It’s easy to focus on the more obvious attractions of towns and cities during a visit, especially when they are as beautiful as somewhere like Bradford-on-Avon. But I always look for little vignettes, things that are hidden in plain sight. And often that is as simple as looking up. This has the added bonus of removing traffic and crowds of people from the scene (of which Bradford-on-Avon has plenty of both)!
I’d not been to the town for a couple of years but recently had occasion to visit twice within the space of a few weeks. Thanks to a walk that Hidden Wiltshire friend and contributor Bo Novak devised (Bo was the guest in Hidden Wiltshire Podcast episode 30 (13 February 2022)) and which our own Glyn Coy co-led, I was familiar with some of the sights that I should look for. Glyn intends to write up that walk at some point so this blog is a bit of teaser, although Bo and Glyn’s route covers much further ground than I did as I was accompanying a wife on crutches at the time of my first visit!
So with a wife recovering from a broken ankle we hobbled from the station car park down to the Town Council car park by Timbrell’s Yard (it was full when we tried to park there). One immediate regret that we had was not catching the train to Bradford-on-Avon. The station is only a few minutes’ walk from the town centre, and as anyone who knows the town will have experienced the traffic is horrendous, the Norman bridge crossing of the Avon being a serious bottleneck. From the Council car park we crossed the footbridge, with its fine view of Abbey Mills, to Holy Trinity Church which stands amongst cobbled streets on the other side. But our objective was the unassuming little Saxon Church of St Laurence on the other side of the street.
In comparison with its flouncy neighbour, St Laurence’s is a beautifully simple little chapel that reaches back through time to at least the 11th century. It’s thought that it may have been built to house the relics of King Edward the Martyr, brother of King Æthelred. It fell out of use and was “lost” in time as other buildings grew up around it (including a school master’s house) as evidenced by the remnants of the back of a building which joined the south facia. Mercifully in 1857 it was recognised for what it was and the surrounding buildings taken down.
The tiny interior is an oasis of calm, a cool refuge on a hot day. If you can visit it at a time when you can be alone, as I did, this will enable you to better experience its tranquillity. As you enter by the south door into the nave and look towards the chancel on your right, high above the archway you will see a pair of carved angels, possibly from a more extensive sculpture dating to the 10th century.
The chancel itself is like a little grotto, although none of its contents would have been found here when it was built. The altar is made from carved stones found nearby. Above that is a fragment from a Saxon cross. Next, above that, is a piece of 150 million year old fossilised tree, and finally to top off this engaging scene is a ring of Doulting stone carved in 2012 by John Maine.
The north porticus may also have served as a chapel. The stone bowl that now serves as a font was found nearby.
The 12th century historian William of Malmesbury thought that St Laurence’s may date back even earlier to the 8th century, when it might perhaps have been founded by St Aldhelm. But it is likely this earlier chapel stood where Holy Trinity Church now stands. Holy Trinity is a mere youth compared to St Laurence’s, dating as it does from the 12th century. The contrast could hardly be more stark. Like so many if not all churches that have survived for so long, Holy Trinity has been extended and restored over the centuries. Much of what we see now dates from the 1860s. But it is no less striking for that.
From these two beautiful churches we made our way along the cobbles east towards the town centre, I photographing little scenes on the way.
Our objective was Market Street. With my wife on crutches at the time of this first visit, this was going to be a challenge since Market Street is a very steep hill with a constant flow of heavy traffic including enormous trucks grinding their way up the hill.
Our destination was Orton Jewellery where my wife was headed to have a ring modified. Sadly for our bank account we emerged somewhat later with a little more than just a modified ring, something for which we were to return with friends a few weeks later. I defy any woman to visit Orton’s without a considerably depleted bank account. It really is the most amazing shop and Lee Orton, who can normally be found at the back working on some fine piece or other, is a master craftsman and all round top bloke (when we went he was trying to resist the purchase of a Ducatti on which a friend of his had just arrived).
Rolling forward a few weeks we returned to Bradford-on-Avon with my walking buddy and next door neighbour Stu, and his wife Susanne to collect my wife’s modified ring. Stu is a man of stronger will than I, but I still wondered whether he would be able to resist as Susanne drooled over the jewellery in Orton’s. He accomplished this by rapidly disappearing into the Deli next door. Once Susanne realised he was gone, she went looking for him all the way to the bottom of Market Street, hoping to drag him back to see a particularly stunning ring. Sensing the coast was clear Stu emerged from the Deli and we all went in search of his wife. Of course it was far too much of a slog to walk back up to Orton’s by this time so we crossed Market Street for a coffee in The Shambles. All I’ll say is that there was a certain tension in the air!
Reinvigorated with caffeine the girls managed to visit every shop in The Shambles, appropriately enough as this was an area once occupied by medieval market stalls. As they disappeared into another shop, Stu and I stood outside at the bottom of Coppice Hill. At the top and the end of this narrow street I could see the remains of the facade of an old building, standing behind tall iron gates. Unable to resist the temptation to explore we went to find out what this was. This was once the Wesleyan Chapel and is situated on what had been rackground where woollen cloths were stretched on tenterhooks to dry, shape and bleach in the sun, an echo of the town’s dominance by the woollen industry having been the home to some 30 mills. The chapel was built in 1812 to replace a smaller chapel nearby where John and Charles Wesley had preached. The chapel before us had been partially dismantled and the roof removed, and the walls now form the frame for a swimming pool for the adjacent private house.
Coppice Hill is a fascinating little street and being a dead end it is a haven from the traffic on Silver Street below. The sadly necessary double yellow lines along both sides of the lane ensure that it remains that way. Many of the little cottages that line the lane date to the 17th century. Several were weaver’s cottages but a blacksmith’s forge would also have been found here. Several of these ancient buildings are now seriously contorted with lumps and bulges everywhere. I noticed that the window panes in one frontage were concave to fit the now distorted frames. A nightmare for a glazier to replace I’d imagine.
Finally we headed back to the station car park via Bradford-on-Avon’s famous Norman bridge. Originally a packhorse bridge, two of its 13th century arches remain. Equally famous is the 17th century town lock-up, the blind house. I was determined to get a photograph of it unencumbered by people and cars. I saw a spot and shot off, omitting to tell my companions where I was going. They were not amused despite having become used to this behaviour from me over the years!
It was time to leave, having failed in our bid to find somewhere for lunch in the town. But not before dropping by the fantastic little bakery just before the station car park. This is where I captured my final image from Bradford-on-Avon.
However, this is not the final photograph in this blog. The last two are from the town where we ended up for lunch. I’m sure you can guess where this was.
This was just a brief visit taking in a tiny handful of Bradford-on-Avon’s hidden gems. You will find many more when Glyn gets time to write up his blog. It is a place simply crammed with historic and unusual buildings that warrants a full day’s exploration.