As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Dedham Vale, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of museums, natural spaces and historic buildings in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in southeast England.
Art galleries, nature reserves and historic buildings: the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley has a wealth of captivating and enriching places and spaces.
From the historic Flatford Mill, with its unique links with John Constable, to Gainsborough’s birthplace and Sir Alfred Munning’s preserved studio at Castle House, this area is rich in cultural history and justly proud of its connections with world famous painters and writers.
Alternatively, get lost in the area’s natural spaces, from the wildlife-rich woodland at Arger Fen and Spouse’s Vale nature reserve, to the unique gardens and arboretum at East Bergholt Place, or the scenic walking trails that wind through the lakes and meadows of Carter’s Vineyards.
Get a unique insight into the life and work of Thomas Gainsborough, who was born and raised in Sudbury. His former home dates from around 1500 and is packed with special architectural features including a Georgian façade added by his father. Browse the permanent collection which covers the artist’s entire career from the 1750s to the 1780s, as well as works by his contemporaries including his nephew and studio assistant, Gainsborough Dupont. Afterwards, wander round the garden which is planted up with flowers, herbs and shrubs that reflect what would have been grown there during Gainsborough’s lifetime, and also contains a Mulberry tree thought to date back to the reign of James I. There is also a charming little café in the gift shop serving cakes, teas and coffee. gainsborough.org
Dedham Art and Craft Centre
Housed in a converted church, the Dedham Art and Craft Centre has three floors of shops and stalls, showcasing the work of over 30 local artisans. Pick up some ceramics, paintings, textile art and woodcraft, or even clothing, jewellery, books and cards. When you’ve finished browsing, the tearoom has a tempting vegetarian menu of freshly prepared food, from light lunches to mouth watering cakes and scones. dedhamartandcraftcentre.co.uk
Churches in Dedham Vale
There are church towers all over the Dedham Vale landscape, some iconic and imposing and others unassuming and quietly blending in with the landscape. Two of the best known are Dedham Parish Church, and St Mary’s in East Bergholt.
In Dedham, a church building has been on the same site since 1492 and it very much marks the heart of the village. The 131ft tower is clearly visible all around the area and it featured in many of John Constable’s drawings and paintings, though some experts say that he often added a little extra height for dramatic effect. The Constable connection continues inside the church where you can see one of his paintings, The Ascension, which is on permanent display.
The church is East Bergholt also has links to the Constable family, as both his parents are buried here and inside there is a plaque commemorating the life of his wife Maria. Constable was born and raised in East Bergholt, and met his future wife in the village where she lived just a few doors away. In the church yard, take a peek inside the unusual bell cage. It was constructed as a temporary measure in 1521 to house the church bells whilst the tower was being built, but the tower was never completed and the bells are still housed and rung by hand inside the cage to this day.
The Munnings Collection
Visit Castle House and you’ll discover the largest single collection of works by Sir Alfred Munnings. He lived here for over 40 years, and whilst Munnings was perhaps best known for his paintings of racehorses, he also had a passion for landscapes and prolifically painted the local countryside and the characters that lived there. After visiting the house, take a walk around the beautiful grounds and enjoy some tea and cake in the recently opened tea rooms. Also don’t miss Munnings’ studio which contains more of his works and painting materials, and gives a unique insight into how he worked as an artist. siralfredmunnings.co.uk
This cluster of buildings now bustles with visitors, but once upon a time it hummed with activity as the site of a working water mill and busy waterway where horse drawn barges would travel up and down the River Stour through the locks and on to local market towns. The now Grade I listed watermill was owned by the Constable family and next door is the Miller’s cottage, belonging to Willy Lott which appears in John Constable’s The Haywain. Wander around the hamlet, taking in the views that Constable would have painted and pop in to the exhibition at 16th century Bridge Cottage just down the lane to learn more about Constable’s links with the area. There is also a National Trust tea shop next door, and opposite is a newly opened RSPB wildlife garden and National Trust visitor centre. nationaltrust.org.uk/flatford
East Bergholt Place, Place for Plants
Described as ‘The Cornish Garden of Suffolk’, this beautiful 20 acre garden and arboretum’s origins date back to the early 20th century. The current owner’s great grandfather Charles Eley laid out the foundations of what would become a stunning and unusual collection of rhododendrons, camellias, spring bulbs, shrubs and trees, many of which were gathered by renowned Scottish plant collector, George Forrest. Start off your visit in the Plant Centre, which is housed in a Victorian walled garden and has plenty of helpful staff on hand to help you choose from the huge selection of plants. You’ll need to buy a ticket to access the garden but it’s well worth the investment. You’ll discover stunning displays of flowers, particularly in spring, many unusual flowering trees and also the national collection of deciduous euonymus. Restore yourself in The Jubilee Tearoom on the way out, with a cup of tea and slice of cake. placeforplants.co.uk
Cattawade Picnic Site
This picnic site on the banks of the River Stour makes a great base for all kinds of outdoorsy activities, whether it’s a spot of fishing, launching a canoe from the purpose-built platforms, or heading off down the Stour Valley Path which passes by the car park and continues on to Newmarket. Alternatively you could just relax with a picnic, but keep a pair of binoculars handy to watch out for the wide variety of wading birds that take up residence on the internationally important Cattawade Marshes. dedhamvalestourvalley.org
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