Clifton’s Communal Gardens

The 30 or so communal gardens in Clifton are a very special feature of 19th-century urban design.

The original idea was to provide all residents of a particular terrace or square with a garden area which was for their private use. The garden would be railed, and the residents provided with a key. The community as a whole would be responsible for the upkeep. This worked well when labour was cheap, and each house was owned by an individual family. But the sub-division of properties into flats, and the lack of any very formal legal structure to the arrangements, as well as the removal of railings in 1940, and the legal complexity of multiple ownership of potentially valuable urban sites has led to a complex situation today. Visually the communal gardens are a vital part of the glory of Clifton, and the setting for the terraces.

The maintenance of Victoria Square, The Mall Gardens, Canynge Square, Victoria Park and Park Place has been passed over to Bristol City Council, which means that they are now open to the public.

A. Communal gardens open to the public that are owned by Bristol City Council.

  1. Victoria Square. ca 1840. Originally private but now a much valued central public park. Several of the original plantings survive including a fine Lebanon Cedar, a Fern-leaved and a Common Beech, and an unusual Hornbeam which is a chimera, as it has tissue of both Common and Cut-leaf Hornbeam. There are at least 25 tree species, including some very unusual oaks planted to replace Beeches that had to be felled and one of only two Italian Maples, as well as an old, horizontal, Black Mulberry. A clearance and replanting was undertaken in 2015. It is called Victoria Square because high in the centre of the terrace on the north side is the royal coat of arms. The terrace is built to resemble a palace and it was hoped that Queen Victoria would come and stay there. She never did. When there were railings all round the garden and down the central path, in order that the children could play together in either garden there was a tunnel for them to go through. This was filled in during the 1970s but almost at the south east end of the path if one looks over the low wall the top of the arches can still be seen.

  2. The Mall Gardens ca 1840 Public. Well maintained by the council with a residents garden committee. The main gardens have 28 specimen trees of 14 species and there are small trees of 11 other species. The central section was originally planted with Holm Oaks, seven of which survive, and most are in need of management, and some the Council believe to be dangerous. The western section has two parts, an open public one, and a fenced private one, belonging to the flats. In this there are 11 specimens of five species, of which the most important is a huge Lucombe Oak, probably dating to 1850, and probably the largest in the city.

  3. Canynge Square. ca 1860. Open to the public and maintained by the Council and by the residents garden committee. It has six specimen trees, of six species, including a Turkish Hazel.

  4. Arlington Gardens. ca 1890. This garden is maintained by local volunteers. It has tall Sycamores on the road side and Limes across the grass. Tree maintenance has been done by the volunteers but more is needed.

  5. Park Place. ca 1830. Rather a scruffy triangle of lawn maintained by the council and dominated by a single huge Beech that is about 130 years old.

  6. Buckingham Place. Ca 1830. A fairly narrow strip of grass with a few young trees and imposing gateposts to the road between the terrace and the grass. Probably ornamental rather than recreational.

B. Private gardens but easily visible

  1. Royal York Crescent Gardens. ca 1820. Private and well-maintained with 25 specimen trees of 15 species, a young Giant Redwood, and two Limes.

  2. Saville Place ca 1780. An oval lawn with specimens of seven species, including two very large Macrocarpa, and a very fine Tai Haiku Cherry, a Chestnut and a Common Lime that may go back to 1840.

  3. Worcester Crescent, ca 1870. Private, but can be seen through the gate by the public. A small area well maintained by the residents, which has five small trees, a winter flowering cherry, a Cherry, a Magnolia, a Holly, and a low bushy Holm Oak.

  4. The Avenue. Dating from the 1880s this is a strip of lawn either side of the road with an avenue of nine pairs of alternating Chestnuts and Limes dating from 1880. Of the original trees, there are now 17 limes and just 8 Chestnuts, though there are replacements for most, though not all, of the old trees that have gone. Council maintained. An interesting historical step between the formal private garden or square and street trees.

  5. Hope Square ca 1770 Public. A small triangular lawn with four young specimen trees on it, of four species, which has recently been rather over-tidied.

  6. Eaton Crescent Garden. ca 1880. A narrow crescent, now very shaded because of the growth of five Lime trees on its western edge, dating c 1960, an older Ash at its north corner and four Sycamores on its eastern boundary, probably self sown in wartime.

  7. Camden Terrace. ca 1850. At the south east end of Clifton Vale is probably the smallest communal garden in the area. More of a screen than a garden.

  8. The Polygon. ca 1820. Unusual in that the terrace of houses have small, low-walled front gardens which are separated from the half-moon shaped communal garden by a path.

  9. York Place. This looks as if it is part of the garden of Manor Hall and is looked after by Bristol University. However there is a gate in the centre of the railings and it was a communal garden for the houses across the road. The Horse Chestnut is the oldest and finest in the city.

  10. Oakfield Road/South Parade. Ca 1850. This has some fine Beech trees and has retained its railings. It is a good screen for the terrace from Oakfield Road, but large enough to have also been recreational.

C. Private communal gardens that are a key design feature of the conservation area.

  1. Worcester Terrace Garden. ca 1855. A large, shady garden maintained by the residents, with a thick evergreen outer hedge in which stand all the trees. The important trees are a Cedar of Lebanon, a triple trunk Yew, a Holm Oak, two large Macrocarpa, two Bhutan pine of ca 1880 and a Deodar of ca 1960.

  2. Vyvyan Terrace Garden ca 1850. A large well maintained private garden, with specimens of 13 species including a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon and a Weeping Silver Lime, both dating back to 1840, the latter now the finest of its kind in Bristol. There is a Lucombe Oak, a Chestnut of ca 1860 and a Lime of the same date.

  3. The Paragon, N and S. ca 1810. Well maintained by the residents. The Northern garden is a small circular lawn on made-up ground, which has two huge Macrocarpa, probably from the 1900s, a Lucombe Oak and a Lime from 1850. The southern garden, on a very steep slope, has two old Bhutan Pines and a Black pine at the entrance, which make a very dramatic landscape feature, and, at the far end a vast old beech. There are fine views across the Avon to Somerset.

  4. Dowry Square. ca 1750. The first communal garden and still maintained by residents. The oldest tree is an astonishing Beech, much pollarded and probably going back to 1800. There is a straggly thin specimen of Azara, the only one I know of in Bristol, and a dominating Arizona Cypress. There are specimens of eight other species.

  5. Bellevue. ca 1790. On the east side garden is on a steep slope with around ten tree species, including suckering White Poplar, which tends to dominate. It is a difficult site for upkeep, but over the past decade the residents have put in a lot of work. The trees provide an important green screen in the summer from Jacobs Wells Road. On the other side of the terrace is a narrow strip of garden which was originally planned to be coach houses. It is said that it is called Bellevue because it overlooks the harbour and the ship owners could sit in comfort and watch their trading vessels come and go.

  6. Cornwallis Crescent East and Cornwallis West. ca 1880. These are private steeply sloping gardens, with a terrace in front of the houses below which are gardens and at the bottom a woodland area with a large number of Sycamore, but some exceptional Limes, Beech, Yew, and at least six other species. Much of this has clearly grown up since 1940, and it is left as a striking woodland feature which is of huge visual significance in the Clifton landscape.

  7. Richmond Hill Gardens. ca 1830 This forms a key visual feature at the top of the triangle. There are specimens of at least 23 tree species, including a magnificent Weeping Beech, the finest in the city, and a Redwood, which is an offshoot of a tree cut down twenty years ago. The land was bought by Sarah Guppy (1770-1857) an inventor and designer who was consulted by Brunel. She lived in Richmond Hill and did not want any building opposite, so bought the land and made it communal. For many years it was a nursery garden but now it has become a well hidden car park for those houses to which it is attached.

  8. Richmond Terrace. Dating from 1791 the terraced houses form an outward facing square with the communal garden occupying the middle ground; thus enabling all houses to have safe access from their own back gardens. This was a communal pleasure garden, but during WWI and WWII with the cry for ‘Dig for Victory’, the gardens became allotments and today still retain that aspect with residents having their own plots so it is a delightful patchwork.

  9. Rodney Place. ca 1780. A narrow strip, maintained by residents, dominated by two huge trees, a Beech and a Plane, dating back to c 1880. Visually a link with Clifton Green.

Recent Communal Gardens

It is encouraging to know that the idea of communal areas continues. Recently, after several years of legal dispute, a bomb site off Blackboy Hill, which had been turned into a pretty garden with interest for children, such as a small pond, was declared to be public property. It is known as The Easter Garden.

Likewise Ambra Vale East in Hotwells has imaginatively transformed an area where there were derelict garages into a garden with seating, tables and a fun bank for children to run along.

The Piazza, also in Hotwells, was a concrete area under the flyover roads and is currently being turned into perhaps more a community area than a communal one.

The Cherry Garden beside the steps leading from Cliftonwood to Jacob’s Wells Road was created on a steep slope of wasteland about 35 years ago.