The area around Flatford Mill, Dedham and East Bergholt in Suffolk is synonymous with the works of John Constable. This is where Constable grew up, his family owned Flatford Mill, he went to school in Dedham and East Bergholt is his birthplace, site of his family home and first studio. All these places, dotted close together along the Stour valley, provided untold inspiration for Constable’s work.
His most instantly recognisable paintings from this area – The Haywain, Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River), The Mill Stream – are part of a series painted within a few hundred yards of each other. Strange to think then that, although familiar with his work, I had absolutely no idea where any of these masterpieces were painted.
I would still be ignorant of this but for the fact that I was travelling by ferry to Harwich, before driving to the Lake District. On the map was a symbol for ‘place of interest’. That ‘place’ was Flatford Mill, and since the ferry arrived early in the morning I thought I’d spend the day exploring some places along my route. An early morning stroll on the banks of the River Stour seemed like a good introduction to Constable Country.
So famous were Constable’s paintings of the area, it became known as Constable Country during his lifetime. Constable heard this himself from a fellow passenger during a stagecoach journey. He recorded the incident in a letter: “… one of them remarked to me – on my saying it was beautiful – “yes sir, this is Constable’s Country!” I then told him who I was lest he should spoil it.”
I arrived at Flatford car park (owned by the National Trust) so early that I qualified for a reduced rate ticket. Walking in the direction of the Stour, the sun was struggling to emerge from behind a blanket of white cloud. As if on cue, as I stood admiring Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s House, the sun illuminated the entire scene. It was beautiful, the buildings radiating colour as they were reflected in the water.
None of these buildings are open to the public, so a visit is restricted to viewing them from the outside. I spent a little time drinking in the view before setting off past Bridge Cottage on a walk along the banks of the River Stour to Dedham. It was a peaceful morning and I strolled in isolation through a quintessentially bucolic English country scene.
Arriving in the small hamlet of Dedham was like arriving in a major city after the river walk. I wandered around the place where Constable had gone to school just as it was coming to life. Shops were opening, people were heading to work and the grass cutter was at work in the churchyard. Dedham has another claim to fame, as a hotbed of nonconformist religious zeal in the late 16th century.
Members of the Dedham Classis, a Presbyterian group that opposed the established church, were persecuted in England. Like many other religious radicals, many of them left the country to build a new life in the United States where they established a settlement in Massachusetts called, with great originality, Dedham. The US version is famous for having the oldest surviving timber-framed house in the country.
I found a footpath that took me from Dedham to East Bergholt, where the site of Constable’s first studio and family home are located. Neither building is the original, and the one that replaced his family home is an ugly example of modern British house building. I bought some breakfast in the local bakery and headed back to the car for the next part of my trip … to Ely.