Pickfords' very own railway

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Have you ever been on a country walk and come across a building or piece of stonework that seemed out of place or appeared to have no reason for being there? Well if you take a walk around Blisworth in Northamptonshire you may come across some stone blocks with a hole in the centre, apparently scattered randomly across the countryside. The fact is that they're not just a random series of blocks but they actually mark the location of the Pickfords very own railway dating from the beginning of the 19th century.

Our story begins with the building of the Grand Junction Canal at the end of the 18th century from Braunston (South of Coventry) to London. A major obstacle on the route of the canal was Blisworth Hill. It was originally planned in 1796 to tunnel through the hill but these plans were thwarted by its geology and drainage, leading to a delay whilst a new tunnel was designed.

This delay caused major problems. Without the tunnel, everything that arrived at Blisworth to the North of the hill had to be unloaded from the barges, then reloaded on to horse drawn wagons. The wagons were then taken round the hill to Stoke Bruene on the Southern side of the hill and reloaded onto another set of barges, where the canal started again, for the onward journey to London and vice versa.

For a firm like Pickfords, one of the biggest canal users of the time, this was a costly exercise. Not only was it costly to keep unloading and reloading its consignments several times, but it also caused significant delays for its clients. Not least because the wharves at Blisworth and Stoke Bruene would rapidly run out of space due to the large volumes of Pickfords traffic using the canal. The poor state of the roads meant consignments couldn't be cleared fast enough to create new space at the existing warehouses. Delays also occurred because the sheer volume of traffic using the roads meant nothing could move quickly on the roads. The Grand Junction Canal’s solution was to build a railway across Blisworth Hill in 1800.

It was not a railway as we would recognise it today but a horse drawn tramway or plateway as it was known. The Plateway ran for over 3 miles from the Pickfords Wharf (situated on the canal side of Blisworth Mill, which still exists today) over Blisworth Hill to Stoke Bruene – the then Southern arm of the Grand Junction Canal.

The plateway consisted of 36in L-shaped plates or rails, laid on concrete blocks and tied together by an iron peg hammered into the centre of the concrete block. Although goods had still to be unloaded and reloaded as before, because the wagons ran on smooth hard iron rails, they didn't get bogged down or bumped around. Thus goods travelled quicker and more safely than over the existing road network.

Such was the value of Pickfords business to the Grand Junction Canal Company, that it built and paid for the plateway and then gave it to Pickfords to operate free of charge. Pickfords ran the plateway for five years from 1800 to 1805 when the new tunnel was completed allowing traffic to travel non-stop through Blisworth Hill. 

Image: National Waterways Museum
Pickfords railway
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