Walking in an artist’s footsteps

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.

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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”

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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.

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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.

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The Hay Wain – in 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Heyjude

I now live back in the UK, but spent several years travelling the world and then living in South Africa. I look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

39 thoughts on “Walking in an artist’s footsteps”

    1. Essex has never been on my radar, but since we were in the county anyway it made sense to explore a bit and this area is so close to Colchester we (or rather I) figured it would be nice to stroll along the river and see where Constable visited. We didn’t stroll as far as I would have liked in the end as the sun came out and it was extremely hot and humid, maybe next time we’ll get the the villages.

  1. I haven’t been back to that area since the mid-1970s, Jude. This has made me want to return, as soon as the weather improves. When driving along the busy A14/A12 skirting Ipswich, or the busy commuter areas of North Essex, it is all-too easy to forget the delights to be found by turning off, and exploring the nearby countryside.
    I don’t think it’s twee. It is England (almost) unchanged, and wonderful to behold.
    Bets wishes, Pete. x

    1. He painted quite a few around this area. It is very pretty and flat. Flat is good for walking but not for views 🙂 We didn’t reach the villages, but next time…

  2. What a very delightful walk, Jude! I thoroughly enjoyed it. 🙂 The only disappointment was when you said you were going to recreate the painting. I had it in my mind’s eye that you set up your artist’s easel 😦 Perhaps Gilly could have. 🙂 Thanks so much, hon. There are some idyllic shots here.

    1. Oh, sorry Jo, I’m afraid the only ‘painting’ I can do is colouring by numbers. Besides do you really expect me to carry an easel and canvas and paintbox along with me on my walks? It would have been nice to see someone actually painting there though.

      1. I was even quite bad at painting by numbers, Jude! Remember those colour wash books where you just brushed water on and they came to life? That’s about my level 🙂 Happy Monday!

  3. I love rural England. Thanks for taking me with you. Fantastic pictures: they really convey the beauty of the English countryside and the quaint villages.
    Have a great week,
    Pit

    1. I guess that is because a lot of our towns and villages still have historic parts and they tend to be the bits I am attracted to. I did actually fancy a nursery in East Bergholt, but as we had already been to one garden and I had another in mind later on in the week I thought this place would make a change. And it did. Quite charming.

  4. This is a lovely ramble through some stunning countryside, Jude. Good to see it starts with a tea shop – always a plus. And to be able to place such well known paintings into their natural habitat as it were is just so satisfying.

      1. I LOVE the word whimsical. If I were a fantasy-type reader, it still wouldn’t fit the story the way I feel about the word. My word means dreamy, relaxing and better than the real world. Sigh. ❤ ❤

  5. I love this place! Anything that starts out …charming…with words like “cottages, lanes, hamlets and river walks” and ends in “mills” is my kind of place. One of my early ancestors was a millright and I have always had a fondness for them. Absolutely beautiful. Are people allowed to stay there overnight so as to allow more opportunity to explore? And what is the building that juts out at the peak of Flatford Mill?

    1. There is no accommodation at Flatford hamlet itself (except for those on residential Field Studies Council (FSC) courses) but there is in the nearby area and the towns of Colchester or Ipswich. The building* overhanging the road between the mill and the millpond, is where grain carried by farm carts was hoisted to the upper floor via a trap door – there is another on the opposite side overhanging the river from where flour was lowered into waiting barges (called lighters).

      *It is called a lucam: A structure in the roof of a mill that projects out from the building to allow the hoist to winch up sacks clear of the mill and give protection from the weather.

  6. Such a forgotten area of the country I feel Jude , it’s not high on my radar . You’ve photographed this all beautifully … love the mill buildings and cottages .. and yes waiting for that glimpse of sunshine to transform the scene is all a bit of luck at times . No matter you really did make the best of it here .

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