St Andrew, Backwell, Somerset

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Feature Sets (4)


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


S chancel doorway

Single order, pointed.  The order is continuous with a fat angle roll, tapering towards the arch apex, and the arch protected by a roll label.  The W label-stop was obviously removed to make way for the S Chapel. The remaining, considerably eroded, E head is not integral with the roll and thus need not be contemporaneous with it. Its very simple, sketchy, Romanesque features merit consideration.

Interior Features

Interior Decoration


Chip-carved relief

In the Rodney Chapel, to the E of the monument is a squint incorporating a vertical strip of chip-carving consisting of 7½ lozenges, each bisected by a vertical ridge except for the bottom whole lozenge and the top half lozenge. Execution is quite rough.

Height of relief 0.76m
Width of relief 0.11m




At the W end of the nave, well forward of the tower arch, a font with a circular cup-shaped bowl with a band of cable moulding towards the bottom. This stands on an inverted conical support with a roll necking at the bottom, and that on a short cylindrical stem on a tall bulbous base carved with foliage designs in relief. The assembly stands on a modern octagonal step. The description above applies to all except the W section of the font. Here the bowl is unchanged but the support is uncarved and stands proud of the rest of the circumference, so that there is no roll to the conical support and no foliage carving on the base at this side. Perhaps this was also originally true of the whole bowl, before the 1907 restoration (see below), and the explanation is that the font stood flush to a wall; but that is an unconvincing explanation, since any face to a wall would be straight.

The font was apparently discovered in the early 18thc, buried in the churchyard and brought into the church. It was restored in 1907. It has been an object of interest to antiquarians since the end of the 18thc, and a series of dated comments is included in the Comments/Opinions section of this report.

The decoration of the base consists of two symmetrical sprays of foliage springing from what is now the eastern aspect. Although symmetrical in principle, the two sprays are not, of course, identical in detail but they both terminate in leaves which are moulded to give the impression of slight eversion at their ends (rather like outermost finger-joints being upturned): a nice detail. On the whole, the decoration is heavy and coarse in effect: perhaps this is appropriate to the base of a font (as opposed to the superior bowl). 

Below the ring, the stem is a simple cylinder (except for the proud cylindrical section at the west, of course); conical above the ring. The lower part seems to be in the same, lighter-coloured, stone as the new part of the bowl; the tooling also looks similar: therefore, one may suspect that this part of the stem dates from 1907. 

The original part of the bowl still exists at the present south-eastern aspect. If one examines the bowl from the SE (or ENE), one will see a clear division between old and new: the SW aspect is new (except for the cable); the W-N-NE aspects are new including the cable. Although the new parts of the cable are more regularly moulded than the original, they do not have the mechanical appearance which tends to spoil neo-Norman work (however well-intentioned). The old and new can be clearly distinguished by their different tooling (as already mentioned) and stone (the new being lighter in colour). The bowl has no upper moulding, just curving slightly and neatly back to the rim. There is good lead, bright up to and part way across the top. There is evidence in the original rim at the east of a former lock-fitting.


Circumference of base 1.70m
Circumference of bowl 2.10m
Circumference of stem 1.56m
Depth of basin 0.28m
External diameter of bowl 0.65m
Height of base 0.26m
Height of bowl 0.31m
Internal diameter of bowl 0.45m
Overall height of font 0.99m
Width of lead 0.03m
Width of rim 0.1m


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

General exterior view from SE.
General exterior view from SE.
General exterior view from N
Distant view of site from Wraxall to N.
Backwell, groundplan of St Andrew's by G. E. Street, 1872-74. Image from Church Plans Online (Published by the NOF Digitise Architecture England Consortium).


Site Location
National Grid Reference
ST 493 684 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Somerset
now: North Somerset
now: Bath & Wells
medieval: Sherborne (to 909), Wells (to 1090), Bath (to 1245), Bath & Wells (from 1245)
medieval: not confirmed
now: St Andrew
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Robin Downes 
Visit Date
7, 18 May, 2 June 2009