An Early Visit to Bath’s City Centre Sydney Gardens
22 October 2017
Sydney Gardens were laid out as commercial pleasure grounds between the years of 1792 and 1794. They were built on land leased from the local Pulteney family and opened on 11 May 1795 as the Sydney Gardens Vauxhall. At that time they weren’t free to explore though. Sydney Gardens were one of the first commercial gardens opened in England, but you did get a lot for your entry fee as they weren’t just a place for plants and flowers. They were a popular place for entertainment too.
As well as beautiful floral displays, some of the other things the gardens had to offer were regular public breakfasts, promenades, concerts, fireworks on the King’s birthday and gala nights. Jane Austen, who first visited Bath in 1797 but whose first permanent residence in Bath was at 4 Sydney Place in 1801, thought highly of Sydney Gardens and attended a gala held at Sydney Gardens on 18 June 1799. She also delighted in the thought of walking every day in the Labyrinth, unfortunately not a feature which can still be seen.
In addition to the Labyrinth and the walled pleasure grounds, the gardens had were a carriage drive, bowling greens laid out on either side of a central walk, an ornamental folly, grotto, sham castle, and at one time some adult swings. The 12-metre high Minerva’s Temple which is still a draw to the gardens to this day is not to be confused for the grotto or sham castle, and was not an original feature however. It was originally built in 1911 for the Festival of Empire at The Crystal Palace. It was only after this that it moved to Bath.
The main building was the Tavern, also known as Sydney House, which later became Sydney Hotel and became the home of the Holburne Museum in 1916. The house stood at the west end of the central walk and contained tea and card rooms, a ballroom, a coffee room, and a public house known as the Bath Tap, which the servants, carriage men and sedan chair bearers could relax in while their wealthy patrons enjoyed the gardens.
In 1799 a section of the Kennet and Avon Canal, adorned with ornamental bridges and tunnels, was laid through Sydney Gardens and added to the 'Picturesque Beauties' for which the gardens were known. More additions came in later years; a cascade in 1810, an Aviary in 1824, and a Cosmorama also in 1824. This was a great novelty which saw pictures of distant lands and a variety of dramatic scenes lit and then seen through convex glass windows so as to appear life-size.
In 1839 a section of railway also came to the gardens, although it’s all that noticeable unless you’re looking for it. The railway traverses the gardens across the centre but the two halves of the gardens are still connected by foot and road bridges, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and built in 1840.