Widewanderer has landed back in Old England. It is to be an indefinite sojourn in this green and pleasant land, although the world does still offer an open invitation for to explore. For now, the bag is packed with camera (and pack horse booked to carry it!), and out into the verdant landscape of south-western England we go.
The cities are their usual bustling selves on a summer Saturday afternoon, not really much of an attraction for me; but only a half hour or so on a train gets one out into the countryside where typically English pursuits are to be found, just bubbling under the surface. Beer, cricket, puttering along the canal in a boat, cyclists, walkers, the polite “Good afternoon, how are you?” rarely to be found in the city, the country railway station complete with resident cat. Not necessarily in that order…
No more than twenty minutes out of the city of Bath on a lamentably crowded train, we’re into the valley of the River Avon. Mobile phone signal fades, and the incessant buzz of train passenger conversation is merely a background as I gaze out of the window at the gently passing landscape.
Farms, aqueducts and viaducts, weirs along the river, passing country stations at which the trains only call but occasionally, manor houses, ramblers out for a weekend hike (or older folk like myself, strolling in nonchalant fashion)… The robot voice in the train announces Bradford-on-Avon, my destination for the first time in five decades on the planet – I surprise even myself in the fact that I’ve never specifically visited this lovely little spot in rural England.
Bradford can trace its roots back to Roman times, and fragments of evidence of this civilization still exist. However, it found most of its prosperity through the woolen trade in the 17th century, and dozens of mills sprang up along the Avon to produce cloth from the raw material. Transport would be crucial to get the goods away to market: First to arrive was the canal, the original transport link from Reading and the River Thames in the east, to the Port of Bristol in the west. Use of canal declined in the 19th century with the coming of the railway, and it fell into dereliction. But restoration in the latter part of the 20th century created a working waterway once again, though more for the tourist trade than for the movement of goods.
The Kennet and Avon canal is also home to a vibrant community who make the water their residence, albeit constantly mobile. Meanwhile, the railway carries trains every hour or so in each direction from Bristol & Bath in the west towards Southampton, Portsmouth and Weymouth on the south coast.
Michael Flanders and Donald Swann sang about the railway, “The Slow Train”, essentially a lament about the impending closure of much of Britain’s rural railway under the Beeching Axe, “…No churns, no porters, no cat on a seat…” Today, though, the station cat at Bradford-on-Avon station was still on the prowl, across the tracks and sitting, majestically, on the edge of the platform. The cat is a cat, of course, and he didn’t stay there for long… He’s too expensive for entertaining the tourists, and he certainly won’t pass political comment about the up-coming EU Referendum!
One of the most striking buildings in Bradford is the medieval Tithe Barn. It is a barn of a place in every respect, 168ft long by 33ft wide, built in the 14th century. Originally part of a group of farm buildings, known as a Grange, it was part of the estates of Shaftsbury Abbey until the dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1539, at which point it became simply a farm building, in use as such until as late as 1974. In medieval times, it may well have been used to store “taxes” to the Church, or Tithes, hence its name. In the present age, it is now a tourist attraction, managed by English Heritage – and on this particular Saturday, its vast interior was set up as a theatre for a stage play. Well worth a visit if you are passing through, dear reader – and entry is free. As far as I know. At least that’s what is stated on English Heritage’s website.
I reckon another visit to the Avon Valley is needed soon. This time, I may well get off the train before Bradford, perhaps at Avoncliffe, where there is a delightful walk along the canal or riverbank towards Bradford Lock and the copious tea shoppes and canalside pubs. Life in the slow lane, folks – and I am quite warming to the idea of one day owning one of those narrow boats, and spending retirement days just puttering along England’s inland waterways, camera (and maybe the occasional pint of beer!) in hand, of course ;-D