Sunday morning found us killing a couple of hours in Bradford-on-Avon, having stayed overnight at a hotel just outside the town following a family wedding nearby. It has to be said that Bradford-on-Avon is a very pleasant place to kill a couple of hours, with a number of delightful and historical buildings to see, including the ancient bridge with its chapel-turned-town-lockup and mediaeval tithe barn. But we had done no advance research in what we ought to see. I was therefore intrigued to see a small sign pointing toward the ‘Saxon Church’. This took us along Church Street. There was certainly a church on this street but it didn’t look particularly Saxon to me; in fact it was the parish church of Holy Trinity. Next to the entrance to the churchyard however there was another sign pointing toward an evidently ancient stone building with lofty walls and tiny windows; this is the church of St Laurence and is a rare example of an almost intact Saxon building.
I have since discovered that there is plenty of information about the church on the internet, though the origin and date of the building remains a matter of debate. The building was ‘rediscovered’ in 1857 by Canon Jones, vicar of Holy Trinity and a notable historian, who was intrigued by two sculptured angels discovered during the enlargement of a chimney in what was then a schoolroom and which indicated that an ancient building had stood somewhere in the area. It was when viewing the town from the hill to the north that he noticed that this building seemed to be taller than the surrounding properties and had a roofline resembling a church. Further investigation including the removal of adjacent buildings revealed its true identity.
Canon Jones believed that this church was the same as that mentioned by William of Malmesbury as being built by St Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury. As Aldhelm died c.709 this would make the church very old indeed. However the architecture indicates a later date and the guide leaflet produced by the trustees suggests that it was built after Bradford was granted to the nuns of Shaftesbury in 1001.
Outside the church is decorated with a row of blind arcading supported by pilasters. The few windows and the doorways are small and narrow, giving a dark and mysterious atmosphere to the interior. The angels discovered in the 19th Century are now located high on the east wall of the nave. The altar in the chancel and the font in the north porticus have been constructed from stones found in and around the church. Marks on the south wall of the nave indicate there was once a south porticus which matched that of the north but which is no longer extant. Buttresses on either side of the south door were constructed in the Victorian era in order to strengthen the structure following the removal of adjacent properties.
The church is clearly well cared for and is occasionally still used for worship. I was moved by its quietness and almost stark simplicity. It is a remarkable survival and I am grateful for those who placed the direction signs to the ‘Saxon Church’ so we could discover it for ourselves.