Saturday, October 5, 2013

Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

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.


Hels said...

I always like to think that a building ON the water might have had a water-associated function, either initially or later on. The small building on Bradford-on-Avon's bridge is too lovely for storage of goods brought on boats, so I was thinking about some sort of mill.

That it was a lock-up by 1757 just meant that the town was resourceful enough to re-purpose its architecture :)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Interesting thought, Hels, but I think this is both too small and too high above the water for a mill.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Since Bradford-on-Avon seems to specialise in unusual chapels - witness St Mary Tory on the top of the hill, and the Saxon church with its sides sculptured back - like Lalibela - another little chapel on the bridge would seem likely - but not the present building, which looks post-medieval. Mass at present is offered in the Catholic church, that looks like a bank (which it once was) on the outside, and like a modern building with rough stone walls on the inside - continuing a tradition of celebrating the Mass in unlikely buildings? You could do a blog just on Bradford on Avon and vicinity - have you seen the elaborate and enigmatic tombs in Trowbridge Cemetery? Or the little twisted turret on the church at Whaddon?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, Bradford-on-Avon is full of interest, as is that church at Whaddon. I don't really know Trowbridge at all, so thanks for the mention of the tombs.

Peter Ashley said...

Your reference to 'an early Methodist from Cornwall' brings to mind lines from Betjeman's Cornish memories in his Summoned By Bells: "Through minty meadows, under bearded trees / And hills upon whose sides the clinging farms / Hold Bible Christians."

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ah yes, Bible Christians. A name that might turn any regular Methodist to booze – I mean, aren't ALL Christians Bible Christians? Well, not entirely, which issue was what the Reformation was in part about.