Bradford on Avon is often overlooked by the tourists who flock to the nearby city of Bath. Which is a pity: like Bath, it has an enviable location in the Avon Valley and, unlike Bath, it is a medieval town with lots of older buildings. Whether you visit for a few hours, or a little longer, you will find plenty to see and do in Bradford on Avon.
Why Should You Visit Bradford on Avon?
Bradford on Avon lies in the Avon Valley, on the edge of the Cotswolds. A river and a canal run through the valley, and houses climb up the steep sides. This creates a picturesque setting, with opportunities for exploration and riverside walks.
The compact town centre is full of historic buildings, mostly built from the local Cotswold stone. Don’t forget to walk along The Shambles, the medieval street where the butchers once plied their trade (fortunately it is cleaner and more genteel now…) And there are lots of places to eat and drink.
History of Bradford on Avon
Bradford on Avon dates back to Roman times. The Roman road from London passes the edge of the town, and the remains of a villa have been discovered. There isn’t much to see now, but the town museum has some Roman coins and other local finds.
The settlement grew during the Saxon era. The oldest remaining building is the Saxon Church of St Laurence, probably first established in the 8th century. In 1001 Bradford on Avon, with its church and manor farm, was granted to Shaftesbury Abbey, 29 miles away. The town continued to expand, and many of the buildings date from the later Middle Ages.
It was in the 17th century that Bradford on Avon first became wealthy, as a result of the local woollen industry. Several buildings remain from the 17th and 18th centuries. As the textile industry declined, the rubber and brewing industries moved in, attracted by the empty mill buildings and the abundant supply of water.
Today Bradford on Avon is most important for tourism and other service industries. It has been used as a location for several films and TV adaptations, including the 1980s ITV series Robin of Sherwood. In 2003 it became a Fairtrade Town, meaning that a number of local businesses have signed up to fair trade products and principles.
Things to See and Do in Bradford on Avon
St Laurence’s Church
St Laurence’s Church is the oldest building in Bradford on Avon. It is thought to have been established around 700, although the current building is from the 10th or 11th century. Unusually for a Saxon church in England, it has no medieval additions or alterations.
The church fell into disuse, and was only rediscovered in the 19th century. Today it is used once more as a place of worship. Immediately opposite St Laurence’s is Holy Trinity Church, a relative newcomer from the 12th century.
Chapel of St Mary, Tory and the Lady Well
An uphill climb from St Laurence’s Church takes you to the Chapel of St Mary, Tory (the “Tory” in the name refers to the tor, or hilltop, on which the church stands). The origins of the chapel are thought to be ancient, it once having been a hermitage, or resting place for pilgrims on their way to Glastonbury. After a period when it was used as a cloth factory, the chapel is now back in use as a place of worship.
Beneath the chapel is the Lady Well which once supplied the town with water. If you approached the chapel via the old Ladywell Lane you will already have passed the site of the well. Further down, on Barton Orchard, you can see (or rather, hear) the well again. There are several former weavers’ cottages on Barton Orchard: the water facilitated what was very much a cottage industry prior to the Industrial Revolution.
The Bradford on Avon Tithe Barn was built as a place to store produce from Barton Farm (which belonged to Shaftesbury Abbey), as well as tithes collected from parishioners. At 51m long, it is one of the largest medieval barns in England, with a massive timber roof.
Theoretically the Tithe Barn is open every day, but in practice it may be closed without notice (it was not open when I visited). However, the exterior is impressive, and it is in a pleasant location with Barton Country Park and the canal nearby. A cluster of smaller barns have been converted into a gift shop and a coffee shop.
Bradford on Avon Museum
The small Bradford on Avon Museum covers the history of the town and surrounding area from the earliest times, including the Stone Age and the Roman era. The highlight of the collection is the reproduction of an old-fashioned chemist’s shop from the 19th century. The museum is housed in the local library and is free to visit (see website for opening times).
Bradford on Avon’s Waterways
The River Avon runs through the centre of Bradford on Avon. The Town Bridge was first recorded in 1400, although most of the current structure dates from the 18th century. The small building at the end of the bridge is a 17th century lock-up, possibly on the site of an earlier chapel.
Close to the river is the Kennet and Avon Canal. You can walk or cycle along the towpath, or hire a canoe. Boat trips are available from the Canal Wharf.
Visiting Bradford on Avon
Bradford on Avon is 8 miles from Bath. Buses run from Bath and other local towns, and there are rail connections to Bath and elsewhere. If you arrive by car there is long term parking at the railway station.
There are lots of pubs and tea shops in Bradford on Avon. The oldest pub is the Swan Hotel, dating from 1500 (altlhough the interior is modern). You can get a good Italian meal in the Ravello (housed in a 17th century building). And there is a wide choice of afternoon teas at the Bridge Tea Rooms: the building – complete with ghost – dates from 1502.
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