Stoke Bruerne Locks
Along the towpath from Blisworth Tunnel stand Stoke Bruerne Locks. There are seven locks in total, built to accommodate two narrowboats with each holding around 56,000 gallons. The locks were built with ponds at each side, allowing half the water used to be recycled. In 1835, the locks were duplicated to speed up traffic.
Opposite the seven locks is the site of the brickworks — now a nature reserve and a valuable wildlife haven. The brickworks provided local building materials from the 1840s to 1920, and were served by a busy wharf on the Brickwork Arm, which leads off the main canal below the second lock.
Stoke Bruerne has its own 15-acre nature reserve — on the site of the former brickworks’ clay pits. Managed by the Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust it’s a great place to spot dragonflies, butterflies, birds, amphibians and even the occasional grass snake. The site itself offers a lot of variety, including a reed bed, several ponds, an unused arm of the canal and much rough and damp grassland — perfect cover for small mammals such as mice and shrews, and thus ideal hunting terrain for barn owls. Coots, moorhens, herons, reed bunting, sedge and reed warblers, skylarks, kestrels and green woodpeckers are all common sights.
The reserve also plays host to a rich variety of plant life, and the ponds are an important habitat for invertebrates such as dragonflies and damselflies. Also water voles — which have been severely depleted by the spread of the voracious American mink — have been discovered living here. Linger into the evening and you might easily be treated to the sight of bats out hunting on the wing. Several colonies of different species live around the village, with many using the dark tunnel as a convenient roost during the day. Parking for the reserve is generally available in the church car park, for which you may pay a voluntary contribution.
From the canal bridge, take the footpath to Alderton - signposted to the reserve, which is to the south of the first field.
When the first canals were built, traffic between London and the Midlands travelled by way of the River Thames and the Oxford Canal. The more direct Grand Junction route — commenced in 1793 — bypassed the difficult river sections and cut forty miles from the journey. By 1800, the canal had reached Stoke Bruerne, where it transformed the village entirely. The proposed route ran right down the existing high street, neatly bisecting the community. In 1805, the opening of the Blisworth Tunnel completed the Grand Junction route, and signalled the beginning of a golden age for Stoke Bruerne. The change in water level that necessitated a flight of seven locks had the consequence of slowing down passing traffic, and the village soon became a bustling, prosperous stopover.
For a hundred years or so, the village was literally central to Britain’s commercial might. Millions of tons of food, coal, beer, iron and manufactured goods passed through the lock gates, possibly on route to or from the furthest reaches of the empire. But with the coming of the railways, followed by the motor car, newer, faster and cheaper transport alternatives spelt the end of an era for the narrowboats. Slowly but inevitably, the canal network fell into decline and disuse.