We have spent many happy hours tramping along Dedham Vale, where we live. The Vale is celebrating its 40th year this May as a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. My children’s favourite walk with the dogs is between Dedham and Flatford down the Stour River. In the summer the water meadows are filled with buttercups and the gnarled silvery willow trees trail their branches in the cool brown water of the river. The young John Constable would have walked the same two miles along the riverbank every day to school in Dedham from his home in East Bergholt.
It is one of those walks you never tire of. There is always plenty going on: fellow dog walkers, children from the field centre at Flatford Mill on a mission, artists with easels entranced by the famous landscape and rowing boats on the river on summer days. When the children were younger, they fished for hours. They never caught anything, although large pike lurk in the deep shadows. There have been some best-forgotten incidents too. Plum, our English Bull Terrier, on the scent of a ham sandwich, trampled a painter’s canvas drying in the sun. Then the time when Plum ran amok amongst the clotted cream-coloured cows – only wanting to play with them.
When we left London, our main desire was to find a house with a view. That we have, looking south-west up the Stour Valley from Higham. From our field, we can count five churches: Higham, Dedham, Stratford St Mary, Langham and Stoke-by-Nayland. There are some Constable sketches of Higham church, which might have been drawn from our field.
Another famous local artist, Sir Alfred Munnings, was a regular visitor to our house. He was an old friend of Freddie Boucher, who lived here. Boucher was a keen horseman and, by all accounts, a great character. The story goes he kept a favourite horse in the drawing room after it had won a race at Newmarket.
Our view up the valley changes with the seasons. In winter, water meadows are frequently flooded where the River Brett meets the Stour at Stratford St Mary. The
water brings great flocks of geese and swans, cackling and calling late into the night. Occasionally the floodwater has frozen and we’ve been able to skate on the shallows.
The National Trust owns Flatford Mill. There is a tearoom and small museum with guided tours and talks about Constable. Willy Lott’s picturesque cottage, immortalised in The Hay Wain, remains unchanged, overlooking the millpond where ducks still paddle.
Throughout the year, both the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley Project and National Trust organise walks of varying lengths throughout the vale with a knowledgeable guide. The popular Walking in the Footsteps of Constable tour never fails to enthral our family and
Maps, drawings and reproductions of Constable’s paintings are produced at various vantage points to compare past and present vistas. We learnt that his huge six foot masterpieces were in fact painted in his studio in London, reconstructed from his hundreds of sketches of Dedham Vale. From Fen Lane, leading down from East Bergholt, Constable sketched and painted the landscape over and over again. The two oak trees depicted in Dedham Vale Morning still stand today.
The church in East Bergholt is unusual in that it has no tower (probably because of lack of funds at the time of its construction); instead it has a medieval bell cage, which houses five great bells. Constable’s parents are buried in the graveyard and Willy Lott’s grave can also be found there.
A plaque in East Bergholt marks Constable’s tiny studio cottage by the village shop. Another plaque on some railings marks the grand house that his father built,but was pulled down in the 19th century.
Dedham remains unspoilt, despite the coach-loads that arrive in the summer. It is very much a bustling village with a thriving community. Typical of East Anglia, the handsome Georgian houses along the High Street are just facades. The original medieval houses can be seen from behind.
The pretty High Street is centred around the church. There is everything here from a butcher to a traditional tearoom, The Essex Rose. The young John Constable’s initials together with the date 1787, it is said, can be seen carved in the brickwork of Grade 1-listed Sherman House, the old grammar school, on the High Street.
Visitors should not miss Castle House on the edge of Dedham; the home and studio of Sir Alfred Munnings, it is now a museum and gallery. It houses a wonderful collection of his drawings and paintings. The Dedham Players (www.dedhamplayers.org), an amateur theatrical group, put on plays in the Assembly Rooms and in the summer in the grounds of Castle House (mid-July).
For those visiting the area, medieval Lavenham (www.discoverlavenham.co.uk) is England’s finest medieval village and is a must with its 340 listed buildings. The National Trust owns the exquisite lime-washed Guild Hall. Constable briefly went to the Old Grammar School there, in Barn Street. From the pharmacy on the High street visitors can rent an audiotape, which takes them on a 90-minute tour of the village.
Elizabeth I visited Lavenham in 1578 with 2,000 servants and squires dancing in attendance, while John Lennon and Yoko Ono took off in a hot air balloon from the Market Square.
The market town of Sudbury is also worth a visit, famous for being the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough. Gainsborough House, his home, is now a museum and gallery (www.gainsborough.org).
You will need more than one visit to see all the sights around Dedham Vale. The coast is within easy striking distant, with the Stour estuary at Manningtree and the sandy beaches at Frinton. Further afield, but less than an hour’s drive from Dedham, are the sleepy coastal village of Aldeburgh (www.aldeburgh.co.uk) and Thorpeness for sailing and golf. Music lovers should take a trip to Snape Maltings (www.snapemaltings.co.uk), with its concert hall, galleries, shops and restaurants. We, though, are more than happy just looking at our view.
dedham vale facts
From the M25, take the A12 for 60 miles, which takes you straight to Dedham and Stratford St Mary. By train, Liverpool Street to Manningtree takes an hour. Manningtree Taxis, on 01206 393333, are a reliable service.
The best option for exploring Dedham Vale is by foot; a two-mile path along the Stour River joins Dedham and Flatford. For excursions, a car is essential.
There is a good selection of accommodation in Dedham Vale: smart pubs, boutique hotels and B&Bs. The Sun Inn (www.thesuninndedham.com), with double rooms from £105, is in middle of Dedham. Milsoms and the grander Maison Talbooth (www.milsomhotels.com), have doubles from £117 and are both close to Dedham. The Crown, in Stoke-by-Nayland, is a gastro pub with chic and contemporary bedrooms (www.crowninn.net); doubles are from £135. The Granary B&B (www.granaryflatford.co.uk) is right in Flatford; doubles are £58. Hillside House B&B is in Higham (www.wolseylodges.com) and has doubles for £90. For more information, go to www.visiteastofengland.com.
Bridge Cottage, museum and tearoom are open daily from April to October, and at weekends from November to March. The National Trust’s guided three-hour rambles, Walking in the Footsteps of Constable, and behind the scenes tours cost £6 per person. Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk to book a place on a walk, or call Bridge Cottage on 01206 298260.
Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty & Stour Valley Project: www.dedhamvalestourvalley.org
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit Constable Country.