The parish of Westwood lies at the western extremity of Wiltshire, a mile to the south-west of Bradford-on-Avon, and stretches about 2.5 km from west to east and 1.5 km from north to south. It occupies an angle formed by the northward-flowing River Frome and the westward-flowing Bristol Avon; these rivers form its southern and northern boundaries, respectively. It includes five smaller settlements, Lower Westwood near the centre, Upper Westwood and Avoncliff to the north, Lye Green to the north-east, and the hamlet of Iford (which straddles the county boundary with Somerset) to the south-west. Since the Second World War, new housing development has created a ‘Middle Westwood’ in the fields between Upper and Lower Westwood. On the south-west and west, the parish adjoins Somerset and Avon.
The derivation of the place name is easy to guess, reflecting the former thick cover of woodland and its position as the ‘western wood’ of the Saxon royal estate of Bradford. The name has changed little over the centuries; it was ‘Westwuda’ in A.D. 987. Avoncliff (called ‘Ancliff’ in earlier times), as might be expected, stands on a limestone outcrop on a steep hillside above the Avon valley. Westwood is situated on the limestone plateau, and the clay soils were used for arable cultivation until the nineteenth century, since when pastoral farming, and particularly dairying, have predominated.
Westwood’s recorded history begins in the decade of the 980s, when King Ethelred‘s charters granted various pieces of land there to his servant, Aelfnoth, in 983 A.D., and again four years later to his huntsman, Leofwine. Evidence of earlier inhabitants is sparse: a few artefacts of the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods have been unearthed in the north-west corner of the parish; and pieces of pottery, wall plaster and an inhumation show that the parish was settled in Roman times.
In Norman times, Westwood was one of the estates assigned for the support of the monks at Winchester Priory, and the residents of the manor continued to be tenants of the Priory until it was dissolved by Henry VIII. The medieval population of Westwood was small. Domesday Book in 1086 recorded three serfs on the two demesne hides and six villeins and four bordars on the remaining hide. The parish population cannot have been more than a hundred at that time, and more probably somewhere in the region of fifty to seventy people. In Edward III’s reign, 22 parishioners paid the subsidy in 1332, and half a century later, 45 people were assessed in Westwood for the poll tax. For centuries, a sparse farming population lived in the small settlements of Lower and Upper Westwood and around the mills at Avoncliff and Iford, until expansion took place, probably in the later medieval period, due to increasing production in the parish’s two industries, cloth making and stone quarrying.
At the time of Domesday Book, it is unlikely that there was a church in Westwood. The earliest part of the present church of St Mary dates from the 1200s, or possibly 1100s, but it was in the late 1400s that its most handsome features – the nave, chapel and tower – were added, in the Perpendicular style of architecture. Westwood is one of a group of splendid Wiltshire and Somerset church towers built, probably by the same group of masons, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and financed by the increasing profits derived from the wool trade. These towers shared similar features: upper parts decorated with window tracery set in triangular frames; and richly decorated parapets and pinnacles. Westwood’s west tower is distinctive because of the wonderful gargoyles in the form of grotesque animals, below the parapets, and the octagonal spiral staircase on the south-eastern corner, leading to the belfry. This staircase, crowned with a cupola or dome, gives Westwood tower its distinctive appearance, making it a striking local landmark.
From medieval times, Westwood was a chapelry of the nearby larger parish of Bradford, so the vicars of Bradford were also vicars of Westwood, and officiated at services there until Westwood acquired full parochial status of its own in 1876. In 1975, Westwood formed part of the Bradford group ministry, and in 1983 it became part of the newly created benefice of Westwood and Wingfield, which still continues. A new vicarage, built in 1877/8 south-west of the church, was sold in 1965 and replaced by another built in the old vicarage garden by Knees of Trowbridge.
The most famous feature of the church, on the west wall of the nave above the font, has become variously known as the ‘Old Lad of Westwood’ or the ‘Devil of Limpley Stoke’. This is the figure of a winged demon, believed to date from the early 16th century, gnashing his teeth at the sight of each new child baptised into the Christian faith. Underneath the demon is the inscription: ‘Resist me and I will flee’.
From medieval times, the church was one of a cluster of three buildings which formed the nucleus of the parish for hundreds of years, the others being the manor house and the priest’s house. The priest’s house was demolished in the late 19th century. The parish includes two small country houses, Westwood Manor near the church, and Iford Manor on the River Frome. The Horton family occupied Westwood Manor in Tudor times. Thomas Horton, who died in 1530, was one of the most successful clothiers of his time. Cloth manufacturing at Iford flourished under his management, and he is thought to have been mainly responsible for the enlargements and improvements to Westwood church in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. E.G. Lister, who acquired Westwood Manor house in 1911, devised it to the National Trust, which still maintains it.
Iford Manor was also associated with the Horton family in the Tudor period, and with the Hungerfords in Stuart times. The county boundary runs through the house, which was sold in 1903 to the architect, Harold Peto, in whose family it remained until 1965. To the south and east of the house are the gardens he created, arranged in terraces up the steep hillside, backed with woodlands above the River Frome. Peto was a collector of Classical sculpture and stonework and his gardens have been described as “gloriously cluttered with Italian sculpture and sarcophagi”.
As with other local parishes, agriculture was the mainstay of Westwood’s economy until the last century, but the parish also had significant industries, resulting from its geology and physical geography. The ample water power provided by the Frome and Avon rivers, and the deposits of fuller’s earth which underlie the limestone strata near Avoncliff and Iford, were the foundations on which the cloth industry of the area flourished from the Middle Ages. Also, the lower ragstone deposits which occur at Upper Westwood have been exploited for many centuries by quarrying the limestone blocks.
Two grist and fulling mills have stood since at least the early 16th century at Avoncliff, one on each bank of the river. The mill on the westward side was used as a dye house, as well as to grind corn in 1731, but was converted into a fulling mill in 1763. The mill on the Bath side of the river was divided in the 18th century into a grist and a fulling mill (run by the Yerbury family.) The cloth manufacturing business of Moggeridge and Joyce further mechanized the cloth- making process at Avoncliff by installing machinery driven by water-power, c. 1791, possibly the earliest instance of this in the locality. From the mid-19th century until the late 1930s, both mills were used as flock mills, which broke up the fibres of old textiles for use, amongst other things, as fillers for upholstery.
According to Nick McCamley, Avoncliff is “essentially a child of the Industrial Revolution, born in 1796 with the coming of the Kennet and Avon Canal, fed by the quarries beneath the Westwood hillside and the mills on each bank of the river, and reaching its maturity in 1857 with the passage of the first train on the long delayed Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway”. The triple-arched aqueduct at Avoncliff, carrying the Kennet and Avon Canal over the River Avon, designed by John Rennie, was built in 1795-98, but has been constantly in need of repair because the limestone from which it was made is not strong enough to withstand the constant leakage of water.
The earliest records of a substantial quarrying industry at Westwood date from 1649. Small open quarries were worked sporadically over the centuries, before the Godwin family established themselves as quarry masters on a large scale, around 1800. By 1804, they were extracting stone of an excellent quality from an underground adit rather than from surface outcrops. By the mid-19th century, the quality of Westwood stone had earned a good reputation, and over the next half-century, output increased at a great rate. Westwood stone went to build many houses in Bath, as well as Holy Trinity church in Trowbridge (1838).
Other quarry companies – Randell & Saunders and the Bath Stone Firms Limited – competed with the Godwins. A narrow-gauge railway was constructed to transport the huge blocks of rough cut stone from the quarry to the cutting-yard by the railway track. In the first decade of the 20th century, there was a severe recession in the building industry, which resulted in the cessation of quarrying at Westwood by 1908. However, the labyrinth of tunnels, eight feet high and twelve feet wide, were a unique resource which would not be allowed to lie idle, and they have since been put to a number of imaginative uses, especially during the 1940s, after they were taken over by the Ministry of Supply in 1939.
As the economic centre of the parish increasingly shifted towards Avoncliff, another aspect of the hamlet’s development was to increase Westwood’s population by a third, from 390 people in 1831 to 631 in 1841. In 1835 the Bradford Poor Law Union, which included Westwood, was established, and a range of buildings called Avoncliff Square, west of the lane to Upper Westwood, were selected and bought as the Union Workhouse. The buildings were purchased for £3000 in 1836, and a further £2000 was spent on the conversion to a workhouse to house 250 inmates. Originally built around 1792, the buildings, which formed three sides of a square, were industrial dwellings, possibly constructed to house the young pauper apprentices employed in the cloth mills, and the overseer responsible for them.
The internal rooms were removed from the smaller houses to form wards and workrooms for the women (on the east) and men (on the west), and the central house was occupied by the workhouse master. New buildings included a large new block at the rear to be used as a kitchen, dining-room and chapel, and a gate house. The workhouse served the area for over eighty years. The few remaining inmates were transferred to Warminster in 1917, and for a while the empty building was let to the British Red Cross Society as a recuperation hospital for soldiers from the Front. After 1923, it was converted into the Old Court Hotel, and in the 1950s work began on altering the building into flats and small houses. It now forms twelve individual private dwellings.
By late Victorian times, the parish had more amenities to offer its five hundred or so inhabitants. There was a choice of chapels, as well as the parish church. A Methodist chapel at Upper Westwood, capable of holding 150 people, was built in 1862. (Sold off in the 1960s, it is now a private residence, ‘Broadview’). Baptists, who had lived in Westwood since the early 1800s, opened their own chapel in the main street of Lower Westwood in 1865, which was joined by a large Sunday school room twenty years later. The chapel was one of the ‘village stations’ affiliated to the active Particular Baptist meeting at Back Street, Trowbridge. (Both chapel and school room are now used for other purposes.)
In the early nineteenth century, a Sunday school, which began in 1821, was the only school in the parish. A day school, affiliated to the National Society, was built in 1841 at Lower Westwood, on the south side of the lane to Iford. In 1859, it was described as a good school room, where thirty boys and girls were taught by a mistress. In the later 19th century, children at the workhouse at Avoncliff attended their own school in the workhouse grounds. The National School was enlarged in 1892, and by 1908 over ninety pupils attended, although numbers had fallen to about 27 by the late 1930s. The old school proved inadequate for the increased numbers of pupils resulting from Westwood’s growth after the Second World War, and it finally closed in 1976. It was replaced by Westwood with Iford County Primary School, built at the north end of Boswell Road in 1975/6, where 120 children were being taught in 1978.
The earliest post office seems to have been at 37 Lower Westwood. Mrs Laura Isabel Windo, a stone mason’s wife, was listed in the 1903 Kelly’s Directory as the post mistress, although Bradford was the nearest telegraph and money order office. The post office moved to the old blacksmith’s forge in the 1950s and 1960s, before relocating again to the new Post Office Stores built in Tynings Way in 1967.
There have been two public houses in the parish for at least two hundred years, the New Inn at Lower Westwood and the Cross Guns at Avoncliff. The earliest named licensees were William Fisher at the Cross Guns and William Dyke at the New Inn in 1822. The New Inn may possibly date from the 1750s, perhaps being built to take advantage of increasing road traffic after the road running westwards through Lower Westwood to Iford was turnpiked in 1752. The inn was sited near the turnpike gate, where travellers stopping to pay the toll might also be tempted to seek refreshment. The building’s date-stone probably refers to an extension made in 1840.
The Cross Guns at Avoncliff is a seventeenth century building. The deeds, which apparently date from 1712, refer back to a public house there a century earlier. By the 18th century, it was called the Carpenter’s Arms, but became the Cross Guns at some date in the early 19th century, possibly not long before 1822. It has been suggested that the name may have changed in recognition of the Bradford Division of Volunteer Yeomanry, who established a rifle range nearby during the wars with France. The inn was frequented by bargees using the canal in the nineteenth century. More recently, its large garden sloping down to the river has been terraced in concrete to provide a scenic dining area during the summer.
The last seventy years have brought unprecedented change to Westwood. What was a small farming parish has become a residential community which has more than doubled its population, from 468 in 1921 to 915 in 1951, and 1,120 by 2001. Much housing development has taken place, and a ‘Middle Westwood’ has emerged in the new estates built between Upper and Lower Westwood, forming the new centre of the parish. The 2001 census listed 510 dwellings in the parish. Most residents now find their work away from the village – in Bradford, Trowbridge, Bath and Bristol – making Westwood a dormitory or commuter village. The catalyst which accelerated these changes was the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
Since the closure of the quarries before the First World War, the eastern part of the quarry tunnels had been used for growing mushrooms. The Agaric Company found the relatively stable ambient temperatures and the high humidity underground were suitable for mushrooms. The first crop was produced in 1928, but within a decade various problems – roof falls, a viral infection, and labour shortages – caused production to cease.
The Luftwaffe raids of 1941 led the government to search for safer places in which to manufacture guns and munitions. Westwood was chosen as one such location, and the Ministry of Supply invited the Royal Enfield Motor Cycle Company of Redditch, in the Midlands, to operate a proposed underground factory at Westwood for the Directorate of Instrument Production. The underground quarry workings were cleared to make factory accommodation, and about six hundred workers, mostly drafted into the area, (as well as many local women and girls), manufactured gun-control equipment. The (‘temporary’) ‘Red Bungalows’, 94 of them, were built north of the lane to Iford for the Enfield workforce by the War Department, and Queen Mary saw the residents on a morale-boosting visit in 1943. What amounted to a small village of temporary dwellings and ancillary buildings was erected for the Enfield workers, on an area now occupied by Bobbin Lane and the Council estate, between Upper and Lower Westwood, and known by locals as ‘the site’. The fields between Upper and Lower Westwood were filled and effectively there was now a single community. The Enfield workers were not the only strangers in Westwood; at various times during the War years, the parish was home to Polish refugees, London evacuee children and Italian prisoners-of-war.
The air raids showed the pressing need to find safe, secure and secret storage for the contents of the national museums and art galleries. Once again the Westwood tunnels had a part to play. It was agreed that the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum would jointly take over 20,000 square feet of the quarry tunnels. Air conditioning plant was installed to control the humidity underground, and “by the end of 1942 Westwood probably housed the greatest and most valuable collection of cultural and artistic artefacts assembled in one location anywhere in the world”. These included pictures from the National Portrait Gallery, tapestries from the V.& A., the Elgin Marbles, and the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane, ‘Kitty Hawk’, the latter dismantled in packing cases. Staff also migrated from London to look after their treasures, and during the later War years all of the British Museum’s business was conducted from the Old Court Hotel at Avoncliff.
The War ended in 1945, and all of the artefacts stored underground at Westwood had returned to their old homes by 1950. The Enfield factory continued until 1970, switching production to motorcycles and motorcycle parts. The first Council houses were built in the 1950s at Farleigh View and Hebden Road. The ‘Red Bungalows’ were acquired by the Council in 1960, and when they were demolished later in that decade they were replaced by a new council estate centred on Boswell Road, Tynings Way and Hebden Road. Several private estates soon flanked the Council development, beginning with Linden Crescent, a small estate designed to attract people in a higher income bracket. Similar estates followed, including The Pastures, which was much larger.
Quarrying was resumed in the late 1980s, by the Bath and Portland Stone Company, producing the huge honey-coloured limestone blocks which are widely used for building and restoration work. The tunnels found yet another use in 1985, when Wansdyke Security Limited took possession of the old British Museum storage area, to use as high security underground storage for commercial documents and company records. The War and post-war period have “changed the small rural village of Westwood into a collection of large modern estates with parts of old Westwood dotted in between”.