Under the fish and over the water: Bradford-on-Avon's implausibly picturesque blind house


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This is the Town Bridge in Bradford-on-Avon, a small Wiltshire town just a few miles upstream from Bath. And this is the town's lock-up, locally known as a 'blind house'. Blind house is a Wiltshire term, probably derived from their typical paucity of windows, but similar lock-ups are found around the country under all manner of regional names. Dating from a time before professional police services, and hence rural police stations, were even a thing, they offered somewhere to hold criminals until they could be taken to a magistrate. Perhaps even more frequently, they were somewhere to stash problem drunkards until they simply slept it off.

Bradford grew around a ford, hence the name, but a bridge here was mentioned as early as 1200. The earliest bridge or bridges here were probably wooden; it's not clear when it was first built in stone. The oldest surviving parts of this bridge are the southern two arches of the eastern side, probably from the late 13th or early 14th centuries, which are distinctive in being pointed, while all the other arches are rounded. The bridge was widened in 1769, and the entire western side of it dates from this time. You can just about make out the widening from this angle.

The origin of the lock-up is a bit murky. Most sources seem to say it was built in the "17th century", but many of them suggest it was rebuilt or converted from an earlier building used as a chapel, which turns out to be somewhat questionable. Actually that turned into the most interesting part of this video, in my opinion, but for those who don't share my fondness for nitpicking historiography, I'll cover the basics of its life as a lock-up before vanishing down that rabbit hole.

The interior is usually off-limits but opened occasionally by volunteers of the local heritage society, and last year I got a quick look. Please excuse the dreadful camera work - it's tiny, poorly lit, and there was a queue of other people waiting their turn. In the 18th century it was a single cell, but in the 19th it was divided into two cells, both essentially identical but mirrored. There's an uncomfortable looking metal bunk and the most basic toilet provision imaginable - an open hole down to the river. For a so-called blind house, it's not actually that dark, but this window was bricked-up for most of its use as a holding cell.

The roof is topped by a gudgeon, a species of freshwater fish which has been adopted as a symbol for the town. Anyone locked up here was locally said to be 'under the fish and over the water'.

As I said, these lock-ups are pretty common, and indeed the next town upriver has one too. This is Trowbridge's lockup, which as you can see is topped off by a stone ball. Supposedly, in the 19th century the young lads of Bradford and Trowbridge would enjoy whiling away a Saturday night by 'invading' the other town for a big old fight, and with no football team emblems to rally behind, used the lock-up decorations as their 'gang signs': the Knobs versus the Gudgeons. I swear I'm not making this up.

But what of the claim the Bradford lock-up used to be a chapel?

On the face of it, it's a very believable claim. It used to be fairly common for medieval bridges to incorporate chapels or even full-blown churches. Here for example is Exeter's Old Exe Bridge, completed in 1214 and incorporating a Church of St Edmund's. Here's another example from St Ives in Cambridgeshire. Perhaps this is why the claim that Bradford's lock-up was built as a chapel is so readily and easily accepted.

However, when I visited to look inside, I was handed an informational print-out, sadly lacking any author name to cite here, which I must credit for making me think twice about the validity of this story. It claims that the only written evidence this was ever a chapel comes from the writing of John Aubrey, a 17th century antiquarian who this leaflet describes somewhat scathingly as "an amiable dilettante who dabbled in history and natural history" and whose "descriptions tend to be inaccurate". In contrast, it points out, "in the previous century the more reliable and painstaking John Leland described the bridge but said nothing of any chapel. If there ever was one surely, he, a clergyman, would have mentioned it".

Of course, I felt compelled to check out both primary sources for myself, and having done so, I am inclined to think our anonymous leaflet author might have a point. John Leland spends half of his total word count on Bradford-on-Avon detailing the large parish church, vicarage, parsonage, the chapel at the top of the hill, and so on. You definitely feel he would have mentioned a bridge chapel if it existed at that point.

Aubrey's claim that there was a chapel in the 17th century is kind of unconvincing when encountered in the original text. He simply says:

"Here is a strong and handsome bridge in the middest of which is a little chapell, as at Bathe, for Masse".

That's it. No details. No record of which saint it was dedicated to, no anecdote of seeing preaching there, just an offhand observation that it reminded him of a similar place in Bath.

Personally, I'd never heard of a chapel on a bridge in Bath, but a quick Google revealed that roughly here at the location of the modern-day Churchill Bridge, a seventeenth century traveller like Aubrey would have encountered St Lawrence's Bridge, which looked something like this.

You can definitely see a very strong visual resemblance to Bradford's. So you can well imagine Aubrey, knowing of the St Lawrence Chapel at Bath, would assume this very similar looking construction was for the same purpose.

Just to add to the potential confusion, the ancient Saxon church in Bradford is also dedicated to St Laurence, and I found this Victorian artwork entitled St Lawrence's Bridge, Bradford-on-Avon, despite the fact no other source seems to attach St Lawrence's name to Bradford's bridge or 'chapel'. Either I am getting confused or the painter has somehow conflated the appearance of Bradford and the name of Bath's old bridges.

Visual erratum: I filmed Holy Trinity Church instead of St Laurence's Church, because I'm an idiot.

And actually, the rabbit hole doesn't stop there. Because a slightly less quick google turned up an archaeological paper of 1905 entitled "Bath Old Bridge and the Chapel Thereon", which casts some reasonable doubt on the idea that Bath's bridge chapel was ever, in fact, really a chapel.

It notes that the "housing" at Bath was smaller than Bradford's lockup; too small to contain a consecrated altar, and without an altar, impossible for it to be a venue for mass. It notes that the only textual evidence for mass being held there is very weak, and suggests it was more likely a kind of glorified niche or alcove, perhaps containing a painting or saint's icon. A place where travellers would stop to offer a prayer, sure, but perhaps falling somewhat short of what the word "chapel" typically denotes: Bath's chapel lacked a priest, hosted no services and barely qualified as a building.

Aubrey's claim that Bradford's bridge had a chapel "for mass, like Bath" therefore seems all the sketchier, if Bath's chapel probably wasn't a chapel and almost certainly didn't host mass.

Still, while the documentary evidence for a chapel here seems to be a bit thin, I should emphasise that finding fault in the written evidence FOR something is very much not the same thing as finding evidence AGAINST it. Quite besides written evidence, there is the matter of the structure itself. As mentioned earlier, some of the windows are too big for a structure built as a lock-up, and seem to be of a 13th century vintage; the corbelling at the bottom of the structure has also been dated to that sort of era. The wave of lock-up construction came several centuries later, whereas chapels on bridges were pretty common at that time. So the building was almost certainly something else before it was a lock-up, and a chapel is a credible best guess - at least if we use the rather looser definition of chapel, as above: a place for travellers' prayers, but probably not a place for mass. As such, most people seem to accept the chapel theory, regardless of Aubrey's potential unreliability.

In a way, it's a bit of a shame it can't be repurposed once again. It's big enough to host some sort of coffee or street food kiosk, or a larger version of those community libraries you find popping up in old phone boxes, perhaps. But the door is a hefty step up from the pavement, which is in itself far too narrow to cope with customers waiting here, so it seems to me like it's simply not practical.

I would have liked to make this video a spiritual sequel to my Somerset fives wall video, and go around half a dozen Wiltshire villages to feature all their blind houses, but public transport just isn't up to it, and Wikimedia only has low-resolution photos for the most part, so the lazy slideshow option doesn't work either. There is a good post on the Hidden Wiltshire website though you might want to check out.

But that's it for this video. Thanks to the heritage-minded volunteers who ran the blind-house open day, wrote the leaflet and so on, everyone else whose work I used to make this video, and thanks to you for watching. Cheers.