Goldney Garden in Bristol is a bit different. It’s not a grand private estate or National Trust property. The land is owned by the University of Bristol and is the site of a student hall of residence. It is not permanently open to the public. I was recently lucky to attend a garden tour there. Our Blue Badge Tourist Guide was a knowledgeable graduate of the university’s former MA in Garden History. The garden is particularly renowned for its Grade I Listed grotto, but also offers many of the features of much larger 18th-century gardens.
Our guide unlocked the black door in the wall running along Bristol’s steep Constitution Hill and our tour group stepped into what felt like a secret garden. We found ourselves inside a walled kitchen garden dominated by a large Acer and the end of the Orangerie. We learned that the garden had been created by Quaker Thomas Goldney III (1696-1768). It grew organically up to 16 acres. Today, the garden totals 10 acres, as the land near the river was sold.
We walked into an orchard from the kitchen garden. Apples and pears were ripening on the trees there, including some that were fan-trained on the walls. Thomas Goldney III was enthusiastic about growing fruit. The university still has his written records. They highlight how long tasks took his gardener, Adam Sixsmith, in an age that did not have the benefit of today’s labour-saving machinery.
Sherlock Holmes Connection
The pool known as a canal was already 50 years behind its time when it was built. Such a construction harked back to the time of William and Mary. It was filled with water lilies during our visit. Behind stands the Orangerie. Today, it is used for weddings, receptions and the occasional film set. Apparently, it was used for Dr Watson’s marriage in an episode of the Sherlock Holmes TV series.
The Grand Terrace came as a surprise. The scale was astonishing given the size of what we had seen of the garden up until that point. In Goldney’s day, the terrace would have commanded views of South Bristol before any construction, down to the river and across to the Ashton Court Estate. Unfortunately, the planted trees have now grown up and obscured the view. My imagination and familiarity with my home city of Bristol filled in the blanks as I tried to peer between the trees.
Grotto in Hiding?
By this time, it was natural to start wondering where the famous grotto was. Visitors to the garden often mistake the tower above for a folly. The tower was required to make the grotto’s cascade function. Evidently, we were close. Spider-web grills in the grass revealed that the grotto was underneath us. We saw the domes of the grotto’s skylights and walked around to the other side. The entrance was certainly well hidden by trees down some steps. It was important to realise that they would only have had candlelight to light up the inside of the grotto. Our guide lit up the grotto’s cave-like features for us with portable lamps.
The grotto was worth the big build-up. It really is an impressive and unique construction within an urban garden of this size. The grotto has three chambers. Visitors notice the lions first. The columns sparkle with Bristol diamonds, iron-rich quartz found locally in Bristol and in the Mendips. There were complaints that Goldney had used up all the Bristol diamonds in his grotto. The construction took some 27 years to complete and includes over 200 species of shells, as well as a few ammonites and pieces of coral. Some 200,000 English shells were used, in addition to many from the West Indies and West Africa. It was difficult to take photographs to give the full impression of this underground experience, but I tried nonetheless:
© Karen Andrews
Mako, Marion (2013): The University of Bristol Historic Gardens. 2nd Edition. July 2013. University of Bristol.
Symes, Michael (2006): A Glossary of Garden History. Shire Publications. Princes Risborough, UK.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.