We visit the ‘magical’ town that’s just a 30-minute train ride from Bristol

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The historic town of Bradford-on-Avon has stunning river and canal walks, a plethora of independent shops and plenty of great places to eat and drink

Magical. That’s the word that keeps cropping up when you visit the historic town of Bradford-on-Avon.

Even more magical is the fact that it takes just half an hour - well, 32 minutes to be precise, if it’s on time - by train from Bristol Temple Meads.

It’s also testament to the beauty of Bradford-on-Avon that it still managed to enchant and delight when we visited the place on a wet weekday out of season but this charming town never fails to impress whatever the weather or time of year.

The heavens opened the moment I stepped off the train and onto the platform of the railway station built in 1848 and designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel of Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and SS Great Britain fame.

Gothic in style, this handsome station was built with honey-coloured Bath stone, as are so many of the properties in a town that dates back to Roman times.

Close to the border of Somerset and West Wiltshire, Bradford-on-Avon made its name as an import woollen cloth town but later became world famous for its rubber manufacturing.

The town is bisected by the River Avon and although many of the riverside mill buildings are now luxurious apartments with stunning views, there are plenty of reminders of its history.

The bridge over the river dates from the 13th century and boasts a weather vane known as ‘The Bradford Gudgeon’. It also has a 17th century lock-up, which is thought to have replaced a medieval chapel.

Walk over the bridge and you soon stumble upon the town’s bustling shops and quaint tea rooms, many of them housed in elegant Georgian buildings.

Connecting Market Street and Silver Street is The Shambles, a pedestrianised triangle of buildings on the site of the medieval market.

Many buildings around The Shambles are timber-framed and many date back to the 15th century (photo: Mark Taylor)Many buildings around The Shambles are timber-framed and many date back to the 15th century (photo: Mark Taylor)
Many buildings around The Shambles are timber-framed and many date back to the 15th century (photo: Mark Taylor) | Mark Taylor

Now home to a range of gift shops, cafes, a secondhand bookshop and a fantastic greengrocers selling local fruit and vegetables, some of the buildings around The Shambles are timber-framed and many date back to the 15th century.

There are several independent restaurants and pubs, including the splendid Swan Hotel (AD 1500), The Stumble Inn where you can enjoy cask ales from local Wiltshire breweries such as Hopback and Twisted, and the Bunch of Grapes, which has gained a national reputation for its excellent food.

Also popular are the cheese shop, the wine merchants and J.Alex Brown, a timeless ironmongers and hardware shop that opened in 1856.

But if it’s waterside walks you want, Bradford-on-Avon is hard to beat, with peaceful and picturesque routes along both the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon Canal.

Former mill buildings next to the river are now luxury apartments (photo: Mark Taylor)Former mill buildings next to the river are now luxury apartments (photo: Mark Taylor)
Former mill buildings next to the river are now luxury apartments (photo: Mark Taylor) | Mark Taylor

Before embarking on the 25-minute walk to the tiny village of Avoncliff, I stopped off at the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust cafe located close to the lock next to the wharf with its colourful narrowboats.

The cafe was packed with boat dwellers and mud-splattered cyclists and walkers. The coffee was good, as was my fat wedge of coffee and walnut cake, but those smoked bacon baps being enjoyed by a group of tired cyclists definitely warrant a return visit.

Before embarking on the walk to Avoncliff, I stopped off at the Tithe Barn, which is very much the jewel in the town’s tourism crown.

This English Heritage gem is a large 14th century barn that formed part of the medieval Barton Grange farm and it’s regarded as one of the finest medieval barns in England. In adjacent farm buildings, there are workshops and studios for resident artists, craft workers and restorers.

To get to Avoncliff, you can either take the lower path alongside the River Avon or the higher route along the even muddier towpath of the Kennet and Avon Canal which I did.

Narrowboats line the canal between Bradford-on-Avon and Avoncliff (photo: Mark Taylor)Narrowboats line the canal between Bradford-on-Avon and Avoncliff (photo: Mark Taylor)
Narrowboats line the canal between Bradford-on-Avon and Avoncliff (photo: Mark Taylor) | Mark Taylor

Tranquil and picturesque, the early spring air was heavy with the smell of woodsmoke from log burners on narrowboats of all shapes, sizes, colours and conditions.

As I walked along the towpath, past ducks, inquisitive herons and boats with names such as ‘Freedom’, ‘Our Discovery’ and ‘My Sanity’, I bumped into one of the boat dwellers, who was sorting out some of the chopped logs for his fire.

Jim has lived on his boat for eight years and he even works from home on the 50 foot vessel, which has wifi and a generator, although not solar panels as many of the boats do.

He said: “There’s a real community here and if there’s ever any trouble, everybody helps each other. We have a diverse crowd, too, with lots of families and kids living on the boats.

“The number of people living on boats off-grid has definitely increased since the cost of living crisis and post-pandemic.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world because it gives me my freedom and I can move it anywhere on the canal network. It’s quite magical.”

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