Whilst in Essex and with time to spare between checking out of one place and checking in to another, we decided to visit the quintessential English Dedham Valley on the borders of Essex and Suffolk where Constable drew inspiration for some of his paintings, notably “The Hay Wain“.
“The sound of water escaping from Mill dams …, willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork. I love such things … as long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such places.”
~ John Constable
The scene is rural England at its most romantic and although the spot which inspired him has altered slightly you can find the easily recognisable view at Flatford. The area is charming; narrow lanes lead to hamlets and meadows and there are plenty of riverside walks along the River Stour which meanders through this enchanting valley. Dedham, East Bergholt and Flatford is affectionatley known as ‘Constable Country’ and you can see examples of his work and information about the man at the National Trust exhibition centre located at Flatford.
Leaving the car park behind you follow the path and steps down to a huddle of attractive National Trust buildings including Bridge Cottage used as a museum, and a tea-room. There are a number of walks starting from this spot, one down to Flatford Mill and the scene of the Hay Wain and others through the fields to nearby East Bergholt, or alongside the river Stour towards Dedham or Manningtree. The charming hamlet of Flatford was the inspiration for some of Constable’s most famous works including “The Mill Stream”, “Boat-Building” and “The White Horse”
We headed down to where the famous Hay wain painting was created passing the Granary, a delightful thatched barn, on the way with its rambling roses still in bloom. A leaden sky threatened rain, but it was warm and we were hopeful that the sun would break through.
Reaching Flatford Mill which overlooks the mill pond – an impressive red brick building with clapperboard cladding and home of The Field Studies Council Field Centre – I tried to recreate that famous painting. Flatford Mill was never lived in by John Constable and his family, but he did visit it regularly as his father, Golding Constable, was a miller and corn merchant and had dealings with the mill.
Of course there is no hay wain, a type of horse-drawn cart, standing in the water in the foreground, and none of the trees that existed 200 years ago are still here. Water levels in the mill stream are higher. This part of East Anglia has sunk into the North Sea by 30 cm since that time. And at the far side of the river an embankment, built to prevent tidal flooding, obscures the view to the flat meadow where haymakers can be seen in the original painting.
The cottage shown on the left was rented by a farmer called Willy Lott and stands behind Flatford Mill. His fame is entirely due to his house being used in Constable’s paintings and sketches of the scene.
Deciding against walking over the fields to East Bergholt, we returned to where a footbridge crosses the Stour and the path leading to Maningtree to the east or Dedham to the west – about a 40 minute stroll.
It was very pleasant strolling on the tree-lined footpath alongside the tranquil water with water-meadows opening up on the left. The sound of birdsong, the hint of autumn colours in the trees reflected in the water, swans, rowing boats, the tiny river boat cruising up and down as far as Fen bridge.
The Willow Pollards are a feature of this part of the river. And if you want to take out a rowing boat for a relaxing afternoon on the river they can be hired from Dedham or Flatford.
Back at Flatford we stopped for a drink and bite to eat, sitting outside with the hot sun now burning down, and watched the antics of the swans and mallards.
It might appear to be a bit twee, but this area is steeped full of history, wildlife, culture and beauty and ideal for a stroll in an artist’s footsteps.
IF YOU ENJOY A WALK, LONG OR SHORT, THEN HAVE A LOOK AT JO’S SITE WHERE YOU ARE WELCOME TO JOIN IN WITH HER MONDAY WALKS.