The History of Barnwell Country Park

Ten thousand years ago, in the wake of retreating ice sheets, the area was a glacier cut valley with a river over a mile wide depositing vast amounts of sand, gravel and boulder clay. As the climate warmed and plant colonisation developed, the Nene Valley was a wilderness of marshland and willow/alder in the valley floor, grading to high woods of oak, ash, small leafed lime and elm on the drier soils with other native trees such as field maple, hazel, wild service tree, birch, hawthorn and blackthorn in a wide variety of mixtures and structures, depending on specific soil types, conditions and underlying geology.

Woodland clearance settled agriculture, drainage, industrial development, flood control and navigational development have all subsequently influenced the valley. By 1761, the Nene was navigable all the way from the Wash to Northampton. The main channel of the Nene was diverted and canalised at Barnwell Mill in the 1730's where a lock still operates. The backwater follows the original meandering course of the Nene dividing into two tributaries which bound a strip of land called the Island.

Prior to 1957, the site was permanent cattle pasture known as 'South Meadows'. In that year, Amey Gravel Limited extracted gravel in two phases from 1958 to 1961 and 1966 to 1968. The site became known as "Oundle Pits". The first pit to be dug (Lowlands) was subsequently used as a dump for gravel washings and partially filled with sand leading to the colonisation of a marsh. Following this Mill Lake, Middle Lake, Little Lake and lastly North Lake were excavated.

Gravel Pits - July 1971

The nearby Oundle Marina and the Rotary Pit were excavated for sand and gravel in the 1940s. American Airforce Bases used these particular workings during the war as a dump for used shell cases and broken tanks. 'Oundle Pits' were abandoned in 1968 after a minimal degree of landscaping. The north and west banks of North Lake were graded, otherwise the site was left virtually flat. Note: there is a further discussion of the history of the Park site in the section on Historical Flora and Fauna Surveys.

The newly abandoned pits were used for fishing, dog walking and bird watching and were attractive to wildlife, particularly water birds, including Little Ringed Plover, and Redshank, which bred there. Greenshank, Black and Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Sandpiper, Curlew, Dunlin, Wheatear, Stonechat and Winchat were all recorded passage migrants up till the mid 1970's. Virtually unused for three years, Northamptonshire Country Council purchased the majority of the site in June 1970, with the aid of a 75% grant from the then Countryside Commission, from Amey Gravel Limited for £4,000 plus legal fees. The southern lake and surrounds, known as the Mill Pit, was purchased in 1973/4 for the token sum of £1, with the restrictive covenant that it be used for amenity purposes.

New Gravel Pit - 4th June 1958

It is interesting to note that Barnwell Country Park was the first Country Park of its kind in the County and one of the first in the Country. It was politically referred to as a “Honeypot” as it was seen as a way to draw people to a publically owned green space and away from damaging agricultural land. In those days, the emphasise on agricultural productivity from a National perspective was considered more important than the public making use of wide English pastures. This is well illustrated by the following summary of the reasons for the justification of the purchase of this abandoned land.

The County Planning Officer of 1973 gave the following five reasons for the purchase of the site (Taken from records held by Northamptonshire County Council):

  • The Countryside Act 1968 provided for financial assistance by the Countryside Commission for small picnic sites as well as large Country Parks.
  • This attractive part of the Nene Valley is predominantly agricultural and,therefore, sites elsewhere would have taken valuable agricultural land.
  • The re-use of land rendered derelict by gravel extraction is a policy that is actively encouraged by the County Council.
  • The site had natural history attractions, and the lagoons left by workings were attractive amenity features.
  • The site was near to other attractions like Barnwell Mill restaurant and Oundle Marina.


In 1970, a further landscaping of the river and lake banks was undertaken for safety. A warden's office, car park and toilet block was built along with two shelters and picnic benches. The Forestry Commission planted around 1,500 trees including some “exotics‟ such as Austrian and Corsican Pine and a plantation of Turkey Oaks.

Opening Picnic Park - July 1971

The site was officially opened in July 1971 as Barnwell Picnic Park, administered by the County Planning Department. On April 1st 1974, the council was reorganised and the park administered by a newly formed Leisure and Libraries Department sub-department, Leisure Services. A full-time warden, Tom Pheasant, was appointed to look after the site. Further landscaping, tree planting, fencing and path creation took place and fishing was allowed on a day ticket basis. It is the view of the naturalists, who were actively involved at Park during this period, that Tom Pheasant’s early work at the Park was key to its successful development as a wildlife sanctuary.

Pit G - April 1973 view of Oundle

In 1976, a management plan was written by Stuart Marsh for Barnwell Picnic Park and used in a submission to the Countryside Commission for the upgrading of the site. In 1978, Oundle Picnic Park was given Country Park status. >>> Download the Management Plan. By this time, the appearance of the site had changed considerably. Natural regeneration and planting had mellowed the gravel workings and it was an attractive area for recreation. In 1978, 66,931 people visited the park.

In 1983, a small spinney of native trees and shrubs was planted by Oundle 'WATCH' group and named 'WATCH Spinney‟. In 1985, the office and toilet block was extended to include a visitor centre room which was officially opened by the television celebrity Julian Pettifer.

By the 1990's, the maturing willows fringing the lakes and the increased visitor pressure meant that many of the early migrants no longer used the lakes as habitat.

In May 2014, The Kingfisher Cafe opened to offer a range of food and drinks to visitors and for private functions. With a decking area overlooking the lake a Kingfisher nesting bank was constructed offering visitors a chance to see the bird and also watch a live feed camera of the nest that is fed back to the a screen in the café.

For more pictures from the archive please visit our Gallery Page