Exploring Dedham Vale, Constable's paintings and his inspiration
You can hardly take a step in this part of the world without bumping into a location for one of John Constable’s paintings. Whether it’s Dedham Lock and Mill, the riverside walk which inspired at least four of his works or Flatford Mill itself which was owned by his father and provided the setting for ‘Boys Fishing by Bridge Cottage’, ‘The Lock’, and of course ‘The Haywain’.
Dedham Vale was Constable’s childhood home and his main source of inspiration. “I should paint my own places best", he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821. "Painting is but another word for feeling." He was born and grew up in a radius of just a few miles, living in East Bergholt and attending school in Dedham which he walked to each day along the River Stour. Even after he moved to London to further his career, he returned to Dedham Vale every summer to sketch and paint the landscape, and even eventually married his childhood sweetheart and one time neighbour from East Bergholt, Maria with whom he had seven children.
Flatford is one of the best places to start your exploration of ‘Constable Country’. I arrived on foot from Dedham, which is just a 30 minute stroll through the riverside meadows and brings you across a small wooden bridge right into the heart of the hamlet. The National Trust took over in 1943 and restored its buildings and the dry dock, and has continued to acquire the surrounding land over the years to protect it from development.
Some of the buildings are now leased to the Field Study Council which offers over 300 residential and day courses based on the arts and the environment. There’s also a delightful new wildlife garden which has been cultivated on land donated to the RSPB by two sisters, Sylvia and Margaret Richardson who ran a tea garden on the site for many decades.
You can either spend a leisurely day wandering around the hamlet, learning about John Constable in the free, small exhibition at Bridge Cottage and exploring the circular walks which offer panoramic views of the surrounding farmland and 15th century buildings. Or do what I did and jump in with one of the daily guided tours (there is a small fee) to find out more about the artist, how he worked and his links with the area.
We visited several sites where Constable painted and our guide explained what daily life at the Mill would have been like at the time. With her bulging bag full of print copies of his most famous paintings, we were able to compare the scene in Constable’s day with how it is now, and saw in many cases how little the landscape has changed as well as where he had taken a certain amount of artistic license. For example, the tower of Dedham Church appears in many of his works but in order for it to have sufficient impact in the painting, he decided to add roughly 30ft to its actual height.
Afterwards, I tucked in to a freshly made salad at the National Trust tea room, picked from the on-site Valley Farm kitchen garden that same morning, before catching a ride back to Dedham on the Hopper Bus service. Here there were a couple more important Constable connections to see, including his former school where someone has mysteriously etched the initials ‘JC ‘ on the front wall, some eight feet off the ground.
Dedham Church houses one of his paintings, The Ascension. If the tower is open (weekends only) then it’s well worth a climb to the top for its fabulous views over the surrounding Stour Valley, and if you have time then stroll up to Castle House, which was home to another great local artist and former President of the Royal Academy, Sir Alfred Munnings.
Where to stay
Maison Talbooth and Milsoms, both on the outskirts of Dedham, each make a fabulous base if you want to enjoy a stay with that added touch of luxury.
Maison Talbooth has 12 gorgeous suites, all with super king size beds, goose feather duvets, Egyptian cotton sheets, mini bars and complementary wi-fi. The Garden Room Restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, and overlooks the lawns and pool house where you can head for a dip afterwards in the heated outdoor swimming pool and hot tub. Book in for a session on the tennis court, or relax in the new Day Spa which offers massages, facials, manicures and a whole range of other treatments. For dinner, the complementary shuttle will take you up to their award winning restaurant, Le Talbooth which is just a couple of minutes away on the banks of the River Stour. Their fine dining menu includes plenty of locally sourced dishes including Dedham Vale beef carpaccio and Colchester crab ravioli.
Alternatively, Milsoms down the road has fifteen stylish en-suite bedrooms all with crisp white linen sheets, duvets and fluffy towels, a mini bar, satellite TV and that all important free wi-fi. Here you can dine in their two-tiered restaurant or outside on the terrace under their gigantic 'sail' and in the shade of a 160 year old Sequoia tree. The menu here specialises 'global' cuisine as well as daily specials that showcase the best of the area’s produce, such as the delicious pan fried flounder I tried with browned butter and seasonal vegetables, caught locally that same morning.