Introducing Bradford on Avon
A charming, historic town, nestled on the edge of the Cotswolds and often referred to as ‘mini Bath’, Bradford on Avon is situated some eight miles southeast of its larger counterpart. Referred to as ‘BoA’ by the locals, it has Roman origins but no baths unlike the famous city down the road. BoA’s characteristic architecture is mainly an exceptional mix of Georgian and medieval with a heavy industrial revolution influence marked significantly by the resurrected and bustling Kennet and Avon canal, the weavers’ cottages overlooking the town, and rejuvenated woollen mills offering sought after residential and holiday apartments. Added to this mix of historic glamour is the central and iconic medieval town bridge which spans the arterial river Avon on its journey to Bristol.
The town attracts a rich variation of tourists and of course, residents. Each looking for something to suit their needs and wants, and often BoA provides, so much so, that a popular lament from visiting tourists is, ‘we didn’t have enough time to see everything.’
Bradford on Avon is full of amazing things to do.
With that in mind, I have put together some things to do for days out that will encompass much of what BoA has to offer and some information for anyone who wants to go a little further afield. These walks can take you as long as you like. There will be lots of places to stop off to refresh, lots of views to take in, and always someone to chat to.
The great thing with Bradford on Avon is, everywhere is ‘walkable’, although a pair of wellies or walking boots are advised if you venture onto the towpath after heavy rain but who doesn’t love splashing in puddles.
River amble to Avoncliff including the tithe barn, lock, canal and aqueduct
A great starting point is the town bridge (pictured above) at the heart of the town. It’s easily identified with its small early 18th century stone dome-shaped building at one end. This was the town’s lock-up many centuries ago and can be visited on Heritage Day in late summer. Opposite is a small park called Westbury Gardens. Here you will find the Tourist Information Centre and a grand three-storey building, Westbury House, which is a former clothier’s mansion made of the local Bath stone.
Skirt the perimeter of Westbury Gardens and the house, keeping it on your right-hand side. Drop down into St Margaret’s car park behind Westbury House. Here you will find Timbrell’s Yard, a boutique hotel offering award-winning food, and St Margaret’s Hall which started life as a specialist dyers house in the 18th century, a cinema in 1904, and now a community hall and home to the Town Council. Head to the far end in between both premises and you will find the river walk with the grade 1 listed church, Holy Trinity, on the opposite bank.
Follow the path along the river, it’s shaded by trees with benches to rest and take in the view until you come out from under the railway bridge to a vast expanse known as Barton Farm Country Park. With picnic tables and areas, playparks, places to paddle in the river, meandering walks, wildlife aplenty, fishing, rowing and dog walking, there are plenty of choices to relax. But for those who want to explore more why not have a peek at the Tithe Barn workshops.
Located to the left of the railway bridge and beyond the small person’s playpark is a selection of shops and galleries known as the Tithe Barn Workshops. Set in a tranquil garden these individual units exhibit and sell unique crafts, arts, and antiques, giving you the opportunity for some retail therapy. And for your history ‘fix’ a visit to the famous Tithe Barn, today, owned by English Heritage, is a must.
Just two minutes’ walk away from the workshops, the Tithe Barn is a sight not to be missed. The spectacular monastic stone barn, 51 metres long, with a timber cruck roof used to be part of a complex of buildings when owned by Shaftsbury Abbey back in the 14th century. Today, it is used for many film and drama locations, for theatre and music performances, and as a beautiful backdrop for wedding photos.
Left again, take the little path through the community apple orchard and wander through the bigger kid’s park to the opening which leads onto the towpath. Welcome to another facet in the diamond that is Bradford on Avon – the canal.
Frequently there are boats moored here, narrowboats and wide beams, or further up towards your left, boats wait to go into the lock or some have just come through and are waiting for passengers to pop back on board after ‘doing’ the lock. This is quite a busy area with two licensed premises flagging either side of the towpath, The Lock Inn and The Canal Tavern. Both serve hot & cold drinks, food and alcohol and are a great place to stop off and watch the world go by.
The towpath to the lock takes you to the road with the Lock Inn and Canal Tavern flanked on either side. Across the road and to your right is a small humpback bridge, head for this, and the opening back onto the towpath, Lock 14 and Bradford on Avon Wharf area lies before you. This area is a popular destination for ‘gongoozlers’, which is a great term meaning a person who enjoys watching activities on the canals in the UK. Summer Sunday afternoons, eating ice cream and gongoozling is something I’ve enjoyed often and is highly recommended.
This wharf area is historical in Kennet & Avon canal history insomuch that the first sod was cut for the canal here in 1794. Set back from the towpath is the Wharfinger’s House, it was the home of the Canal Company employee who managed the wharf. Across the canal, was a gauging dock where canal boats were measured and weighed to determine toll rates. The building currently belongs to a hire boat company, but the dry dock and boatyard are privately owned and fully operational. Just a little further up is the old lockkeeper’s cottage, now a café and booking centre for the K & A Canal Trust trip boat, Barbara McLellan. The boat trips are around two and half hours and will take you down through the lock onto Avoncliff and back.
If you’ve decided to walk the towpath to Avoncliff and the aqueduct, which is not too far, flat and picturesque, you will need to cross the road and pick up the towpath once more between the Lock Inn and Canal Tavern. Follow the towpath past the Tithe Barn and around a bend, shaded by trees, it will bring you to a bridge spanning the canal called Meadows Bridge. Here you can walk over the bridge, enter the field, and walk through the woods to Avoncliff, or you could take the path that slopes down and will return you to Barton Farm Country Park or continue along the towpath to Avoncliff, the Cross Guns pub and No10 café and garden. During this walk do keep a keen lookout for all the wildlife. Ducks and moorhens are commonplace, but there are also swans, herons, and if you’re lucky, the swift electric blue of a kingfisher torpedo-ing the water for fish. I have seen muntjac deer drinking from the canal, water voles burying in the bank and as the sun sets, bats can be seen feeding on flying insects.
But of course, there are the live-aboard boats, each one unique and idiosyncratic to the many people who live on them. Lots have trader’s licenses and sell ice cream, cakes, crafts, artwork, jewellery, books, vinyls, and many other wares. It depends on which boat is in the area at the time since it is a floating community, but twice a year there is a floating market in BoA. Here, many traders gather from all parts of the network and moor up for a weekend. Along with singing, music, face painting, eating and drinking, there is a wonderful array of goods and products sold and well worth a visit.
Nearing Avoncliff aqueduct, the sound of water tumbling over the 16th-century weir which is situated a couple of hundred yards upstream from the Cross Guns pub can be heard. A few houses with their narrow gardens mark the towpath just before it turns abruptly right leading you to a fork of paths, one onto the aqueduct and the other sloping down and around. If you want to catch the train stay on this side of the aqueduct and walk to the far end where you will see the station.
Follow the ‘down and around’ path to the Cross Guns pub, go under the aqueduct and follow the path to the opposite side of the aqueduct to walk further along the canal, access No 10 Tea Garden, the river walk, or the road to the woods. Built by the architect and engineer, John Rennie, between 1797 and 1801, the Grade II Avoncliff aqueduct is over 100 metres long and 18 metres wide and dominates the Avoncliff valley giving spectacular views from either side. One of the many engineering testaments to Britain’s canal history.
Shamble Amble, Up and Down and Tory Glory
If it’s a bit of retail therapy, you want then Bradford on Avon has lots of independent shops offering a unique and traditional experience. You will not find any corporate shops here, no high street that looks like another, no two shops alike. Each one has its own identity firmly stamped by the owner.
To be honest, there are far too many to name each one individually, but you can find anything from a traditional hardware store to butchers, clothes, footwear, wedding and gift shops. Interior design, jewellers, beauty, hairdressers, vintage, pets, health food, deli, cheese, greengrocery, books, and yes, there are a couple of charity shops too.
As for eating options, trust me you are spoilt for choice. There are numerous restaurants, cafes, tea rooms and takeaways and if on your travels, you see something that looks appealing, please try, I cannot think you would be disappointed with any.
On the same side of the town bridge as the town lock-up, keep it on your right and walk away from it to the far end over the bridge. Looking over the bridge wall you will see restaurants situated adjacent to the river, Il Fiume, The Weaving Shed and Olea. All different, all offering quality food. At the end of the bridge, and to your right, Lamb Yard reveals itself, a labyrinth of shops and food establishments based in and around a converted mill building and the old Avon Rubber Company building, it also hosts a weekly Artisan market on Fridays. Adjacent to Lamb Yard is Weavers Walk with its medieval walkthrough and beams, it is a passageway of small shops leading to Silver Street and yet more shops.
Across the road, the Shambles provides, as it has done for many centuries, a mini shopping avenue connecting Silver Street with Market Street. This area has clues that can be seen to attest to the medieval period with one of the only timber-framed buildings in Bradford on Avon dating from around 1600. And be sure to look out for the door!
Market Street, like Silver Street, is also full of quaint shops, a positive potpourri of independent retail, full of hidden gems, just keep walking up both hills a little more, you never know what you may find.
Leading off Market Street is Church Street and as the name suggests, it has a church, in fact, it has two. Both are to be found at the bottom of the street adjacent to the river and one another. Standing tall and proud is the Holy Trinity Church which I have previously mentioned and is well worth a look as it has quite a recent tale to tell, involving a painting and restoration. The second is St Laurance’s church. It is a tiny building tucked up on a well-kept lawn to the right of the Holy Trinity. Without any rebuilding or restoration from the medieval period, it is one of the few surviving Anglo Saxon churches left in England and architecturally dates from around the 10th or 11th century.
Meandering past the Holy Trinity’s cemetery is a road that leads to a path. Follow this amongst the Bath stone cottage and garden walls, climb the wide stone steps and you will come to a road. Across the road and to the right is an alleyway. It is less than a minute’s walk and you may easily pass it but keep a close eye out. Looking up the alleyway are several flights of stone steps. These lead to Tory (Saxon word for ‘hill’) where the rows of weaver’s cottages are and where there are the best views in Bradford on Avon. There are many paths and flights of steps all over Tory like architectural snakes and ladders but have fun finding your way to the top whilst enjoying the beautiful resident’s gardens that look like a photo from ‘Home & Garden’ magazine. Ask anyone where the little chapel of St Mary Tory is and head there. Still used as a place of worship and pilgrimage, it is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Set high on the hill, the whole town, the White Horse at Westbury, and the Cotswolds are all to see on a clear day.
Bradford on Avon is the perfect place for a day trip, staycation, or a stopover on a road trip around the UK. Not only is it on the main road to Bath and Bristol, but places like Salisbury and Stonehenge, Frome, Devizes, and the most beautiful Lacock are also all within easy driving distance. Furthermore, BoA has a mainline train station. Bath takes just over ten minutes to get to, Bristol less than half an hour, and Cardiff just over an hour. If you fancy a dip in the sea then why not spend the day at the seaside and visit Weymouth in Dorset, the train will take you directly and you could enjoy a glass of wine on the way with fish and chips for lunch.