Go straight to the printable itinerary (pdf) for Constable Country on Foot here: Itinerary – Explore Constable Country on Foot or read a bit more about the area below.
The images are well known across the globe and it’s the gently rolling countryside; the lush green of the trees and fields; the scenes of farm workers with their animals, tools and haycarts and the wide, cloud-filled skies that make John Constable’s paintings so instantly recognisable.
Born in East Bergholt in 1776, Constable grew up in what was even during his lifetime known as ‘Constable’s Country’ in the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. He had a deep love of the area, citing it as the inspiration which sustained him creatively throughout his life.
He said: “Still I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate “my careless boyhood” with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful…”
As a young boy, he made the daily trek from his home in East Bergholt, across the fields to school in the picturesque village of Dedham. These walks inspired a love of nature and many years later he would come back to those paths and meadows and feature them in his art work.
The Cornfield (1826) for example is thought to be set on a pathway between East Bergholt and Dedham. The painting was actually called The Drinking Boy by Constable himself (if you look closely, you can see a young lad lying on his front, drinking from the river), its name having been changed by the painting’s subsequent owners. The church in the background is likely to have been placed there for aesthetic reasons, rather than for authenticity, which makes the exact location difficult to establish.
The Hay Wain (1821), arguably Constable’s most famous painting, shows a peaceful scene with a horse drawn cart (a hay wain), a dog running along the riverbank and haymakers in the distance in a neighbouring field. The white cottage on the left of the painting belonged to Willy Lott, a tenant farmer who was born and lived in the house his whole life, apparently only ever spending four nights away from it. It was part of Gibbeons Gate Farm at the time, but has since been renamed Willy Lott’s House. This scene was sketched on-site by Constable and later painted in oil on canvas in his London studio.
There are several more famous paintings from the area, see here for more details and do consider buying the National Trust’s guidebook to Flatford, which shows the sites where Constable’s paintings are set.
Visitors to Flatford today are surprised by how similar the settings of The Hay Wain and other paintings still are. Not much has changed from when Constable painted these pastoral scenes and if you visit in the off-peak season, you can really get a feel for the tranquility of the place. This gives a glimpse perhaps (minus the hustle and bustle of a working mill of course!) of what it must have been like 200 years ago.
Flatford was taken on by the National Trust in 1943 and the mill is now leased to the Field Studies Council who run courses in art, environmental studies, photography and ornithology. Some of the courses are residential, in which case students may stay overnight in Willy Lott’s House, Gibbeons Gate Farm or Flatford Mill.
Further along the lane from the mill is Bridge Cottage, which houses a Constable Exhibition. There is also a riverside tea room (which is becoming well known for its deliciously creative and unusual scones) and a gift shop; all run by the National Trust. Along a bit further still, is the RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden which visitors are free to wander around and pick up tips on making their own gardens more wildlife-friendly.
Boat trips between Flatford and Dedham are available in the summer and the choice is either to hire a rowing boat or take a trip on the waterbus, an electric boat which glides silently alongside the ducks and geese. Or you could row one way and glide silently back the other!
If you prefer to walk to Dedham, it’s a pleasant 40 minute stroll along the River Stour and across the fields, into the centre of this lovely village which has some excellent pubs, restaurants and tea rooms, an arts and crafts centre and several independent shops. It also has a magnificent church, which testifies to the wealth of the village when it was a rich wool town in the 15th century.
Sir Alfred Munnings
Just under a mile from the centre of Dedham is the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum which is the house where he lived and worked for over 40 years. Munnings is perhaps most well known as an equine artist, but he also painted some wonderful pictures of people, landscapes and seascapes and was an accomplished sculptor. His house is an elegant, atmospheric place with light and airy rooms. Many of his paintings adorn the walls and the rooms are furnished still with his personal belongings.
Munnings’ studio, complete with his brushes, paint-covered smock, half-finished tubes of paint and other art paraphernalia is a few steps away from the house, in the landscaped garden. In this light-filled and very personal space, one gets a real sense of what it must have been like when Sir Alfred was working there and indeed, it feels as if he has just stepped out of the room and might return at any minute.
The curators and stewards at the museum are incredibly friendly and knowledgeable and have many stories and anecdotes to tell. Look out for the gorgeous handpainted lampshade in the drawing room and make sure you ask for the story behind it.
Dedham has also been home to other well known artists, including Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, who together founded the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. The school later moved to Hadleigh, after the Dedham building burnt down (much to Munnings’ glee; a traditionalist himself, he didn’t approve of the modern ‘radical’ art that was being taught at the school). Lucian Freud, Maggi Hambling and Ronald Blythe all attended and Blythe described it as “robust and coarse, and exquisite and tentative all at once. Rough and ready and fine mannered. Also faintly dangerous.”
Famous art forger Tom Keating also lived in Dedham. He is said have to have forged over 2,000 pieces of work, which he called his ‘Sexton Blakes’ (Cockney rhyming slang for fakes) which ironically have become quite valuable since his death in 1984.
Now you know a little bit about ‘Constable’s Country’, we invite you to visit and have created an itinerary for those interested in seeing the area in the best possible way – by foot (and boat)! The Dedham Vale AONB is easily accessible by train from London, Colchester, Ipswich, Harwich and Norwich with trains arriving at very regular intervals at Manningtree Station, and this is what we recommend.
Travel by Car
If you do choose to drive by car, you can park in East Bergholt, if you want to see the village where Constable was born. His family home is no longer there, but a plaque on a railing in the main street indicates where it once stood. It was pulled down in the 1840s, it is said, because it spoilt the view of the occupants of the larger, grander house opposite!
On the other side of the street is Moss Cottage, where he had his first studio (there is also a plaque on this wall). Parking is free in the village and you can make your way along the footpath which runs adjacent to Flatford Lane, down to Flatford and follow the itinerary from there.
Alternatively, park at Flatford in the National Trust car park (charges apply for non-members).
Heart of Suffolk (Constable Country): heartofsuffolk.co.uk/constable-country/
Dedham Vale AONB (walking routes and maps): dedhamvalestourvalley.org/publications/
National Trust Flatford: nationaltrust.org.uk/flatford
RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden: rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/reserves/guide/f/flatford/
The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum: munningsmuseum.org.uk/
Travel and boats:
Manningtree Station timetables: thetrainline.com/train-times/manningtree-to-london-liverpool-street
The Boathouse Restaurant (rowing boat hire), Dedham: dedhamboathouse.com/boat-hire
River Stour Trust (waterbus between Flatford and Dedham): riverstourtrust.org/river-trips/flatforddedham-river-trips/
Images from top: Walking past Flatford Mill towards Willy Lott’s House and the setting of The Hay Wain (1821) | Flatford Mill | RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden ©Mark Nowers | Artist’s paraphernalia at the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum ©Showcapture.com