Memories Of Bitton In Gloucestershire

A Memory of Bitton

The Grange at Bitton was the home of the Seymour family, one member of which was Jane, the third wife of King Henry VIII.

The village is dominated by its open countryside setting. This relationship arises from the historic development of the Roman Road and then the coach route between Bristol and Bath as well as its crossing of the River Boyd. The road skirts around the foothills of Bitton Hill and Brewery Hill, with development clustered around the junction of Golden Valley to the north and the River Avon floodplain to the south.

To the west the slopes of Bitton Hill provide the setting for the essentially linear development along the A431. To the east, the setting is more open with longer distance views over the fields up to the village of Upton Cheyney. The flat open floodplain to the south is disguised by Barrow Hill and the old railway line. The rural setting is emphasised through traditional open fields, hedges and mature, free-standing trees.

Given this dominant countryside setting in the Bristol/Bath greenbelt, close to the urban fringe, there is a critical need to distinguish between the sharp development boundary which defines the extent of built development and areas of open space which fall both within and outside the conservation area boundary. The sharp edge to development is an important characteristic of Bitton. Any new development will need to reinforce this feature.


In the Domesday survey the area was called 'Betune' with the manor supposedly taking its name from the river, i.e. 'Boyd-Town', or 'Batten'. The village is one of the oldest in Kingswood Forest and is situated on a Roman road, the Via Julia.

St Mary's Church is supposed to stand on the site of a heathen temple and there is some evidence of Roman remains. The Norman tower was built in 1377. Lady Chapel (St Catherine's) was added in 1298/99 by Thomas de Butten, Bishop of Exeter. There are a number of interesting 18th century tombs in the churchyard and the building has a fine interior.

The Grange (the original parsonage) was founded before 1280 and was rebuilt in the later Middle Ages. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was remodelled and rebuilt. The Bath architect, John Wood, lodged here.

The Old Vicarage was rebuilt in 1823 and is famous as the residence of Rev. Henry Thomas Ellacombe (vicar of Bitton 1817-1850) and Canon Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (1850 -1919). The father developed the fine garden whilst the son wrote a number of notable books and bounded the Botanical Gardens in Bath.

Church Farm (a manor house) dates from 1287 - the adjacent dovecote from 1444. It is reputedly the oldest house in the village. Although remodelled in the 17th and 19th centuries, many interesting features remain, such as the bars to the ground floor windows. These are reputed to have been introduced to exclude colliers.

It is the most extensive parish in the rural district. Bitton covers the whole south eastern area, bounded by the River Avon in the south and Siston Brook on the west and north. It lies on the northern border of Somerset. The River Boyd wends its way through the Parish and creates the beautiful Golden Valley; the village takes its name from the river, being originally Boyd Town. Present day engineering has altered the bed of the river owing to flooding in the village in 1968.

Bitton village stands on the 'Via Julia', which was the old Roman road from Bath to the Severn. Originally the parish extended to Hanham and included Kingswood Forest, where dwelt the infamous 'Cock Road Gang' during past generations.

Canon Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (1822-1916)

Took over from his father as Vicar of Bitton in 1850, after having served for 2 years as his Curate, and his interest in gardening quickly grew. His early education came from his father after which he attended Bath Grammar School and Oriel College, Oxford, graduating in 1844.

He was a good scholar, widely read, who pursued interests in music, archaeology and architecture - the fine hammerbeam roof with its carved and gilded angels and the pews at Bitton Church were designed by him.

In 1852 he married Emily Aprilla Wemyss, a General's daughter. They had a son who died aged 10, then 7 daughters in succession followed by 2 more sons. In 1854 he was made Rural Dean of Bitton and in 1881 he was made Honorary Canon of Bristol.

The Vicarage garden covered an acre and a half with a wealth of rare and beautiful plants, in which the Canon's favourite roses were prominent. He became a very knowledgeable gardener who collected plants on his many trips to the Continent and who also made regular exchanges with Kew Gardens.

He wrote a number of articles and several books on the subject, contributing the horticultural part of his father's History of Bitton. His best known book 'In a Gloucestershire Garden' which appeared in 1893 and was based on articles which first appeared in 'The Guardian', describes his garden month by month, and is a classic of its kind.

He liked to share his interest and was always keen to show his garden to visitors, frequently exhorting people to come by sending postcards describing its delights.

As well as developing an interest in church building there, engineering, mechanical drawing and the construction of models fascinated him also. He met Marc Brunel, the father of Isambard Kingdom, and later became his confidential assistant. Whilst at Chatham working for Brunel, he met and married a Miss Nicholson. They had a son, Henry Nicholson and 5 daughters, only one of whom married. His first wife died young, however, and he was to marry twice more. Eventually the Navy Board decided that his services were no longer required and he returned to Oxford Where he took his M.A. and was ordained in 1816. He became a Curate at Cricklade and a year later moved to Bitton.

In those days, Bitton was a large parish, which also included Hanham, Oldland, Kingswood and Warmley. It was also a place with a reputation for lawlessness and one of the new Curate's first duties was to bury Beniamin Caines, leading member of the notorious Cockroad Gang, who had been hanged at Gloucester Gaol.

By now, however, steps had been taken to split up the unwieldy Parish - St George's Church was opened in 1756 and Holy Trinity, Kingswood, was consecrated in 1821. Ellacombe energetically carried on this work and was instrumental in new Churches being built at Jeffries Hill, Hanham, in 1844 and Warmley in 1851. Besides these, he also rebuilt St. Anne's, Oldland and restored Bitton Church.

When Joseph Leech, the editor of the 'Bristol Times' who used the pseudonym 'The Churchgoer', visited Bitton in the 1840s, he commented on the Vicar's passion for building and decided against having a meal with him for fear of being pressed for a donation towards one or more of his projects!

In 1850 Henry Thomas left Bitton to take up a post at Clyst St Mary near Topsham in his native Devon, where he made a new collection of plants, carried on an extensive correspondence with leading horticulturalists and botanists, restored the church, built a school and a house for its master and restored the rectory.

He remained interested, however, in his previous parish and published a 'History of the Manor of Bitton' in 1869, followed in 1881 by his 'History of the Parish of Bitton'. These books and his extensive collection of manuscripts remain amongst the most important sources for local historians of this area. He died in 1885 aged 95 after serving for 68 years as a Priest, having married 3 times and having raised 7 children.

A memory shared by Paul Townsend , on Dec 5th, 2009.

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