The site of Hedgemead Park was covered by houses in the nineteenth century, and still would be, but for a minor natural disaster. The park is laid out on a narrow sliver of land which slopes steeply, with London Road running along the bottom to the south-east, and Camden Crescent curving above on the high north-western side. The ambitiously sited Camden Crescent with its unparalleled views over Bath and the surrounding countryside had been designed by John Eveleigh in 1788, as a crescent of twenty-two houses with two flanking wings of five houses each. But while it was being built a series of landslips occurred on Beacon Hill, with the result that the eastern side of the Crescent was left incomplete, giving it an oddly truncated effect.
The geological make-up of the area was unstable shale and clay substrata, and its instability was exacerbated by poor drainage, but in spite of this, two hundred and seventy-one houses were built in the mid-1880s on the steeply sloping hillside known as Edgemead, below Camden Crescent. The inevitable result in 1865 was another series of landslips, culminating in the worst, which either destroyed or damaged one hundred and thirty-five houses in June of 1881. Subsequently, in a meeting held in Guinea Lane School in 1883 it was deemed prudent for the Corporation to acquire the site, and plant it with trees and shrubs. In this way Bath acquired another public park in an otherwise densely developed area of the city, on a site whose geological make-up necessitated an ingenious layout of terracing and buttressing walls. The resultant Hedgemead Pleasure Ground was opened in 1889.
Hedgemead Park: a perambulation
The park has altered little since then, and still retains its boundary railings of cast iron, with taller, grander railings on the London Road frontage and gracious cast iron gates at the London Road and Lansdown Road entrances, and more utilitarian railings running along its less visible north-western side. A pathway which predates the creation of the park was probably a route from the River Avon upward to the Camden Crescent area. This sunken passageway, separated from the park by railings, divides the park into two sections – the smaller northern section entered by the London Road gates, and the southern part, entered by the Lansdown Road gates, that contains a number of original features.
Hedgemead Park is planted with mature trees: a mixture of coniferous and deciduous specimens, including yew, horse chestnut, holly, Scots pine, willow, birch and spruce, interlinked by banks of nineteenth century type mixed shrubberies, in which laurel predominates. In addition to this planting which would have served a practical purpose in anchoring the soil, the park’s nineteenth century designers created a series of terraces or steps linked by paths which double back as they climb, with the higher terraces buttressed by stone walls. The park has large areas of grass, above the terraced paths down to the road, resulting in a sense of openness. The boundary planting is laurel. Some of these walls are composed of stone which is neatly cut and dressed rather than rough rubble, and which may have been salvaged from the ruined fabric of the nineteenth century houses, known as Somerset Buildings, which briefly stood on the site.
In the southern section the octagonal bandstand (grade 2 listed) and the cast iron drinking fountain are original features which have been installed in the park at an early stage. The drinking fountain is a particularly exuberant example of High Victorian municipal design, with four scallop-shell basins on a pedestal of four lion monopodia, the cast iron body with a design of lily-pads and marsh marigolds; the whole painted dark green and topped with the figure of an eagle, poised for flight.
Drinking fountains were a common feature in Victorian parks at a time when mains water was still a luxury, and philanthropic temperance societies such as the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association often paid for their installation. Hedgemead Park’s fountain is no longer in working order, but the metal brackets which project from its central column must once have had cups attached to long chains, in which water could be scooped up.
Close to the park’s southern tip, an octagonal gazebo, painted green, once offered shelter and a curving seat, but is now cordoned off while the approach path leading to the Landsdown Gate is flanked by chunks of porous limestone rock, similar in appearance to the volcanic tufa rock from which many eighteenth-century grottoes were constructed.
Hedgemead Park’s most dramatic feature is the huge bastion wall which buttresses the southern section of the slope at its steepest point, with a castellated, neo-Norman turret on the parapet above, and three arched buttresses providing additional support at the base. The massive rusticated blocks of stone from which this wall is constructed and the trailing foliage which has taken root between them resemble an etching by Piranesi, but the arrow slits in the look-out tower above are blind. Sadly the view from the tower, now partly obscured by trees, onto the roadway of The Paragon below, is completely without drama.
Maintaining the Park: The Friends of Hedgemead group was set up in 2017 in order to ensure that the park continues to be cared for and maintained as a well-equipped, safe and attractive green space for everyone to enjoy.