Bath is famous for its Georgian architecture, Roman roots and independent shops. It’s a spectacular place to visit, but parking can be expensive and it’s definitely off the beaten path.
After a while you might wonder what else our beautiful country has to offer and cross the border into Wiltshire. Well, just down the road in Bradford-on-Avon you’ll find a completely different vibe.
Regency crescents give way to picturesque medieval terraces where each house seems to have its own personality. There is a wonderful mix of styles, all coexisting amicably in the compact city centre.
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I went to Bradford for the first time this week and was amazed to find that two hours of parking – right next to the station – was just £1.30. Public toilets are also free – is that amazing?
And if all that didn’t convince me that I had traveled back 10 years, I was about to take an even bigger leap into the past, when – at the junction of Silver Street and Coppice Hill – I caught a glimpse of a magnificent sight which took me back to 1501.
The Shambles is a small, narrow shopping street that runs from Silver Street to Market Street and is a must visit for anyone spending time in Bradford-on-Avon. It started life as an open meat market in medieval times, with several temporary stalls.
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These rickety structures were called “scammels” by the Anglo-Saxons, but due to the “sc” being more like “sh”, this became the modern word “shambles”. The only other surviving street of this type is thought to be in York.
During the 1500s the market stalls were formalized and eventually replaced with proper buildings. Some of the half-timbered houses, built around 1600, remain largely unchanged and can still be seen today.
When people came to the market, they paid a “tolsey” fee. This imposing building had a sturdy wooden door and overlooked the High Cross, Pillory and Whipping Post of Silver Street. These days, Claire Hembrough runs a boutique, Strawberry Blue, on the historic site.
She said: “The cellars under this store were part of the town jail and they used to lock people in there before they were taken to the stocks. I think they also burned witches on Silver Street, where the zebra crossing is now.
“Over the years this building has been a pub, electrical store, hairdresser and Tillion’s glassworks. Then I opened Strawberry Blue in 2016.”
Claire worked in Vinegar Hill, on Milsom Street in Bath, where she gained experience selling gifts and household goods. She was living in Bridgeyate when the Shambles shop appeared and she seized the opportunity with both hands.
“I was looking everywhere for a store and then when this one arrived I knew it would be perfect. I came to see it and while I was here I saw a small apartment for sale, just from the other side of the river, and I thought ‘this will do me’.
“Now I wake up every morning to a view of swans nesting on the river and have a 30 second commute to work. I love this place, there is a real sense of community .There are a lot of locals and day-trippers coming in, it’s quite busy,” she said.
Just opposite Claire’s shop you’ll find one of The Shambles’ most traditional – and colorful – shopkeepers. Bloomfield Fruit and Veg has an eye-catching display of produce you can’t help but admire.
Graham, the owner, has lived in Bradford-on-Avon for around 20 years and worked for a food company in Trowbridge. He explained that a greengrocer had stayed in the same place for decades.
He said: “Before me, a lady called Karen Bloomfield had this shop and that’s how it got its name. She had been here for 33 years, until the pandemic. I reopened it in September of this year because I wanted to work more flexible hours.
“I’m a single dad with three kids so having this shop allows me to work from 9am to 3pm and then pick them up from school. It’s a very popular shop and we also do deliveries and supply all the nurseries. ”
As you descend The Shambles, leaving Coppice Hill behind you, medieval buildings tower above you, blocking out the sun. There’s a cozy cafe called The Bolthole on one side, and on the other, a brand new butcher’s shop.
Chris Banable opened Meat at The Shambles just this year after accumulating over 30 years of experience in the business. He grew up in Bradford-on-Avon before moving to Bath, where his father still runs the Moorland Road butcher shop.
He said: “I’ve had my own shop in Keynsham for 25 years but always wanted to go back to Bradford-on-Avon. I always walked around thinking ‘why isn’t there a butcher here? and I think every town deserves a good traditional butcher.”
Chris estimated that it had been around 12 years since his hometown had tasted good quality meat prepared by local hands. It was a surprise, considering there were at least five different butchers here.
Now, after many lean years, the people of Bradford-on-Avon are clamoring to visit his shop. He said: “It was amazing, we had a very warm welcome. I think people are so happy to have a butcher again. They tell all their friends about it and they happen too.
“A few weekends ago there was a lady here and there was a queue for the butchers and a queue for the vegetable shop, and a little bit of joking back and forth, and she said “it’s like stepping back 100 years”.
If you wander further down the street, you’ll come across Ex Libris – an intriguing bookstore you can browse for hours on end – and a sign for the old post office, which opened in the 19th century. Nowadays, it is a nursery for children.
Returning to the daylight and bustle of 2022, you will spot the Swan Hotel, which was built in 1500. With all the experience of those centuries, this should be a safe bet for a lunch.
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