The town of Chipping Sodbury and village of Old Sodbury are the main constituents of the parish of Sodbury (Little Sodbury has its own parish). The total population of the parish is over 5,000. Geographically it is a fairly large parish, including much farming land and describing an L shape stretching down The Ridge on its western side, and extending well to the east of Old Sodbury almost as far as Badminton. The parish lies within the unitary authority of South Gloucestershire which came into being in 1996 following the abolition of the county of Avon. Avon itself was an unloved temporary phenomenon having existed only since 1974, before which this area lay within Gloucestershire proper.
The town is frequently described as being part of the Cotswolds, although really only the east side of the parish, including Old Sodbury, is strictly in the hills. The Cotswolds escarpment, which runs through Old Sodbury, is here quite low at 300 feet above the Vale of Sodbury whilst it reaches as high as 750 feet at points elsewhere.
The first-time visitor to Chipping Sodbury cannot fail to be impressed by the width and splendour of its main street. Half of it is called “High Street” and the other half, appropriately, “Broad Street”. It is claimed by some to be the widest street in England, although this is disputed. The width was to accommodate a substantial market held from the Middle Ages, the source of the epithet “Chipping” which comes from an old word for market. (It first appears in the town’s name in 1452.) The other element of the town’s name, “Sodbury”, is thought to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon for “Soppa’s stronghold”. Who this “Soppa” was, is unknown – he belongs to the Dark Ages before the Norman Conquest, about which we have precious few written details.
Before the Conquest
We do, however, have considerable archeological evidence of human activity in the Sodbury area centuries before the Norman Conquest. The higher lands of the Cotswolds were crossed by prehistoric ridgeways between forts and other important places. A neolithic burial chamber has been found at Grickstone Farm, just off the A46. Also in this area is the Iron Age hill fort, often referred to misleadingly as the ‘Roman Camp’. There is also evidence of Iron Age camps along The Ridge. The Romans themselves may have used the hill fort but after subduing the native Britons, preferred to inhabit the fertile valleys, and Roman sites have recently been discovered in the Vale of Sodbury.
The name of “The Ridings” given to the area of land north of Chipping Sodbury may be evidence of Danish influence in this area during the Dark Ages – the word indicates a third portion of land, as in the Yorkshire Ridings.
New age, new town
By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 there were two estates, or manors, called Sodbury, one centred on Little Sodbury and our own centred on Old Sodbury. The Domesday Book records Old Sodbury as belonging to a man called ‘Britric’, an Anglo-Saxon nobleman. It contained two mills and a park, by which is meant an uncultivated area for hunting. The large common areas around the Sodburys are what is left of this.
The story goes that Britric was an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who had refused to marry Princess Matilda of Flanders. Matilda was later to marry none other than William the Conqueror. After the conquest the royal couple apparently went about divesting Britric of his lands, perhaps out of spite. Certainly, Old Sodbury was confiscated in its turn, and by the 12th century the manor had landed up in the hands of the Crassus family.
Markets were the chief means of distributing goods and bringing buyers and sellers together in medieval society; the rights to hold them were a source of great wealth and jealously guarded. Some had existed by tradition before the Norman Conquest. After the Norman conquest, new markets were in the gift of kings so the Norman monarchs, both to reinvigorate the economy and swell their own coffers, set about establishing them with glee.
It was early in the 12th century that William Crassus was granted the right to hold a market on his land on Mondays (this was later changed to the first Tuesday in the month) and Thursdays. Interestingly, he prefered not to establish the market near his manor house in Old Sodbury. Whether he wanted to keep the market at arm’s length or more likely because the slopes of the Cotswolds escarpment would have been difficult to access, he found a site for his market towards the western end of his lands. Thus Chipping Sodbury was born.
He placed his new town on raised ground near the river at an important crossing on the Bristol to Cirencester road and the ancient salt route from Droitwich (also the Pilgrims Way between Kingswood and Keynsham Abbeys). Whether there was already a settlement here is not known. The area he laid out for his town was less than 1/2 mile square and remains virtually the same to this day. It seems that rather than place a market square at the centre of converging streets, as in a traditional town, thereby restricting access in and out, Crassus built one long, broad street with space for stalls on either side. This arrangement remained over the centuries and indeed a market was held on Thursdays in Chipping Sodbury right up to 1954.
Crassus obtained the right to hold an annual fair on the name day of St John the Baptist, the dedication of the parish church, June 24th. The town also gained the right to hold ‘mop’ fairs for the recruiting of agricultural labour. These continue to be celebrated, although have long been for pleasure rather than work.
Chapel to church
The new town did not include provision for a church: the residents were expected to worship at St John the Baptist in Old Sodbury. The early importance of this church is shown by the fact that substantial parts of the present building in Old Sodbury date back to the late Norman period. It was quickly recognised, however, that the busy inhabitants of the new town could not be expected to make the long walk east so a chapel of ease, with the same dedication to St John the Baptist, was built in Chipping Sodbury in 1284 on a somewhat restricted site next to the river. Chapel it may have been, but as congregations swelled over the centuries it took on the proportions of a substantial church. It was extensively restored in the Victorian period by G E Street, architect of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. However only in the 19th century did it become a church in its own right. Usually, a chapel of ease would not have permission to bury the dead in its grounds, but there are records of burials at Chipping Sodbury from the 17th century, further evidence that the chapel had considerable prestige.
Town and borough
Like many market towns, Chipping Sodbury was being called a “borough” soon after its foundation, although the definition of this term seems to have varied widely. At any event, it was effectively its own manor surrounded by the greater manor of Old Sodbury and had a degree of self governance under the direction of a bailiff and a team of some of the town’s ‘burgesses’. Burgesses were privileged tenants of the borough who owed a rent to the landlord in money as opposed to services, a system that had been designed to stimulate trade in medieval society. These burgesses would have lived chiefly in houses fronting the main street with their long, thin plots stretching out behind them.
It seems eventually residents came to feel that their system of local government was inadequate because in 1680 the town obtained a new borough charter from King Charles II allowing for it to be administered by a group of the town’s citizens consisting of 12 burgesses, six aldermen and a mayor. The borough in its new form was short-lived, however. Residents were unhappy about the cost of the new institution and in 1688 James II brought it to an end, returning it to the care of a bailiff.
In the first half of the 19th century, it was felt that civil parishes like Chipping Sodbury and Old Sodbury (still separately managed at the time) were too small to deal with the needy and jobless, so vast areas called Poor Law Unions were created to carry out this work. At their heart was the grim workhouse system, ensuring that everyone was put to work. A Poor Law Union, centred on Chipping Sodbury, stretched from Wickwar in the north down to Marshfield in the south and took in all the Sodburys, Yate and beyond. The workhouse for this area was in the building now known as Ridgewood on Station Road in Yate.
At the end of the 19th century, democracy was introduced into local government and the Poor Law Union was transformed into Chipping Sodbury Rural District Council, later called simply Sodbury Rural District Council. This institution rapidly gained additional responsibilities.
Around the same time as the formation of rural district councils, town councils were established to introduce democracy at civil parish level. In many cases these took over the assets and functions of former boroughs or town corporations. In the case of Chipping Sodbury, it seems there was opposition from the bailiff and his burgesses to the coming of this democratic institution and the assets and charities of the Borough were re-ordered by the Charity Commissioners to various local charities. To this we owe the fact that the Town Hall in Broad Street and Old Grammar School and Library buildings on High Street are in the stewardship of the Town Lands Charity and the Ridings sports fields are owned by the Town Trust.
From the beginning, Chipping Sodbury Market would have been dominated by agricultural produce. In the 13th and 14th centuries wool from the Cotswolds was being traded and there is also evidence that weaving became an important industry in the town generally. The tanning of leather was also being carried out. The town is described by the early travel writer Leland as “a pretty little market town” in the 15th century. In the early 18th century, Daniel Defoe writes of Chipping Sodbury as having one of the largest cheese markets in England.
Britain’s hospitality trade grew during the era of coaching which began in the Elizabethan period with the rise of a merchant class and a requirement for more extensive travel. Chipping Sodbury benefited from this and its main street still boasts many inns.
Other visitors to the town were the Welsh drovers who, from the 14th to the 19th centuries, brought cattle from as far away as Carmarthen to the markets of London. It has been speculated that the preservation of Sodbury’s common lands may be in part due to their use by the drovers to rest their animals.
The railway reached Yate in 1844 and passengers had to get to Yate – as they do today – to take the train. It was not until 1903 that a line was run from Wootton Bassett to Bristol Patchway tunnelling directly through the Cotswolds at their narrowest point from Badminton to Old Sodbury. This became the main line from London to Bristol and South Wales. A station was opened in Chipping Sodbury and this gave a major fillip to the economy, only to be closed in 1961 under the Beecham axe.
Development of the Town
Although Chipping Sodbury’s main street is now virtually clear of buildings, apart from the Tourist Information Centre and the war memorial, it must not be thought this was always the case. Some of the old market stalls were of a more or less permanent nature, such as the butchers’ shambles near the junction with Wickwar Road and a market hall near where the war memorial now stands, itself in the place of a 16th century market cross.
The façades of many of the buildings along High Street and Broad Street date from the 18th and 19th centuries, but these hide often far older structures.
Chipping Sodbury’s compact development contrasts with that of Yate which expanded rapidly during the 20th century filling up the surrounding fields right up to the the Ridge, the natural boundary with Chipping Sodbury. This growth was fuelled not only by Yate’s extraction industries of coal and spar (in addition to limestone) but also the coming of the aerodrome and heavy industry such as Parnall’s aircraft factory. Chipping Sodbury on the other hand did not expand beyond its original patch of just over 100 acres laid out in the 13th century – the surrounding agricultural land was highly valued and the common ground and hunting ground could not be developed. The local historian Jim Elsworth has also argued that the town was never particularly wealthy and did not therefore embark on new building and expansion programmes.
Its predominantly rural character means that Chipping Sodbury is still a centre for hunting (it lies within the territory of the Beaufort Hunt based at Badminton).
In the 21st century, Chipping Sodbury occupies its own niche as a popular shopping destination, crammed with specialist shops, as well as being an important stop along the Cotswold tourist route. The bustle of the town contrasts with the rural charm of Old Sodbury and it is to be hoped the parish can maintain this ideal balance of town and country well into the future.