardens.
On their website Place say: ‘We are qualified urban designers who enjoy working with stakeholders and communities. We are experienced in helping to shape places, streets and green spaces within the country’s most diverse and sensitive environments, notably Bristol, Bath and London.’
I spotted them out in the Gardens with council officials and other interested parties taking a walk around. It’s part of a process B&NES is undertaking before deciding on a plan of action. On the Council website it says:
‘In recent years the Council has been working with the local community to develop a long-term plan for improving Sydney Gardens. Recent surveys have identified that some of the listed historic structures and public amenities are in need of attention; and that there are concerns about anti-social behaviour in the Gardens, and the Council has recently allocated £250,000 to help address these issues.
The Council has commissioned Place Studio to help: working with a project Steering Group that includes representatives of local residents’ groups (including The Friends of Sydney Gardens) to identify practical work that needs to happen now to help conserve the gardens and then to work with stakeholders to agree ongoing future improvements.’
According to Councillor David Dixon- who is Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods:
‘Sydney Gardens is one of Bath’s most historic public parks, much-loved by its local community, but in desperate need of careful rejuvenation. Bath & North East Somerset Council’s injection of £250,000 this year will kick-start a collaboration between the community and the Council, restoring the landscape, improving accessibility and enabling it to become an even better focus of the community life for future generations.’
B&NES lists its priorities for people to consider.
The Project Steering Group has identified a number of priorities for investment in the short-term, and we want to hear your views about these and/or any other priorities which you feel need addressing in the Gardens.
Priorities identified to date include:
• Reveal the canal.
• Open up views.
• More/better benches.
• Places for wildlife.
• Heritage interpretation
• Signs to and around the gardens.
• Improve the entrances.
• Connect paths & remove dead ends.
• Trim overgrown bushes/shrubs.
• Provide natural play opportunities for children.
• Improve the tennis courts.
• Outdoor gym/trail.
• Walking/jogging routes.
• More cycle parking.
It asks people who have suggestions for other improvements to send any comments by 6th March to: email@example.com
Alternatively, you can write your comments down and drop them in to the Council’s One-Stop-Shop in Manvers Street in an envelope clearly marked ‘Sydney Gardens’.
The Virtual Museum has something to say on the subject. Clearly the Gardens cannot be restored to its original layout. Too much has changed – physically and socially – but it would be nice if its heritage could be better acknowledged. It is after all the last remaining portion of a former Georgian pleasure garden existing in this country!
Orignal planting was often done on such a confined space to hide attractions from one another. So that you came across each one as an element of surprise – although they were close to each other. At one time the whole gardens looked like a densely packed wood!
The Virtual Museum agrees that some views – like the canal – could be opened up. The restoration of a clear line between the Holburne and what remains of the Loggia at the top would also be welcomed.
B&NES talks about places for wildlife and the VM is not sure what they mean by this. As things stand the place is teeming with it and any reduction of flora would reduce habitat for what is there.
The park needs better seating. Could people not sponsor it? Already seats are providing as memorials to loved ones. Once upon a time there was wooden seating wrapped around mature trees. Could not that be done again?
Recreational activities do need to be addressed and certainly the bottom tennis court could do with a make-over.
The public loos have been overhauled but there are older listed loos to consider?
Get rid of the tarmac paths and – most important of all – bring the Gardens back into night use with proper lighting. I am sure l heard there were plans to have solar lights sunk into the ground?
Maybe a limited archaeological dig could identify some sites of past structure so some sort of reconstruction could be attempted?
Network Rail’s intervention in the area this year – as part of their electrification scheme – should be tied into the Council’s plans.
Maybe the company might help out in other ways!
B&NES say: ‘Once we have received suggestions, a plan of action will be agreed by the project Steering Group and the Council.
We will then update on progress and – at a later date – provide an opportunity for residents and other stakeholders to get involved in developing the longer term plan.’
The Council website for you to look at is: www.bathnes.gov.uk/…/sydney-gardens