As I said last week, Ralph Allen owned and designed Prior Park with his friend, the poet, Alexander Pope, and undoubtedly the grotto was developed with Alexander’s influence due to its similarity to the one in Alexander’s property in Twickenham.
The development of Alexander’s own grotto took a lifetime. He gained permission to tunnel beneath the road in Twickenham, having built a Palladian Villa facing the river so that he might develop a garden on the far side. And here he built his best grotto, which was out of sheer fortune blessed by a spring which he describes in a letter in 1725,
‘I have put the last hand to my works…happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru’ the Cavern day and night. …When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture…And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.’
It was never finished, because of the eclectic nature of the grotto – he was constantly adding things to it.
It became a mixture of two 18th century gentlemanly pursuits, one to build and design and one to collect precious things.
So much so that Alexander changed the description of his grotto to a museum of mineralogy and mining as he filled it with precious stones from Cornwall, fossils, a stalagmite from Wookey Hole and stone from across the globe, including a section of basalt from the Giant’s Causeway,Ireland.
And as you can see from the links to the pictures of Prior Park’s Grotto above, Ralph Allen’s Grotto mimicked this, with its intact eclectic floor of ammonites, crushed bone and pebbles.
The Grotto at Prior Park was built about 1740 and was Lady Elizabeth Allen’s retreat.
Her beloved dog, a Great Dane named ‘Miss Bounce’, given to her by Alexander Pope in 1739, and named after Alexander’s own Great Dane, is buried beneath the floor. Her epitaph survives;
‘Weep not, Tread lightly my grave, Call me Pet.’
Prior Park’s grotto was described in 1836 by a student of the Seminary Prior Park had become;
‘the roof and sides of this sweet retreat presented to the eye such a dazzling assemblage shells, fossils, minerals etc as perfectly astonished us,… The floor was almost as beautiful as the roof, being composed of a curious kind of stone perforated and inlaid with pie cones, fragments of bone etc, arranged in tasteful forms and the whole place exhibiting such a profusion of ornament and such a combination of taste and skill as I had never before witnessed.’
And so to another of my secret fascinations – historic graffiti.
The best graffiti I have seen is in the Tower of London, and dates from the Tudor times of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, when men were locked away for months to years and had numerous hours to carve elaborate graffiti in the tower’s walls.
It inspires my imagination to picture the person seated or standing there carving it, and makes me wonder what their story was – what their history was.
I am sure that Prior Park’s transformation from a family home to a Seminary, and later a Roman Catholic public school, following Ralph Allen’s death in 1764, explains the graffiti at Prior Park, as it crudely defaces the Palladian Bridge.
Yet, despite the fact that it despoils the soft Bath stone façade it is still fascinating to think of the 19th century students, gossiping, laughing and misbehaving as they carved their marks.
Or perhaps they were alone, silent and contemplative as they carved their name to memory, as previously Pope must have once sat in the garden and silently crafted poetry. Images of the graffiti, spanning centuries.
For more information on Alexander Pope’s grotto see;
For information on the restoration of the grotto at Prior Park go to;
Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.
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