A pretty circular walk in Dedham and Flatford
- Credit: Jayne Lindill
A circular walk in the footsteps of John Constable takes in Dedham and Flatford and that famous scene created 200 years ago.
How often have you snapped a photo when you're out walking and wondered just how different the landscape might have looked, say, a couple of centuries ago?
This year marks the 200th since John Constable completed The Hay Wain. Originally titled Landscape: Noon, his view of the River Stour at Flatford, where the Constable family had operated Flatford Mill for nearly 100 years, has become one of our most recognised and loved English paintings. When I was growing up in the `60s and `70s repro prints of the pastoral scene seemed to be on walls everywhere, from libraries to dentists' waiting rooms to village halls.
Much of the scene, just a couple of miles from Constable's birthplace at East Bergholt still survives. The house on the left, occupied by tenant farmer Willy Lott, is still there, now known as Willy Lott's House. The empty hay wain of the painting's title is not there, of course. A hay wain was a wooden wagon used for transporting cut and dried hay. In this famous scene, horse are depicted pulling it the shallow water to the meadow on the other side where haymakers are at work.
Constable created the landscape in his studio, working from open-air sketches made over several years, and finally completed it in oil in 1821. It's one of a series of paintings called the "six-footers", large-scale canvasses which he painted for the annual summer exhibitions at the Royal Academy. The finished original hangs in the National Gallery while his full-scale oil sketch for the work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
'Constable Country' is now a major reason for people to come to Suffolk, and the Stour Valley provides some of the prettiest walking tracks you'll find anywhere. The 62-mile Cattawade to Newmarket Stour Valley Path passes right through Constable Country, and the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Stour Valley has created a number of shorter walks around it which you can download at dedhamvalestourvalley.org.
As it's the hay cutting season, I'm off to visit the famous scene on a circular walk starting at Dedham, heading up to East Bergholt, crossing the river at Flatford, and back along the Stour. I'd like to think Constable enjoyed this one and made quite a few sketches along the way, although I suspect it looks rather different than it did in 1821.
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1. I arrive in Dedham from the direction of the A12 and am presented with a choice of car parks. I plump for the smaller one just before the mill, next to the river. As I step out of the car I'm treated to a flash of electric blue over the water. A kingfisher - the perfect start to the day. I set off, retracing my journey over the bridge and north along the road as far as Whalleys Farm. This needs great care as it's a busy quarter mile stretch.
2. A footpath sign in the hedge leads me directly across a field onto the delightfully named Donkey Lane. I head right along this lovely green path. Ahead a muntjac grazes quietly until it spots me, then races off with a flash of its white, brushy tail. I can imagine Constable using these paths, being inspired by the views between the trees, across low lying meadows towards Dedham Church in the distance.
3. After about three-quarters of a mile I reach Fenn Bridge Cottage. Here the path heads right to Fenn Bridge, which crosses the Stour for a quick return to Dedham (although it's currently closed for safety reasons) or left, uphill, along a leafy lane towards East Bergholt. That's where I'm going. Reaching the Flatford Road I turn right and cross over, picking up the footpath which runs alongside the road. I'm still only 40metres or so above the valley floor but the views are stunning. There it is again over to the right - Dedham Church peeking out from the trees.
4. After about a quarter of a mile, I take a footpath to the left, over a stile, across a meadow and into a small woodland. It's a beautiful, shady passage through the towering ash, oaks and aspen. I realise that the red roofed building I've been admiring for its cosy setting in the trees is, in fact, a sewage works. Oh, well, they have to put it somewhere. Over a tiny footbridge, the path meanders up towards Flatford Road again. I cross over diagonally right as the footpath heads up a driveway and past some holiday cottages (Clapper Farm on the map). I follow it for another third of a mile as it wanders around the edge of East Bergholt and meets the road into the village.
5. I turn right and a few yards on, past some pretty cottages, I find Dazeley's Lane, a green track alive with Red Admiral and Large White butterflies which descends for half a mile to the Stour Valley Path. Across the fields to the left I can see the estuary where the London train crosses the bridge at Manningtree. Well, there's one view Constable wouldn't have painted for sure - but I bet he'd have liked to.
6. Reaching the Stour Valley Path has a sense of occasion about it. It's one of the great long distance walks of Suffolk, like the Suffolk Coast Path and the Angles Way along the Waveney Valley. The view across the marshes, under a big sky, is wonderful. Everything is wild and ragged in late summer and the soft light casts a silvery sheen on the waving grasses. A mile's walk along the path makes a pleasant late morning stroll.
7. The National Trust sign announces my arrival officially at Flatford and I thread my way along the path until I reach The Scene. Willy Lott's house is hunkered beside the river, the bucolic setting is lush and verdant. Dragonflies skim the surface of the water. There's no horses hitched to a hay wain, but I use my imagination.
This is a place to rest awhile, take in the history of the site, see the lock and mill houses, have a cuppa at the cafe, enjoy a picnic. I watch cows cooling off in the river and swallows swooping under the bridge. Then it's time to head back to Dedham, following the Stour for about mile and a half. It's a beautiful stretch of the river, glassy on this still day, the water disturbed only by a couple of fishermen and a lone canoeist. Swans are nestled on the banks and a heron silently stalks the meadows.
8. After about a mile, the path forks left for Dedham. I follow it back to the village, past Dedham Hall (9). A right turn takes me onto the high street and another right turn takes me back to the car park where my car has been joined by vans and hatchbacks loaded with kayaks. A busy, chattering, animated throng of kayakers are anxious to get afloat. It's all very different to 1821...
Distance: approximately 6 miles/10km
Time: allow 3 hours, plus some time at Flatford
Access: Roads, footpaths, meadows, riverbanks, stiles, kissing gates. Note: livestock are grazed on some parts of the route throughout the year. Dogs must be under control and on leads where indicated. NT Flatford has a dedicated dog exercise area.
Getting there: A12 to Dedham. Train to Manningtree. Check suffolkonboard.com for public transport links.
Big map to hand: OS Explorer 196 Sudbury, Hadleigh and Dedham Vale
Ts & Ps: Dedham and Flatford