Blisworth, the happy place

Posted 12th October 2021

With the Grand Union Canal meandering through its midst the village of Blisworth is a ‘must see’ for local historical enthusiasts and those looking for beautiful countryside writes Laura Malpas.

It’s another of our wonderful Northamptonshire villages, with toffee coloured stone, thatched cottages, and a canal weaving its way throughout. Its story stretches far back into the distant past. This month I am visiting beautiful Blisworth.

With such an appealing name, it’s not surprising that much research has gone into discovering how its name evolved. Very often, placenames refer to an early inhabitant, perhaps an Anglo-Saxon named something like Blida, for example. However, it seems the root of the name is most likely related to a state of ‘bliss’ suggesting a happy carefree place. All the more reason to visit and experience bliss today!

Situated in a sheltered valley with inviting features, well drained fertile ground, plentiful water, trees, and good hunting, it would have been attractive to early settlers. Although there is little prehistoric evidence, it seems unlikely that such a location would have been unoccupied. The nearby Iron Age fort at Hunsbury visible from the location, indicates early activity.

Another indicator is the network of routes and trackways running through the area. These include the ancient Salt Ways, connecting Droitwich in the Midlands, where salt was produced, with the south-east of the country.

There are many hints of local Roman occupation, such as the villa discovered on nearby Gayton Hill, and a corn drying system discovered during the construction of the bypass. It has even been suggested that there might be a Roman Garrison located underneath Blisworth’s parish church. Roman routes pass through Blisworth connecting Northampton to the market at Towcester, and Roman coins, ornaments, and pottery have been found in the vicinity.

The Anglo-Saxons left few remains locally, other than the parish boundaries, and the name of village itself. By the time of the Domesday Book compiled in 1086 by the Norman overlords, Blidesworde had a population of around 80, with up to 1000 acres of viable farmland and the usual assets. William the Conqueror gave the manor to William Peverel, a favourite, to thank him for his support. Sadly Peverel’s son was forced to surrender the estate as punishment for treacherously attempting to poison Ranulph De Gernon, Earl of Chester.

Blisworth passed though several hands over the following years, and sometime in the 13th century the church was rebuilt in stone, probably by Baron Wake. The Wake family based in Blisworth for well over 200 years were generous benefactors, endowing the village with a school. The church still contains the table tomb and funerary brass of Roger Wake wearing a full suit of armour, accompanied by his wife.

In 1523 the estate was sold to ambitious, greedy wool merchant, Sir Richard Knightly of Fawsley. He enclosed the common lands used for grazing and firewood by the Blisworth villagers. This threatened their survival, and they protested, forcing Sir Richard to release the land back to communal use.

The next threat to the villagers of Blisworth came a few decades later. The enclosure of agricultural land with hedges and ditches created efficiently large fields for collective farming. This benefitted the prosperous but disadvantaged the poorer folk.

Eventually fate was kind to Blisworth! King Charles II and Barbara Villiers his mistress had an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. Around 1673 Henry was created the 1st Duke of Grafton, and Blisworth was included in his estate. Successive Dukes cared generously for the villagers, maintaining the communal facilities and repairing their houses, often charging very small rents, and honouring the common land.

The village thrived. Some of the prettiest cottages were built during this period. The local stone was of varying quality, the ironstone was strong, heavy and darker in colour, whereas the limestone was lighter and cheaper. Many cottages were built with both, the masonry alternating ironstone and sandstone, creating a decorative banded effect, then topped off with a thatched roof.

Perhaps the biggest change to the village was brought about by the construction of the Grand Union canal, and the famous Blisworth tunnel. How the massive obstacles were overcome is a fascinating tale which I will relate another time, but the tunnel was finally completed in 1805. After the village had recovered from the its construction, employment increased a little, catering for the passing river trade. But the Duke of Grafton could see that more employment was needed to stave off hardship, and in 1820 the Blisworth Stoneworks limestone quarry was established. The handsome building was a good advertisement and is still to be seen in the village. The ironstone business took off in the 1850s, and so life was good, and employment secure until the depression of the 1930s.

Flour milling in Blisworth has a long prosperous history, peaking in the 19th century. One of the most notable buildings in the village is the red brick flour mill, built in 1879 by the prosperous Westley family. Within three years it was getting through 1000 bags of flour weekly and employing 45 staff. The business moved to Northampton in 1920 and the building was sold for storage. Now it has been converted to very attractive flats with canal views.

The Grafton Estate dismantled in 1919, with generous concessions to the villagers by the benevolent Duke. And Blisworth survived the 20th century like many other villages. The A43 bypass completed in 1991 made the village more appealing to live in, though with less passing trade.

Blisworth today is a lovely place to explore. Why not visit the ancient 600 year old Royal Oak pub and enjoy good food and a lovely garden? The canal walks provide pleasant places to wander and watch the wildlife and the canal traffic. Today’s villagers are proud of their rich history, and there is an active heritage society which conducts research and offers downloadable walking trails and info for visitors to explore the beautiful buildings, the church, and the industrial heritage.