Saturday, October 5, 2013
Between the fish and the water
Because I'm drawn to small buildings that take unconventional forms I've posted about lock-ups – round, square, pyramidal – on several occasions. This is one of my favourites, a small building on the town bridge in Bradford-on-Avon. It has the typical lock-up features – small windows, strong stone roof, compact footprint. But its position on the bridge and over the river, and its structure – the base corbelled out from the bridge pier and its roof corbelled back in again and tapering to an elaborate finial – make it more striking than most.
The bridge itself was originally medieval and was repaired in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the lock-up's history is slightly confusing. Many sources say that before it was used to lock-up petty thieves and other miscreants, the building was a chapel, or that the lock-up was built on the 'foundations' of a chapel that existed here before. The building's official listing actually describes it as a chapel, saying that it was later used as a lock-up and an ammunition store. But the Victoria County History is doubtful. The only evidence for its use as a chapel is a comment by John Aubrey, who described in about 1660, 'a strong and handsome bridge, in the middest of which is a little chapel, as at Bath, for Mass'. This is said to be the only evidence for the building's religious use.* Leland does not mention it. By 1757 it was certainly a lock-up. William Hitchens, an early Methodist from Cornwall, was locked up in it for a night during that year.
The weather vane on top of the lock-up is in the form of a fish, a gudgeon, and apparently gives rise to a local expression for temporary imprisonment, 'below the fish and above the water'. Although some sources say the vane is 16th century, again there seems to be little evidence for this. The VCH notes that it is recorded in 1858 but not shown in an engraving of about 1800. It now seems to be brilliantly gilded, an eye-catcher for passing photographers, whose efforts ensure that there will be plenty of evidence for the building's survival into the 21st century.
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*On the other hand, Aubrey was a Wiltshire man, so may have had local knowledge.