Bradford on Avon – the town that glows

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A Mercedes-Benz Tourismo operated by Barnes of Swindon pulling into Bradford-on-Avon railway station on rail replacement work. JAMES UNDERWOOD

Alan Payling pays a visit to Bradford on Avon and finds a delightful town that will both surprise and delight visitors due to its many charms.

Have you ever suddenly found yourself visiting a place that in the distant recesses of your mind you recall having heard about but, if you had been asked for its location or whether you could provide any information at all about the place, you would have had to confess you weren’t quite sure, or even, you haven’t got a clue? Have you ever been taken aback and been really surprised by that same place when you eventually visited for the first time?

It happened to me when I was doing feeders a few years ago and Bradford on Avon was on my pick-up sheet. I’d heard the name but knew nothing else about the place. When I then had to think about it, the places my mind associated it with didn’t cause me to relish the idea of visiting. I’d been in the Yorkshire Bradford a couple of times. The first visit was to pick up a group of rugby fans, supporters of Bradford Bulls, to take them to a cup final at Old Trafford against Leeds Rhinos. As they’d been in the club bar for a few hours before I picked them up, half way across the Pennines they all wanted a toilet, and they weren’t fussy about the one I provided at J22 M62 – Saddleworth Moor is it? I know, the services there aren’t great! In fact, if you look for them, they are non-existent. The second time I visited Bradford I had a free day and looked around the city centre. I wasn’t impressed. Having had a wander around the old mill quarter, which was mainly derelict then, the saving grace of the place for me was the IMAX.

The ‘on Avon’ part of the town’s name I associated with the Bard’s birth place, Stratford-upon-Avon. In the late 1970s, eager to find a bank one Friday afternoon, I drove into the town centre. Unfortunately, I was driving a BRS Seddon diesel six-wheeler on contract to Redland tiles near Rugby at the time. When I came out of the bank, my rather grubby wagon, loaded down with roof tiles covered in a net, had attracted the wrong sort of attention.

‘Didn’t you see the weight restriction sign, driver?’, said the young police constable. Playing it a bit dumb, and knowing I was about 20 ton – in old money – overweight, I waited until the PC said: ‘It’s 3 ton, except for access.’ I can’t recall where I was actually taking the tiles, but it wasn’t to Shakespeare’s birthplace, that’s for sure. So, still being in my cocky younger days, I showed the constable my Access credit card*, and told him I needed to get some cash out of the bank otherwise I would starve. My Access credit card was supposed to be my flexible friend: it was the constable who was neither flexible nor friendly. In a rather weary response, the constable said: ‘That’s not the sort of access the law allows!’

Ah, the officer doth protest too much, methinks. When I then appeared before the magistrates in Stratford-upon-Avon and had submitted my plea of mitigation – in other words, I grovelled a bit – the magistrate handed down an £8.00 fine. It was on the tip of my tongue to say ‘Do you accept Access?’, when I thought better of it, and since that time I have never tried to be funny when faced with the forces of law and order.

Crime does not pay, and neither does wit. So both those experiences caused me to imagine that I was going to either be nicked or find Bradford on Avon was a really dull place apart from some well oiled rugby fans that I wanted to see the back of, and sharpish. In fact, I was seriously impressed.


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The older side of Bradford on Avon’s Town Bridge and the River Avon. EXPLORE BRADFORD ON AVON

A Dickens of a place

The first time I visited Bradford on Avon while doing a feeder, I drove in on the Trowbridge Road. I was chomping at the bit because having just visited Trowbridge for the first time, I had found it was one of those places that expected people to navigate with a sextant, a compass and the North Star given the poor signage then. But as I drove into Bradford on Avon, it was a bit like I was slowly going back in time.

As ever, you hit the outer suburbs built in the 20th century, and then quite quickly, because it’s not a big place, you go back through the 19th, 18th, 17th and 16th centuries. It felt like I was driving through a novel by Dickens. By the time you hit the Town Bridge over the river Avon you’re crossing a bridge that is, depending on which version you read, either Norman, 13th or 14th century on the upstream side – look out for the cutwaters – and either 17th or 18th on the downstream side. A bridge of two halves you might say. So it’s not only a charming place, it’s a town with a bit of history. I had a bit of time to have a look at the place from the driving seat because road works were reducing the width of one of the already narrow streets that I had to drive through. This slowed me down considerably – I could have given everyone a guided tour of the town, the delay was that long – but I recall feeling like I was an explorer who had discovered a bit of El Dorado’s gold and pledged that I must return and visit the place sometime. As no one I worked for included the place on any of my itineraries, it was a while before I returned. Given the age of the place, it hadn’t changed much, and yes, it was as appealing as I recalled.


If you’re like I was before I first passed through there, you may be wondering where exactly Bradford on Avon is located. Given the towns and rivers it could be associated with, it’s a long way from many of them. You will know where Bath is located: go south-east from there and that’s where you’ll find Bradford on Avon. The ‘on Avon’ bit can mislead because there is more than one River Avon in England. The Bard’s Avon for example ends up in the Severn at Tewkesbury. The river here is the Bristol Avon, the one that ends up in a sludgy, slimy ditch that slithers its way through Bristol before it goes under Brunel’s suspension bridge in the Avon Gorge. Upstream though, it’s a lot more appealing as the local swans glide gracefully through this charming Wiltshire town on a sparklingly clean river. And being so close to the tourist honey pot that is Bath these days might be the reason Bradford on Avon gets overlooked even though, subject to the route you take, it’s only between 7.5 and 11.6 miles away. That might just be a blessing. While Bradford on Avon is without doubt a smashing place that is well worth a visit, the few visitors it attracts don’t adversely affect the place.

The Shambles, one of the town’s many nooks and crannies. ALAN PAYLING

Bath stone galore

The town’s a very attractive place because it was built from the same honey coloured limestone that makes Bath and the surrounding towns so appealing. However, Georgian Bath was originally built as a resort where the ailing could take the waters. But whereas Bath was built for the idle rich, Bradford on Avon was built by and for the sort of people who had to work for their living. Given the proximity of the Mendip Hills and the Cotswold Hills and all those sheep that still graze on the high ground, if you think of wool, that is how the skilled artisans of Bradford on Avon once made their living. But even though it was a working town with a fair bit of industry, it’s not a place that one associates with the grim and dark satanic mills that weavers ‘oop north’ had to slave away in. The industrial legacy here has left buildings with an attractive character that enhances this charming town.

This is the sort of place where Bath stone rules. with few exceptions. Even where garden walls have recently been raised or someone has built a garage at the side of their house, the planners must be very strict round here: it’s all Bath stone. Even where someone has squeezed a Grand Design past the planning committee, it’s Bath stone. It makes for a delightful place.

In one of Bill Bryson’s books, Notes From A Small Island, he bemoaned how careless we are of our built heritage. You can see what he means when some of our most beautiful towns have had architectural monstrosities dropped on them. Have you seen the post office in Tetbury, for example? A glorious example of the worst that an architect could come up with in the 1960s dumped in the middle of a stunningly beautiful Cotswold town. But not in Bradford on Avon. They have really looked after the place. In the sun, this is a town that glows. And there are also some very grand houses like Abbey House and Westbury House that wouldn’t look out of place in Bath making it a delightful place to wander about in.

Shop till you drop

The town is said to be a pleasant place to do a spot of shopping. To test that claim, I visited with a friend of mine, Gill, who is, to my mind, an expert shopper. Whether it be window shopping, ‘I’m just looking, thank you’ shopping, gift shopping, Christmas shopping, ‘Primarni’ shopping, the weekly shop shopping, spur of the moment shopping, shop till you drop shopping, ‘oooh, that’s just what I’ve been looking for’ shopping, car boot sale shopping or impulse shopping, if you want an opinion on shopping, Gill is the lady to speak to.

Indeed, particularly when it comes to clothes shopping, my word, can she shop! Being of a certain age, Gill is also a lady that likes to lunch. And, in her expert opinion, I can tell you that she thoroughly enjoyed herself in Bradford on Avon and, as she hadn’t visited in a while, she said that she will be telling her friends what a pleasant place it is so they can all make a return visit. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore too like The Shambles in Silver Street so it makes for a terrific place to meander on foot.

Feeling hungry?

As befits a town in the West Country, visitors will never go short if they’re looking for afternoon tea, but as this is west Wiltshire, it will of course be a Wiltshire cream tea. Probably not that different from Cornish, Devon, Dorset and Somerset cream teas, but as this is a prosperous place in the vicinity of the home counties, the waiting staff will possibly sound a bit posher than down in    deepest Devon. There are lots of delightful places to take a pew and enjoy morning coffee, lunch whether light or liquid plus of course, afternoon tea.

The five star choice here is the Bridge Tea Rooms in Bridge Street. In all respects, it’s quintessential nature oozes out of every aspect of the establishment, and that includes the building. But that is reflected in the prices with cream teas starting at £12.50 and upwards. But, if you have people on board who would be happy to pay an arm and a leg for tea at the Ritz, this is the memorable place for them. Booking’s essential. The town is also one of those places that isn’t dominated by any coffee, burger or pizza chains: always a good sign in my book. There are riverside walks and a charming park just by the bridge so one of the bakeries – this is sourdough bread country – could supply the wherewithal for a little picnic.

More Bradford on Avon rail replacement in the form of Barnes Irizar i6 heading to Westbury. JAMES UNDERWOOD

Tithe Barn & Granary

Just a short walk in the opposite direction from the town centre is the splendid Grade 1 listed 14th century tithe barn, once part of the richest nunnery in England, Shaftesbury Abbey. If there is anyone on the coach that appreciates medieval barns, particularly as this one has a very impressive timber raised cruck roof, or a crook frame roof, then this the place to come. Given that it apparently holds up 100 tons – in ye olde money – of stone tiles, it’s an impressive building being 167 feet long and 30 feet wide. And speaking again of ye olde money, it’s free to go in.

On the site visitors will also find The Granary which is made up of some of the other 14th century buildings that has a shoppe offering gifts, homeware and restored furniture. There is also a coffee shoppe. You pay in new money though. It’s a lovely site and visitors arriving on a coach can stroll from the coach park along the river Avon as you can’t take the coach there, but it will be worth it. A further short walk from the barn will bring visitors to the wharf on the Kennet & Avon Canal where they will find places to eat and drink while they watch people messing about on their boats.

When I was looking at the famous people associated with Bradford on Avon, there was only one name that caught my attention: General Henry Scrope Shrapnel. Yes, he of the exploding artillery shell, of the anti-personnel weapon. If you have any veterans on board your coach who were wounded by shrapnel, this is the place to come, or perhaps not.


The drop off point and coach parking is in the railway station car park, BA15 1DQ, where there are four bays plus toilets – built out of Bath stone, of course. Prices are reasonable but on a Sunday, parking will only cost 80p. Overflow coach parking is available on street in Moulton Drive, BA15 2DB. The signs to the coach park aren’t great. But when you see the buildings on the street that leads from the coach park and over Town Bridge to the centre look like something out of the Old Curiosity Shop, the town can perhaps be excused that it hasn’t cluttered up such a charming urban landscape with traffic signs. It also makes for a delightful walk into town.

Also, when you drive into the Station car park, please tell me that the station wasn’t built by Hornby. Actually, it was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was appointed engineer for the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway in 1845. The station building was designed to resemble a lodge or an estate house and is, of course, built out of Bath stone.

And, here’s a piece of totally useless though intriguing info to share with your passengers: while Bradford on Avon’s name is not hyphenated, the railway station of Bradford-on-Avon is. Apparently, it’s designed to help ensure that people who want to go to Bradford, Yorkshire, by train, don’t end up in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire instead. If you’ve been to both places, I do find it a bit implausible that people could possibly confuse two very different places. And this was decided before sat navs, don’t forget. So, if you want to catch a train at Bradford-on-Avon railway station, you will find it at Bradford on Avon. Don’t you just love England!

…and finally

Oh, and by the way, speaking as I was earlier of weight limits, there’s one in Bradford on Avon on the Town Bridge. It’s 18 tonne – in new money – for HGVs. It’s not an environmental restriction but a structural limit and it’s the only way to cross the river in the town. Should you ever be driving a wagon in excess of that limit and you go over the bridge and get nicked, prosecuted and fined, if you offer to pay the fine by credit card, the response might just be: ‘That’ll do nicely’, given the way cash is falling out of favour these days.

Explore Bradford on Avon –

01225 865 797 or [email protected]

Tithe Barn – 01225 865 733

The Granary – 01225 867 781

*For younger readers, Access was a credit card from 1973 to 1996 when it became part of Mastercard.

Weight watchers better be careful on Bradford on Avon’s Town Bridge. ALAN PAYLING