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St Andrew, Backwell, Somerset

(51°24′44″N, 2°43′49″W)
ST 493 684
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Somerset
now North Somerset
  • Robin Downes
7, 18 May, 2 June 2009

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Now known as Churchtown, the tiny original village of Backwell (‘stream coming from the ridge’) nestles in a shallow combe in the northern scarp of the limestone ridge which defines the southern side of the Yeo valley. It lies, at an altitude of about 60m above OD, on the very upper part of the Dolomitic Conglomerate bedrock, just below the Clifton Down Limestone of the ridge. This ridge rises above Backwell to a height of about 170m above OD. Naturally, Backwell is close to several limestone quarries: there are at least three within a kilometre of the church, the nearest a mere 200m from the church, in Cheston Combe. Below the original village centre, the geological sequence down to the river valley Alluvium is the expected Mercia Mudstone (Keuper Marl), then Head.

Running along the bottom of the NW-facing slope is the extremely busy A370 linking Bristol with Weston-super-Mare and the M5 just short of Weston. Predictably, Backwell has expanded in a ribbon along this road (and also along the three lanes which run downhill to the north, north-west and west from Churchtown to meet the main road). Continuing expansion is filling gaps. Contemporary Backwell is a very large dormitory settlement indeed. The middle of the three lanes mentioned continues across the A370 towards the even larger dormitory of Nailsea, past the railway station; there is a small stretch of road within the parish N of the station not bordered by houses; otherwise, Backwell and Nailsea would be connected. The railway is the main Bristol-Exeter line of the former GWR. It is very busy, mostly with long-distance trains, but some such stop at Nailsea and Backwell station because of strong commuter demand.

Despite all the recent development, there is a fine view from Backwell church across the mostly pastoral landscape of the Yeo valley, skirting the eastern edge of Nailsea, to the original local mother church of Wraxall (3.5km to the N). Taking a view which skirts the western edge of Nailsea, one may also see Chelvey church (2.7km to the W), nowadays closely connected with the Backwell ministry.

The church consists of W tower, nave with N and S aisles and S porch, and a chancel with N and S chapels. Construction is of coursed, squared rubble with freestone dressings except for the tower, which is of ashlar. It dates from the 12thc and was altered and enlarged in the 13thc and in the 15thc, when the 100ft tower was added. Further alterations were made in the 16thc, and it was restored in the 17thc. A new building attached to the N side of the church and containing social and office space was added in 1984. Romanesque features described here are the font, a reset chip-carved stone in the S (Rodney) chapel and a head serving as a label stop, possibly re-used, on the S chancel doorway.


Like most land in this area, Backwell was held by the Bishop of Coutances in 1086. Before the Conquest it was held by Thorkell the Dane, and in 1086 by Fulcran and Nigel from the Bishop. It paid tax for 10 hides, and also included a mill which pays 4s; meadow, 24 acres; pasture 1 league long and ½ league wide; underwood 1 league long and 2 furlongs wide and 23 pigs.


Exterior Features


Interior Features

Interior Decoration





The following comments by antiquarian writers apply to the font.

Collinson (1792)

‘The font is circular, and is removed into the church-yard under the wall of the south aisle.’

Ruttter (1829)

‘The font is circular, and of the Norman era. It had been deposited in the church yard, till the present incumbent had it repaired and restored to its original station and use.’

Burbidge (1873)

‘1 ancient font, remains of, found in church yard.’

Anon (1882)

‘Remains of an ancient font under the tower, and of a roughly ornamented stone, built into the hagioscope in the N. wall of the chancel, carry us back to the Norman period.’

Master (1898)

‘In the base of the tower . . . is placed the most ancient relic in the church, the original late Norman font, found buried in the Churchyard, unhappily considered too much mutilated to be capable of restoration; it is of red sandstone, circular and rather small, a cable moulding encircling its basin, its base adorned with large-leaved foliage. A place of honour should be found for it somewhere.’

The 1829 quotation presents an interesting puzzle but is probably insignificant in view of the otherwise consistency of evidence. The most useful comment is Master’s: his last sentence and its sentiment have certainly been generously honoured.

The author would like to acknowledge the very considerable help he received from Mrs Eleanor King, churchwarden, and Mrs Norma Knight, local historian.


Anon, 'Historical Sketch of St Andrew’s Church, Backwell', Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, XXVII (1882)

E. Burbidge, Inventory of goods belonging to the church before 1873. 1873

J. Collinson, History of Somersetshire, 3 vols 1791-92, ii. 307.

English Heritage listed building 33417

G. S. Master, Collections for a parochial history of Backwell, Bristol 1898.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol. Harmondsworth 1958, 82.

S. Rippon, Landscape, Community and Colonisation: the North Somerset Levels during the 1st to 2nd millennia AD. CBA 2006. Research Report 156.

J. Rutter, Delineations of the NW Division of Somerset, 1829, 21