Bradford on Avon

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Bradford-on-Avon is a town in west Wiltshire, England with a population of about 9,326. The town’s canal, historic buildings, shops, pubs and restaurants make it popular with tourists. The town is home to a tithe barn, in the care of English Heritage.

The town was recognised by Edward I in 1295, but never had a formal charter. These days, Wiltshire County Council organises a market in the Bridge Street car park on Thursdays. The NT property of Courts Garden is close by at Holt.

The history of the town can be traced back to Roman origins. It has several buildings dating to the 17th century, when the town grew due to the thriving English woollen textile industry.

The town lies partly on the Avon Valley, and partly on the hill that marks the Vale’s western edge, eight miles southeast of Bath, in the hilly countryside between the Mendip Hills, Salisbury Plain and the Cotswold Hills. The local area around Bath provides the Jurassic limestone (Bath Stone) from which the older buildings are constructed. The River Avon (the Bristol Avon) runs through the town.

The earliest evidence of habitation is fragments of Roman settlements above the town. In particular, archaeological digs have revealed the remains of a large Roman villa with a well-preserved mosaic on the playing fields of St Laurence School. The centre of the town grew up around the ford across the river Avon, hence the origin of the town’s name (“Broad-Ford”). This was supplemented in Norman times by the stone bridge that still stands today. The Norman side is upstream, and has pointed arches; the newer side has curved arches. The Town Bridge and Chapel is a grade I listed building. It was originally a packhorse bridge, but widened in the 17th century by rebuilding the western side. On 2 July 1643 the town was the site of a skirmish in the English Civil War, between Royalists who seized control of the bridge on their way to the Battle of Lansdowne.

On the bridge stands a small building which was originally a chapel but later used as a town lockup. The weather vane on top takes the form of a gudgeon (an early Christian symbol), hence the local saying “under the fish and over the water”.

The river provided the power for the wool mills that gave the town its wealth. The town has 17th century buildings dating from the most successful period of the local textile industry. The best examples of weaver’s cottages are on Newtown, Middle Rank and Tory Terraces. Daniel Defoe visited Bradford in the early 18th century and commented : “They told me at Bradford on Avon that it was no extra-ordinary thing to have clothiers in that county worth £10,000 to £40,000 per man” (Equivalent to £1.3M to £5.3M in 2007).

With improving mechanisation in Textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution the wool weaving industry moved from cottages to purpose built woollen mills adjacent to the river Avon where they used water and steam to power the looms. Around 30 such mills were built in Bradford on Avon alone and prospered further until the English woollen industry shifted its centre of power to Yorkshire in the late 19th century. The last local mill closed in 1905. Many have since stood empty and some became derelict.

A notable feature of Bradford on Avon is the huge grade II* listed tithe barn, 180 feet long and 30 feet wide, which was constructed in the 14th century and is now part of Barton Farm Country Park The barn would have been used for collecting taxes, in the form of goods, to fund the church.

Several notable buildings in and around the town centre have been designated for renovation and redevelopment by 2012.

In 1997 the Wiltshire Music Centre was opened in Bradford on Avon, on the grounds of St Laurence School.

On 8 October 2003, Bradford on Avon was granted Fairtrade Town status.

Notable is the Saxon church (dedicated to St. Laurence), which may have been founded by St. Aldhelm around 705, and could have been a temporary burial site for King Edward the Martyr. It was re-discovered by Canon William Frampton in 1856, having been used for secular purposes (apparently becoming a house, a school and part of a factory). In his research Canon Frampton, who had an interest in archaeology, found reference to the church in the writings of William of Malmesbury. It is suggested that some of the building, containing the blind arcades at a higher level, may belong to a later period, while a leaflet available at the church, February 2012, seems to prefer the period 950-1050 for the whole building. The elaborate ornamentation of the exterior consists of pilaster-strips, a broad frieze of two plain string-courses between which is a blind arcade of round-headed arches whose short vertical pilasters have trapezoidal capitals and bases, while on the eastern gable and the corners adjacent there is a series of mouldings as vertical triple semi-cylinders. Inside the church, high in the wall above a small chancel arch, are the carved figures of two flying angels, the right-hand figure reportedly “intended to be clothed in transparent drapery … the legs from the knee downward are depicted as showing through the transparent robe” which is referred to as a “quaint fancy”.

In addition to the Saxon church, the town has four Church of England churches, one Church of England chapel, two Baptist chapels, a United Church (Methodist and United Reformed Church), a free nonconformist church, a community church, a Quaker (Society of Friends) meeting house and a Roman Catholic church.

The original parish church has a dedication to the Holy Trinity, and is located near the town centre by the river. It is Norman in origin, and it is possible that the chancel was built over the remains of an older church. Several chapels were added on the north side, and the wall in between was later opened up and the chapels now form the north aisle. A squint, or hagioscope, near the altar is claimed to be England’s longest. The tower and spire was built around 1480, replacing an older one, and the south wall was largely rebuilt in the 19th century. The church has a ring of eight bells, with the tenor (heaviest bell) weighing 29-2-26 (1.5 tons) and is tuned to D flat.

Bradford has been the headquarters of Avon Rubber, a manufacturer of rubber products for the automotive and other industries. Today, it is the headquarters of the Alex Moulton bicycle company. It has several other small scale manufacturing enterprises.

The town’s main business is retail shopping, tourism and day to day servicing of a population largely made up of families, commuters and the retired.

The town has one mid-sized supermarket, Sainsbury’s, situated on the Elms Cross Industrial estate, a two minute walk from the Canal lock, and five convenience stores. Local consumers founded Bradford-on-Avon Co-operative Society in 1861, which, in the 1960s, united with other consumer co-operatives in the district to merge with a national business. Though consumer co-operation since left, Bristol workers’ co-operative Bishopston Trading Company has a Fairtrade clothing shop in Silver Street, that supports the village of K.V. Kuppam in Tamil Nadu, India.

Bradford lies on the A363 Trowbridge to Bath road, which runs through the town from south to north. All other road routes are minor, affording access to local settlements.

Bradford-on-Avon railway station lies on what is now the Bath—Weymouth railway line. It opened in the mid-19th century and was built by the original (pre-grouping) Great Western Railway. Northwards the line runs past Avoncliff and Freshford stations, and joins the Great Western main line east of Bath. Trains run to Bristol Temple Meads and Cardiff. Southwards, the line is joined by the minor Melksham branch from Chippenham shortly before Trowbridge. At Westbury the line crosses the main London to Plymouth line. From Westbury, trains run to Southampton, Portsmouth or Weymouth, and occasionally to Frome or Castle Cary.

Running parallel to the railway through the town is the Kennet and Avon Canal and Bradford Lock. The use of this canal declined as the railways grew but it was restored to full working order during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The canal provides a link through to the Avon at Bath in the west, and the Thames at Reading in the east.

The most significant local government functions are carried out by Wiltshire Council. Bradford on Avon is a civil parish with an elected town council of 12. This has a mostly consultative and ceremonial role, and the chairman of the town council has the title of Mayor of Bradford.

Since 2010 Bradford on Avon has been part of the Chippenham parliamentary constituency.

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