East Bergholt, Dedham and Flatford Mill

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Start: East Bergholt Distance: 5.3 miles (8.6 km) Climbing: 63 metres
Grid Ref: TM 06937 34605 Time: 3 hours Rating: Easy
GPX Route File Google Earth File About the River Stour
Statistics
Start: East Bergholt Distance: 5.3 miles (8.6 km)
Climbing: 63 metres Grid Ref: TM 06937 34605
Time: 3 hours Rating: Easy
GPX Route File Google Earth File
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map (1:25,000)

The Walk: Discover the countryside that inspired John Constable, arguably England’s greatest ever landscape painter. This section of the Stour valley where Constable spent the first 23 years of his life, and returned to often, has changed little in the last two centuries. It is a timeless patchwork of cornfields, lush water meadows, ancient trees and scattered farmsteads, and at its heart is the willow-lined river.

St Mary the Virgin church, East BergholtSt Mary the Virgin church, East Bergholt
River Stour at DedhamRiver Stour at Dedham

The walk begins in East Bergholt, where Constable was born and raised, and it was here that he first became ‘devotedly fond of painting’. Nothing remains of his boyhood home except a plaque marking the site, but his early studio is still standing, although it now forms part of a petrol station.

The church is early Tudor with splendid upper storey windows, and is famous for its unique wooden bell cage. As the tower was never completed, through lack of funds, the five bells were temporarily housed in a wooden cage around 1530. There they remain, suspended upside-down and rung by hand.

From East Bergholt the route briefly follows the Flatford Road, with magnificent views over Dedham Vale, then turns into hedge lined Fen Lane. Near the bottom is the site that inspired Constable's painting 'The Cornfield'.

The walk continues along the riverbank to Dedham, which has some fine buildings dating from medieval to Georgian times, and a church whose tower stands 131 feet (40 metres) above the vale. Among the villages many interesting features is the mill, now converted into flats. An earlier building on the site was owned by Constable's father and painted by the artist on various occasions.

Through the cloth trade, the village reached the height of its prosperity in the 15th and 16th centuries. Handsome merchant houses date from the wealthy era, as does the Marlborough Head - long since an inn, but formerly a wool exchange. The nearby pink timber framed houses, known as Southfields, are even older, with parts of them going back as far as the 12th century. In medieval times an English family of clothiers called Webb made clothing here. The old Grammar School, where Constable completed his education, was founded in 1571 but rebuilt in 1731.

The route from Dedham to Flatford follows the river as it winds lazily through flat meadowlands. Its waters shelter an abundance of wildlife: pike, bream, tench, perch and dace; mute swans, mallard, moorhen, coot and other water birds; and all kinds of insects. The banks, often flooded in winter, are lined with willows, many of them hollow, split and twisted into strange shapes. Near the point where the field path from Dedham first meets the river is the location of the painting Constable made in 1825, ‘The Leaping Horse’. Further along, the riverside path passes Fen Bridge, which was rebuilt in 1985.

Flatford, a picturesque clutch of buildings on the Stour’s north bank, is the very heart of Constable country. Flatford Mill, built in 1773, is now owned by the National Trust and leased to the Field Studies Council for its residential courses, as are Valley Farm and Willie Lott’s house. None of the buildings are open to visitors. The National Trust also owns the beautiful thatched Bridge Cottage which houses a free exhibition about Constable and his work. Another well known painting is ‘Boat Building, (1814) - a reminder that Flatford was once a major barge building centre with four dry docks; one owned by Constable's father, has been restored.

From Flatford the route heads back to East Bergholt through pretty woods and meadows. Near the end of the walk, just before the Fen Lane turn off, is one of the most celebrated views of the Stour valley immortalised in Constable's ‘View of Dedham’ (1815).


Acknowledgments: Text derived from the Out and Out Series; Discovering the Countryside on Foot. Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

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