Dedham Vale’s stout oaks, weeping willows, wildflower meadows and meandering rivers are well known to many who have never been there, thanks to landscapes painted by 18th-century artist, John Constable. Many of his most famous works, such as The Hay Wain, The Cornfield and The Leaping Horse, depict the characteristic lowland countryside and charming villages of the Stour Valley, and you stroll through many of the paintings’ settings on this walk.
Constable studied nature rather than artistic principles, often painting outside rather than working from sketches. Instead of enhancing and stylising his works in the manner of most contemporary artists, he sought to capture the exact colours of the countryside and fleeting effects of light and shade (which he used the Italian word chiaroscuro to describe).
Dedham Vale is as beautiful as it looks on canvas. Some of the finest lowland landscapes in the country – splendidly English without looking like they belong on a chocolate box – are now preserved within the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Start in Dedham, where Constable went to school.
This serene village has remained untroubled through generations of change and periods of poverty.
It’s a showcase of architectural styles, tucked in a vale near Colchester. Buy a picnic from Courtyard Café and strawberries from the grocery shop, before strolling to the River Stour.
Take a short detour and follow the river west to the scene of the painting Dedham Mill. Return to the bridge, and continue into a meadow, now following the river east. Oaks stand proud along the riverside path, cattle graze amid wildflowers, and couples row haphazardly past.
Follow the meanders of the river, crossing the border from Essex into Suffolk, and look for the fleeting effects of light and shade. “I was always determined,” Constable wrote, “that my pictures should have chiaroscuro if they had nothing else.”
Leave the river at Fen Bridge, following Fenbridge Lane north. Here, Constable painted The Cornfield. At a road turn right, and pause to lean over wooden gates as you stroll towards Flatford, enjoying panoramas reminiscent of the painting Stour Valley and Dedham Church.
THE HAY WAIN
In Flatford, walk downhill to Bridge Cottage, where there is a tearoom and free exhibition. Just downstream lies Flatford Mill, once owned by Constable’s father, and Willy Lott’s Cottage, formerly home to a farmer who allegedly never spent more than four nights away in 80 years. Spread a picnic blanket and enjoy scenes featured Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill and The Hay Wain. Constable’s friend CR Leslie wrote:
“We found the scenery of eight or ten of our late friend’s most important subjects might be enclosed by a circle of a few hundred yards at Flatford… startling was the resemblance of some of these scenes to the pictures.”
THE LEAPING HORSE
Follow the Stour Valley Path across fields to Cattawade Marshes picnic area, where the River Stour ends and the sea begins. Over lunch, observe the difference between the saline and freshwater flora, and keep a look out for birds such as redshank, lapwings and oystercatchers. Clouds and trees are mirrored perfectly in the calm water – Constable was famous for his depictions of reflections and light on cloud.
Turn right from Cattawade Marshes, then right again along a tributary of the Stour, where swans paddle among tall reeds. Follow a sign for Flatford to return to Fen Bridge. Shortly, pass the scene of The Leaping Horse – a gate marks
Once you return to Dedham, have a look in the Art and Craft Centre and finish with a cream tea at the Essex Rose.
HOW TO GET THERE
Dedham and the Stour Valley are easy to reach via A-roads – the village lies just off the A12 near Colchester. Nearby Manningtree has a train station, and it is possible to start the circular walk from here instead of Dedham.
FIND OUT MORE
Flatford CO7 6UL
Houses a free exhibition on Constable and his work.
The Courtyard Café
High Street, Dedham CO7 6AD
Pick up a homemade takeaway picnic from this café before starting your walk. You can buy a punnet of English strawberries from the High Quality Grocery Shop further down the street.
Flatford, Suffolk, CO7 6UL
Once owned by Constable’s father, the Granary has featured in many of Constable’s paintings. It’s now a museum and B&B.
Flatford boat hire
The Granary, Flatford CO7 6UL
Hire a row boat from Flatford and find your own picnic spot along the banks of the River Stour. Open daily, Mar-Oct, £6 per hour.