Walking down the narrow streets and alleys of Bradford on Avon you can see history written everywhere in the ancient architecture. It’s most compelling features is its position – tumbling about the last outpost of the Cotswolds facing the ‘broad ford’ across the River Avon. Stone houses and cottages of every shape and size cover the hillside from the riverside up to ancient Budbury.
Primitive Life at Budbury
Bradford on Avon began life as an Iron Age community over two and a half millennia ago. At that time a tribe settled on a site of about six acres of headland with a view of forested hillsides and the marshy river valley. Protected by steep escarpments they lived a primitive life until the Roman occupation.
Some of the earliest evidence of habitation is fragments of Roman settlements. Discoveries from archaeological digs have revealed the remains of a large Roman Villa decorated with well-preserved mosaic on the playing grounds of St Laurence School. The town centre grew up around the ford across the river Avon. This was supplemented in Norman times by the stone bridge that still stands today and remains the natural focus of the town. The Norman side is upstream and has pointed arches, whereas the newer side has curved arches. Being a packhorse bridge originally, two of its 13th century arches are still intact these days and the ‘lock up’ was added in the 17th century when the bridge was widened.There are different theories as to the original purpose of the ‘lock up’. One being it was a tiny chapel dedicated to St Nicholas, whose emblem – the gudgeon – appears on the top of the weather vane. By the 1700’s it was a jail known locally as ‘the blind house’. It was usually occupied by drunks who were said to be ‘under the fish and over the water’!
Saxons had arrived before 652AD when a battle in a civil war was fought at the “broad ford” on the river from where the town gets its name. The Saxon Church of St Lawrence is one of the many awe-inspiring tributes to history in the town and dates from about AD 700 (though only discovered in 1871). It is one of the most complete and extraordinary survivals from that distant time. Others include trinity Church dating back to Norman times, the medieval site of St. Mary’s Chapel and the Tithe Barn which dates back to 1341. The Tithe Barn is now part of the Barton Farm Country Park, but originally it was used to collect tax payments in the means of goods in order to fund the church.
The Weavers’ Cottages
The view from the main bridge encompasses the hill above the town where the old weavers’ cottages are situated. Wool and cloth had been Bradford’s stable industry for six centuries until its demise at the beginning of the 20th century. However, when the Black Death made labour scarce in 1348 wool and cloth became even more important to the country and the town flourished. The river provided the power for the wool mills that gave the town its wealth. The decorative clothiers’ houses and the humble and functional weavers’ cottages that date back to the 17th century, which is the most successful period of the local textile industry, are a source of endless fascination for anyone with an eye for genuine old world charm. The most known examples of weaver’s cottages are Middle Rank, Newtown and Tory Terraces.
The 18th century’s Industrial revolution brought huge changes seeing the Saxon Church used as a school and a royal assent was given to construct the Kennet and Avon canal. New machinery brought cloth workers from their houses into factories – the wool weaving industry moved from cottages to purpose built woolen mills adjacent to the river where water and steam was used to power the looms. Bradford on Avon was once the home to around 30 mills prospering England’s woolen industry until the centre of power shifted to Yorkshire in the late 19th century. The last local mill closed in 1905 and many have stood empty since.
The 19th century cloth manufacture was compensated for by the growth of the rubber industry. Until 1991, Bradford on Avon was a centre of the industry, producing rubber components for Avon Rubber.
Today the historic buildings of Bradford on Avon are complemented by the beautiful surrounding countryside with varied activities for residents and visitors. Some buildings are even looked after by the Preservation Trust, who campaigns and helps to restore buildings of importance to the architectural heritage in Bradford on Avon. Several buildings in and around the town have been designated for renovation and redevelopment from 2012 and onwards. In 1998 the Wiltshire Music Centre was established, the Millie millennium sculpture was unveiled in 2000 and in 2003 Bradford was granted a Fairtrade status. It is a fascinating trip through history and this charming spot well deserves its reputation as ‘one of the most beautiful towns in the country’.