House sitting my way through a winter in the UK, I’ve learned much about the many things to do in Bradford on Avon. This quaint English village has become my temporary home for 32 days as I spend time walking the dog and exploring the area. It’s often confused with Bradford, a village located in the north of England, which is very famous for Indian food. In contrast, Bradford-on-Avon is a quaint, historic village in the southwest corner of England, very near the Cotswolds, and has only one Indian restaurant in town.
Few travelers spend 32 days in this area, so here’s your complete guide to things to do in Bradford on Avon in 32 hours.
First, a really brief history lesson…
This place is really old! The medieval town sprouted along the River Avon and became a wealthy area due to the milling industry way, way back in the Middle Ages. According to the helpful guy at the Tourist Information Center, “Not much has changed in all those years. The original buildings still stand”. The Saxon Church is believed to date back to 700AD while the picturesque town bridge, which is the centerpiece of the village, dates back to the 1300’s. On the bridge, there is a small building which was originally a chapel but was later used as a town lockup where the drunks were tossed to sober up.
This town really feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Even in the somewhat dreary winter months, it’s so picturesque there is a photo op around every corner. It’s so authentically old and incredibly quaint, a current TV show is filmed on location here.
Exploring Bradford-on-Avon: DAY 1
Enjoy a long, leisurely breakfast at The Lock Inn. Set along the canal (and right next to the lock) this place has a great menu selection for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and boast their “World Famous Boatman’s Breakfast”. The picnic tables outside have a perfect view of the canal while the interior is decorated in a very eclectic style with random stuff clinging to the walls and hanging from the ceiling. In traditional British pub style, you order at the bar, pay, grab your beer and take a seat.
The current owners, Dick and Jane (seriously), have been in business since 1990 and also run a B & B called Widbrook Barnes. I had an interesting chat with Dick over a cup of coffee one afternoon. His opening line to me sounded something like “Blah, blah, blah….” I smiled and pretended I understood him while I tried to tune into his accent. Midway through the conversation, he mentioned his Bristol roots – home of a really unusual English accent. (So, it wasn’t me!)
The quirky stuff hanging on the walls and dangling from the ceiling was mostly donated by his regular customers, each one telling a story of his 27 years in business. He takes pride in the fact that “we don’t really have a niche. We’re not a cafe, not a pub, not a restaurant. Everyone is welcome here.” Dick also boasted that Bradford-on-Avon was once named in the “Top 10 cities to visit in the UK”, according to the Sydney Herald.
When traveling alone, it’s always a challenge to find a place to dine alone and feel comfortable and welcome. THIS is my quirky, go-to place!
Exploring Bradford-on-Avon canals
The Lock Inn is set right along the canal so you can walk off your huge “Boatman’s Breakfast” by exploring the canal area on foot. The Kennet & Avon Canal first opened in 1727 to transport goods to Bath and Bristol and was expanded all the way to London in 1810 as a way to transport stuff throughout the country.
Today, you’ll find longboats moored along the canals housing low-income people, or folks who just choose to live a more simple lifestyle. The canals are also very popular walking trails and stretch all the way to Bath if you’re energetic enough for a 9-mile walk. (Luckily, there are pubs along the way allowing you to rehydrate!) A shorter walk (about 90 minutes roundtrip) will take you to the neighboring village of Avoncliff.
(To find other popular local walks in the Bradford-on-Avon area, check this website.)
Exit the canal at the sign pointing to The Tythe Barn, just west of The Lock Inn. This barn dates back to the 17th century and was used for collecting taxes, in the form of goods, as a way to fund the church. Some of the old buildings surrounding the barn are now used as gift shops and art galleries. Stop and shop!
The trail from the Tythe Barn will take you back to a path along the River Avon leading to the old town bridge, the historic centerpiece of this town. Just east of the bridge you’ll find The Bridge Tea Rooms, a perfect spot to experience a traditional English tea. This tea room is filled with character and transports you back to another era. (Watch your head as you enter through the tiny door, especially if you’re over 5 feet tall!)
After finishing your tea and scones, cross the bridge to the north side of town and wander through the quirky shops housed in the original old buildings. Turn left up Market Street then right to get to The Shambles, part of the medieval meat market area. The old buildings now contain shops selling everything from home furnishings to pet toys. There’s also a great used book shop on the corner of Market Street.
Dinner at The Dandy Lion
Located on Market Street right across the street from The Swan Hotel, this place is old and interesting and very dimly lit inside, tastefully decorated with vintage photos of the area. The building dates back to the 18th Century and has been a Boot and Shoe Business, a Medicine and Wine Merchant, a Grocery Store, a Steakhouse, a Bar and Bistro and then finally became The Dandy Lion in 1990.
Built in 1999, The Wilshire Music Center offers a wide variety of concerts from classical music, to Bollywood, to David Bowie. Check their website to see what’s playing. Also, The Swan Hotel offers a regular schedule of live music – check here for their current schedule.
Exploring Bradford-on-Avon: Day 2
Breakfast at Fat Fowl Cafe
Located just across the bridge on the northwest side, this cafe has a more modern feel within an old building. There’s a great outdoor seating area perfect for lingering on beautiful mornings. Fill up on a gourmet breakfast and a large cappuccino, you’ll need the energy for walking!
After breakfast, head back across the bridge to the Tourist Information Center, located on the southwest side of the bridge. This center provides a detailed walking map for 20P. The full walking tour takes 2-3 hours, longer if you stop to capture the magical village in photos! Some highlights include:
Along Church Street: Church House, Masonic Hall and The Saxon Church of St. Laurence: all have interesting architecture and fascinating history dating back to medieval times.
At the end of Church Street, follow the steep paths and narrow stairways leading up to Newton, Wine Street, and Tory. On this route, you’ll find ancient weaver’s cottages built into the terraced hillside, the remains of an old brewery, and The Chapel of St. Marys Tory.
(Warning: lots of steps but incredible views all the way to Salisbury Plain!)
Follow the steps and narrow alleys back down to the river. Once you’ve completed the walking tour loop, you’ve earned a delicious lunch so head to The Swan Hotel!
Lunch at The Swan Hotel
This historic building dates back to 1500 and still maintains an old-world charm. The restaurant serves typical British pub food as well as a large selection of Thai dishes. They’re also famous for traditional English Sunday roast served from 12 – 3 for the after church crowd. (One Sunday morning I was at the bar ordering a cappuccino and I SWEAR I saw Mr. Darcy sipping tea, wearing his “wellies” like he’d just ridden his horse into town. And if you don’t know who he is, read “Pride and Prejudice”!)
So, if you’ve only got 32 hours in Bradford-on-Avon, see as much as you can but be sure to allow time to sit on a park bench and watch the river flow by. Don’t rush. It’ll still be there tomorrow. If you’re looking for more fascinating history in this area, there are tons of things to do in Bath, located a quick train ride away!
Getting to Bradford-on-Avon
Train – From London Paddington station, it’s less than 2 hours by train to Bradford-on-Avon station. Check the Traveline website to plan any train/bus trips anywhere in England.
Car – By car, it’s about 2.5 hours west of London along the M4.
Places to Stay
There are quite a few charming inns to choose from in this village. A few options:
The Swan Hotel (Four Star) Hotels Combined
The Castle Inn (Four Star) Hotels Combined
Widbrook Grange Hotel (Three Star) Hotels Combined
Leigh Park Hotel (Three Star) Hotels Combined
Widbrook Barnes (Have some fun with Dick and Jane. Contact them directly for rates.)