The green pastoral idyll, so ably captured by John Constable two centuries ago, is gone, but not because the landscape has been destroyed, simply because the season has changed.
At his height, Constable worked in London, but returned here in person and in mind to to paint summer pictures with trees in full leaf and his famous wain on its way to collect hay from the harvest fields.
The pale grey light of winter offers a different perspective, but the gentle rolling hills and winding River Stour that so inspired Constable still offer breathtaking, or even calm, breath-restoring, views.
Lost the flock
Starting in Dedham, take the road north and cross the Stour before turning right, to walk along the north bank.
Don’t cross Fen Bridge, turn left and take the lane over another small bridge. The Cornfield (1826) was set here, featuring a shepherd drinking from the stream as his sheep stray down the road.
A familiar sight
If you fancy a slight detour, head left, up the road into East Bergholt. The church has a peculiar wooden cage to house the huge bells; they never made it up into the tower after work ceased in 1530 following the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey and the promised financial assistance. Also in the churchyard is the tomb of Golding and Ann Constable, the painter’s parents.
Returning down the road to Flatford, the slight elevation gives good views back across Dedham Vale. Down at the river, the aptly named Bridge Cottage is now owned by the National Trust. Don’t cross here, instead walk to the left, past granary and mill buildings.
The old mill is now converted to the environmental and art-based education centre of the Field Studies Council. Pick up a leaflet to see if any of their day or residential courses catch your eye.
Now comes the scene of that oh-so-familiar wagon, mid-water, crossing the Stour on its way to the hayfields. The building overlooking Constable’s horse-drawn cart was the farmhouse of Willy Lot.
It still stands today, just as it did in 1821, but it is now owned by the National Trust. Continue past on the well-marked Stour Valley Path, which now leads out across the fields and water meadows east.
Near Brantham the rough marshes really open up on the right, and although there is no public access to the wetlands, there are fine views, especially for birdwatchers.
Overwintering water birds can be seen in their hundreds – including teal, wigeon, lapwing and black-tailed godwits. Even in the cold mists, which can add a frisson of mystery to a winter water walk hereabouts, the ghostly white strutting shapes of egrets seem to shine through the dim air. As well as the little egret with its black legs and brightly contrasting yellow feet (like it’s wearing rubber gloves), look for the much rarer, but increasing, cattle egret with its non-contrasting dirty yellow-grey legs and feet.
It’s only a short journey down the A137, crossing White Bridge, where the River Stour ceases and the sea begins, before rejoining the meadows and heading right, back along the river. If the fields are too wet, and partly flooded here, you can continue on to Manningtree station, where a well-made track eventually leads back on to the fields, joining the riverbank path to Flatford Mill.
Walking past on this side of the river you get a better feel for the hamlet of Flatford, and a better appreciation of the divide of the river into navigable lock and wheel-powering mill-race.
Although the layout of the waterways has changed since Constable’s time, it is still possible to see some of the original buildings and river features from his paintings. The ‘white horse’ is waiting in its barge, ready to take the lock; and he painted several variants of the lock, and mill buildings around this area.
Finally, to head back to the start, the footpath continues along the southern river bank, past Fen Bridge. It follows the last right-angle turn of the river, then peels off left across the fields back to Dedham.
HOW TO GET THERE
The village of Dedham is one mile east of the A12 between Colchester and Ipswich. Heading north take the turnoff to Stratford St Mary/Dedham between junctions 29 and 30. Coming south take the B1029 Dedham Road at J30. You can alter the round-journey walk to start from Manningtree station.
Find out more
Field Studies Council — Flatford Mill
Bridge House Tea Rooms, Flatford Bridge Cottage, Flatford, East Bergholt CO7 6UL
Treat yourself to a cream tea in the heart of Constable country.
Stratford Road, Dedham, Colchester CO7 6HN
Set in beautiful countryside, this luxurious hotel will be perfect to return to after a day exploring.
Two porticoed classical towers are all that remain of a grand Georgian church.
OS Explorer 196
Grid Reference: TM 077 326