I arrive with my friend Hannah after work and everything slows down. Coming to Bradford on Avon is like stepping back in time. Away from the quiet bustle of the medieval town centre, an old windmill sits on the side of a steep hill, overlooking the town. This is our quirky Bed & Breakfast and home for the next few days.
After getting settled, we head out for dinner at The Castle Inn , a cosy gastro pub in a large 18th-century stone building. Split between several rooms, with wooden floors and inviting armchairs, it retains a lot of its oldy-worldy charm. We enjoy a delicious dinner of chicken supreme for me, mushroom wellington for my vegetarian companion (Bradford-on-Avon caters well for herbivores.) Then I discover how amazing freshly-baked clafoutis is, from our table with a view of the twinkling lights of Trowbridge in the distance (we Googled it), to the sound of me scraping my bowl.
A sound night’s sleep back at the Old Windmill and it’s already time for a breakfast of organic and locally-sourced ingredients, served at a communal table in the dining room. In the garden long-tail tits, great tits and blue tits flit about, against far-reaching views of the Wiltshire hills beyond. Inside, a homey atmosphere is enhanced by a museum of curiosities formed by what owners Priscilla and Peter refer to as ‘exhibits’, collected from a lifetime of travelling. Staying here is an experience in itself.
Having settled here 30 years ago, our welcoming hosts are a font of local knowledge and point us towards the Iron Duke, a landmark on display in the centre. The Duke is a huge rubber-rolling machine, a relic from the industry that supported the town’s economy for 100 years until the early 1990s, taking over from the wool and cloth industry, the mainstay of the area for the six centuries prior. Along with the many weavers’ cottages, the Duke is one of many lasting remnants from the town’s history, so we go to meet him.
A wander around the independent boutiques and charity shops barely helps us to work up an appetite before it’s time to step back another hundred years for afternoon tea at The Bridge Tea Rooms. Victorian in style but originally a blacksmith’s cottage dating from 1502, the higgly-piggledy architecture gives the impression that the building is defying gravity, but we decide it’s worth the risk.
Alison and Roy, owners for thirty years, had to try a lot of cream teas to find the perfect combination of jam, sourced just across the border in Somerset, and clotted cream, from organic Jersey cows that graze six miles away. The result? They nailed it. Combined with Alison’s light, crumbly home-made scones it’s the best I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve had a few. They’re even better than the National Trust’s scones, which I don’t say lightly.
Joined by sandwiches, exquisite cakes and award-winning teas (we opted for one named Jane Austen – when in Wiltshire), it’s excellent fuel for more meanderings around town. We see the Saxon church, old industrial-buildings-turned-art-galleries, and the ancient bridge that crosses the River Avon, lined by daffodils and watched over by a resident swan sitting on its gigantic egg, oblivious to the traffic passing overhead.
Considering all the eating we’ve been doing, a walk is definitely in order and Bradford-on-Avon is surrounded by lovely countryside. You could even walk the eight miles to Bath and catch the train back. We don our walking boots for a circular walk that takes in the awe-inspiring 13th-century tithe barn, woodland, fields, a towpath where we see colourful houseboats gently barging their way along the canal, and an impressive aqueduct – the walk doesn’t take you over it, but stroll across anyway to enjoy the landscape of rolling hills.
Spring isn’t in full swing yet, but already we are treated with the cheering sight of wild garlic, anenomies, daisies, violets, primroses, catkins, magnolia and helibores. Nesting rooks, ducks, moorhens and the sing-song of chiffchaffs provide the soundtrack.
Like all good walks, ours ends somewhere we can find a well-deserved lunch. In its colourful dining room, kitsch chalets and a dining barge, The Lock Inn’s quirky canal-side appeal is in keeping with the town’s strong independent spirit. We tuck into huge burgers (one beef, one veggie), chosen from an extensive menu that includes roast dinners and the all-day ‘Boatman’s Breakfast’, while watching the boats glide by.
Despite still being full, we duly climb back in the time machine for the next stop on our itinerary: Mr Salvat’s Coffee Room, a Georgian-style parlour where the man himself greets us dressed in pantaloons and taking down orders with a pen disguised as a quill. Harpsichord music plays quietly in the background and we’re in our own period drama. After some good, simple coffee (no flat whites here) and sharing some sticky ginger cake while watching the world go by, we reluctantly head back to the car and present day.
Locals refer to Bradford-on-Avon affectionately as Bradford-on-Heaven. With its combination of history, old-timey charm, beautiful countryside and perfect scones, I can see why.
Photos by Rachael Stiles and Hannah Tribe
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