One of the positive things to come out of this pandemic – and there aren’t many – is that people have come to appreciate their own backyard a bit more, and I mean that metaphorically not literally.
Ever since I was let loose on an unsuspecting world I’ve been accused of all sorts of things, but one thing I can’t really be accused of, is being blind to what’s on my own doorstep: I’ve always had an inquisitive mind at what’s around me, and during the time I was living in North Somerset, I was always exploring the local area – places that people know well, places that people have probably never heard of, and places I probably shouldn’t have gone to at all.
It was quite a long time ago now since I lived there, and although it’s often said that you should never go back, I think it depends on why you want to, and going back down memory lane to re-kindle those salad days is something I really enjoy doing, even if times have changed.
Although Bradford-on-Avon is in Wiltshire, it wasn’t much more than half an hour’s drive away from where I used to live, but it’s much further from where I live now, and last year before Covid arrived, we took the train(s) from Paignton back up to the Avon Valley for a brief visit to see if it had changed very much.
With Bath 8 miles to the west, and The Cotswolds just to the north, Bradford-on-Avon feels like a combination of the two – or at least it does to me, but whereas both Bath and The Cotswolds have more than their fair share of tourists, this smashing little town seems to slip under the radar for many, which is a shame for the town’s retailers, but not for anyone who likes a pleasant leisurely day out.
We arrived late morning, and fortunately the train station is only a short walk from the town centre, where its most recognisable feature, the Town Bridge, spans the river (see image at top of page). It hasn’t always been here of course: In Saxon times the crossing point was just a Broad Ford on the Avon, but by the 14th century a packhorse bridge was helping the community to cross the river without getting their feet wet.
The current bridge was constructed during the 18th century and has a small building on it that was supposedly used as a chapel – although I’m not sure how many people could squash in there on a Sunday morning. What is more certain though, is that it was used as a lock-up: If you look at the weather vane on the top, it shows a small fish called a gudgeon, and apparently there was a local saying that if you were banged up in there for any reason, you were “under the fish and over the water”, which has to be better than being ‘under the water and over the fish’ I suppose, especially if you couldn’t swim.
Around the same time as the first bridge was being built, King Edward I was encouraging disgruntled Flemish merchants to come to England. With them came cloth-makers who were involved in a business that was common in the Low Countries, but almost unheard of in England.
I don’t suppose it was any accident that some of those clothmakers and weavers who made their way across the North Sea, found their way to Bradford-on-Avon. English wool at the time was regarded as much superior to Flemish wool, and there was a plentiful supply of it roaming the nearby Cotswold Hills – and of course, there was also a good supply of running water to power their water wheels to clean and thicken the wool, a process known as Fulling.
What started off as a cottage industry became more and more mechanised, and the town prospered right up to the time the industrial woollen mills of Yorkshire took over in the late 19th century. Something like thirty mills operated here at one time, some of which can still be seen from the bridge.
With the decline of the woollen industry, these mills were given a new lease of life when they were used in the manufacture of rubber, initially making components for the Great Western Railway, and then tyres for motor cars.
These days they’ve been given another new lease of life in the form of apartments, offices, and retail outlets, which helps to preserve the town’s heritage in a sustainable way. I’ve no doubt some people would prefer to see something else lining the river banks of this handsome Wiltshire town in the 21st century, but as we’ve often seen, not everything new is an improvement.
The town centre is a nice enough place to wander around with its old weavers’ cottages and converted mills, but it isn’t very big, and our intention was always to take a walk along the river and canal and seek out a couple of attractions along the way, the first one being the town’s most notable building, the Saxon church of St. Laurence.
From the Tourist Information Centre on the south side of the bridge, a signpost pointed the way to the pedestrian McKeever Bridge which took us over the river to Church Street. The street is named after Holy Trinity Church which you can’t miss, but the small Saxon church we’ve really come to see, is directly opposite.
There aren’t too many Anglo-Saxon churches still standing in England, and there are even fewer that haven’t been tampered with since. Apart from some necessary Victorian restoration when it was re-discovered, most experts agree that St. Laurence is the best example of an otherwise untouched church from this period anywhere in the country.
Experts though have not always been able to agree on the exact date the church was built. The 12th century historian, William of Malmesbury, observed that it was standing here in the 1120’s, but he thought that it dated back to the time of St. Aldhelm (c639-709). Further digging around seems to point to a later date, and it’s now believed that the church was built for the nuns of Shaftesbury after King Æthelred the Unready granted Bradford to them in 1001. It appears as though the nuns were custodians of King Edward the Martyr’s body, who just happened to be Æthelred’s half-brother, and it sounds plausible that this relatively elaborate church for the time, was used as his mortuary chapel, or at least for a while.
Its history afterwards seems to have got lost in the mists of time, but probably just fell out of use until William Jones, the rector of Holy Trinity, found it hidden away and abandoned behind some other old buildings. It seems as though at some point it had been previously used as a school and cottage, and so between 1870 and 1880 the rector set about restoring the church in order to bring it back into use, and today it is still used by the congregation of Holy Trinity.
Inside the church, a pair of angels adorn the east wall of the nave, and carved stones found nearby have been made into an altar, above which, is a 3-part work of art: Immediately above the altar is part of an old Saxon cross, and above that is a piece of fossil tree dating back 150 million years. At the top is a ring of Doulting stone carved by John Maine RA in 2012, and I have to admit that I did like this addition to the church. Not only did it seem to reflect a harmonious link to the past, it also brought life back into the building. Whether the three parts represented the Holy Trinity I couldn’t possibly say, but perhaps that could have been the thinking behind it.
I had intended taking a look inside Holy Trinity church, but there was a funeral taking place, and so we had to give it a miss, and instead crossed back over McKeever Bridge to the footpath that runs alongside the river. The path runs under the railway line and continues on towards the enticing riverside pub garden at the Cross Guns in Avoncliffe, but we didn’t have time for that today. Instead we headed for Bradford’s other significant historical building – the Tithe Barn at Barton Grange.
Recognised as one of the largest and most architecturally important tithe barns in the country, it really is worth coming to see: I’ve always been impressed with these cavernous halls that I tend to regard as the equivalent of a medieval HMRC. (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for those who are unacquainted with the British tax system). I’ve seen a few, but I reckon this one has to be the finest I’ve come across.
I don’t want to get too involved with its history because I don’t get too many followers as it is, but if you’ve followed me this far and want to appreciate what we’ve come to see, then I can’t really ignore some of its historical background.
As I mentioned earlier, the manor of Bradford was given to the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey, and Barton Grange was the manor farm. Several buildings have survived and are historically significant for what they reveal about agriculture during medieval times, and the most significant building of all is the Tithe Barn.
Built in the 1330’s, the barn was used for collecting tithes, a system which involved local farmers having to give up a tenth (tithe) of their produce, which in this case meant to Shaftesbury Abbey via Holy Trinity, the local parish church which they had acquired. Shaftesbury Abbey, like others up and down the country, didn’t survive Henry VIII’s dissolution, and was demolished in 1539: Barton Grange subsequently fell into various private hands, and was still used as a working farm right up until 1914. Today, all the remaining farm buildings, apart from the Tithe Barn, are looked after by the Bradford-on-Avon Preservation Trust and are used by a mixture of craft workshops and galleries, and of course, a welcome tea garden.
The Tithe Barn is now in the care of English Heritage and completely free to visit. Built with local limestone, this magnificent building is 51 metres long (168ft) and 9.5 metres wide (31 ft), and what’s even more remarkable is that it still retains its original timber-framed roof. Now that is what I call impressive.
Directly behind the barn is the Kennet and Avon Canal, which after a walk of only a few hundred yards along the towpath, brought us to the Lock Inn café. Of course, it was no accident that we stumbled across this rustic café come bar next to the lock gates, and our last couple of hours in Bradford-on-Avon was spent watching people negotiate the lock gate while I struggled to restrict myself to a couple of pints of local Iford Cider.
The railway station was only a ten-minute walk away from the Lock Inn (I like that name for a pub), and was the perfect way to end an all too brief journey back in time.