Walk through living masterpieces
a walk through the villages of tranquil Dedham vale reveals the inspiration for the work of artists John Constable and alfred Munnings
Lacing its sparkling way through rolling farmlands and ancient woodlands, the River Stour forms part of a living masterpiece. With its hedges, wildflower meadows and pretty villages, this lowland area on the border between Suffolk and Essex has long been immortalised by some of Britain’s greatest artists. Within the valley lies Dedham Vale, an Area of Outstanding National Beauty. Home to the villages of Dedham, Flatford and East Bergholt, it provided inspiration for John Constable and Alfred Munnings. Each captured local settings in works that celebrate this quiet corner of England. This 7½ mile walk starts in Dedham, home for many years of Munnings. It follows the river to Flatford, the subject of Constable’s most famous painting, before continuing to his birthplace, East Bergholt. Finally, the route returns to Flatford, before finishing back in Dedham.
Dedham and Munnings
The water meadows of the River Stour pass along the northern edge of Dedham. Here, they form the boundary between the two counties. The open ground is grazed by cattle, while pollarded willows grow along the riverside. Once a Saxon manor, Dedham was identified in the Domesday Book. The village today is an appealing combination of medieval and Georgian architecture. The walk starts at Castle House, which sits a mile south of the village centre, on Castle Hill. This was Alfred Munnings’ home from 1919 to his death in 1959. A mix of Tudor and Georgian styles, today it is home to The Munnings Art Museum. Although mainly remembered for his magnificent equine portraits, Munnings also painted landscapes.
A number of his depictions of the vale and the Stour are displayed at the museum. Walking down Castle Hill along Brook Street leads to the centre of Dedham. Here stands St Mary’s church. Construction on it began in 1492, taking 30 years to complete. The tower, which was finished in 1519, stands independently of the main body of the church. There is a local story that Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s paternal mother, paid for the 131ft (40m) high tower to be built. She was a pious woman who endowed two Cambridge colleges and a grammar school. Nearly 500 years later, Dedham’s tower still stands as a beacon both across the vale and in the artists’ work. It features in Constable’s 1828 picture The Vale of Dedham and in Munnings’ painting Dedham Painted from Lock Cottage. The date of the latter is unknown. A viewing platform on top of the tower, open in the summer, provides excellent views of the lower Stour Valley. Ornate in its finish, the church is testament to the riches generated by the valley’s cloth trade in the 15th century. Medieval wool churches, as they were known, were common in the area. Dedham’s was the last to be finished. The church is home to the John Constable painting of 1821 entitled The Ascension. This may show Jesus ascending to heaven, although there is another view that it depicts the Resurrection. Across the High Street from the church stands a row of shops, each housed within period frontage. Elegant homes, some of brick dating from the Georgian era, others of timber from earlier centuries, also line the street. The stagecoach archway of the 16th century Sun Inn stands witness to its past as a coaching inn. On the other side of the High Street, set slightly back, is Royal Square. Here stands Well House, dating from 1732 and now Grade I listed. Today, it is a private residence, but was home to Dedham Grammar School, originally founded by Elizabeth I. In front of it is the war memorial, commemorating residents who died in the First and Second World Wars. In 1937, Munnings established the Dedham Vale Society to maintain and protect the architectural integrity and history of the village. One of the results of the society’s work is that there are no road markings in the centre of the village.
Constable and Flatford
Directly opposite the memorial is tree-lined Mill Lane. A short walk down, it leads to open fields and the river. At the water’s edge is a red brick building. Now a private residence, it stands on the site of a long-gone mill once owned by Golding Constable, John’s father. Over the bridge, a gate on the right swings open into the fields and onto the Stour Valley Path east towards Flatford, approximately 1½ miles away. The riverbank is lined with native black poplars. At this time of year, water voles and otters may be seen in the water, while stag beetles drift through the warm air. In the hedge-lined water meadows, dragonflies, red admiral and small skipper butterflies dance above meadow foxtail and sweet vernal grass. In the evenings, barn owls hunt across the riverside and woodland edges. On the river’s edge, flag iris and water forget-me-not flourish. About midway along this stretch of the walk, a bush-lined path to the left leads to a set of steps on the right. These climb up to a wooden bridge. This is Fen Bridge, a replica of the one the young John Constable crossed each day on his walk to
John ConSTAble (1776-1837)
Born at East Bergholt, Constable spent his childhood in Dedham Vale. The area is a subject in many of his paintings, including Fen Lane, East Bergholt (1817), The Church Porch, East Bergholt (1810) and The Ruined Tower of East Bergholt Church (1816-17). In 1811, Constable exhibited Dedham Vale, Morning. His painting Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River) (1816) depicts working life at Flatford. His painting Stour Valley and Dedham Church depicts the open ground which lies between Dedham and Flatford along the river. Of his youth in Dedham Vale, Constable commented: “All those things that lie on the banks of the Stour, they made me a painter.” Constable was mostly self-taught, but he did study at the Royal Academy schools in 1800. From 1802 onwards, he exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy in London. He moved from Dedham Vale to London in 1816. Returning to Suffolk in 1817 for a holiday with his wife, he painted Fen Lane – East Bergholt. This includes Dedham church and shows the pathway that would have taken him down to Fen Bridge. In an increasingly industrialised world, his work harped back to a way of life that was already being lost. It eventually helped transform British landscape painting.
Alfred Munnings (1878-1959)
Munnings was the son of a successful mill owner in the Waveney Valley on the Suffolk–Norfolk border. He enjoyed drawing from childhood and some of his juvenilia is on display at The Munnings Art Museum. These earlier works included landscapes. After attending Norwich School of Art, he worked as a commercial artist. He had a passion for horses and began to secure very well paid commissions to paint portraits of the animals and their owners. In the First World War, he worked as a war artist. On his return, he moved to Castle House in Dedham in 1919, where the museum is now housed. His paintings The White Canoe on the Stour at Flatford (date unknown) and A Barge on the Stour at Dedham (date unknown) evoke the restful pleasure and beauty of the nearby river.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
Although not a resident of Dedham Vale, Thomas Gainsborough was another artist inspired by the beauty of the Stour Valley. Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, 16 miles west of Dedham. Best known for his portraits, including that of George III, he also captured images of the land in the west of the valley. He considered his landscape painting a liberation from the constraints of portraiture. His works include the 1748 Cornard Wood and the circa 1750 Mr and Mrs Andrews. This latter painting is important both as a portrait of a couple and its realistic depiction of landscape. It is his, for the times novel, depiction of the skyscape and weather that makes it stand out. For Gainsborough, the local landscape represented an ideal.
school in Dedham. The original bridge collapsed in the 1930s, but was finally replaced in 1985, thanks to the efforts of local councils and societies. Over Fen Bridge, steps go down into a field where the path along the river’s edge is well trodden. Swifts race low to the ground before suddenly swinging upwards and arcing high over the trees. This is a haunt of the heron, sometimes seen gliding in silent, steady majesty above.
Round the bend of the river, a thatched roof and a hump-back bridge announce that Flatford has been reached. The roof belongs to the 16th century brick-and-timber Bridge Cottage. Once lived in by tenants of Constable’s father, it now houses an exhibition of the artist’s work. The cottage also features in two of his paintings, the 1813 Landscape with Boys Fishing and View on the Stour near Dedham from 1822. Over the bridge, the walk turns right, then runs for a quarter of a mile down the curving lane towards Flatford Mill. On the left sits Valley Farm, the oldest building in Flatford. This is a large timbered house that was once the village’s original manor house. The oldest building in Flatford, it is a medieval Great Hall House. The original building had no upper floor, the hall being open to the roof. In the 16th century, an inglenook fireplace and chimney were added, and an upper floor for bedrooms. It is the subject of Constable’s 1835 painting The Valley Farm. Today, the house is owned by the National Trust, which leases it to the Field Studies Council for student accommodation. It is accessible to the public on Heritage Open Days. To the right stands The Granary, a large barn-like private residence edged with pink and red roses in bloom. At the end of the lane, an iconic scene
opens up. This is where Constable painted The Hay Wain in 1821. This 51in by 73in (130 x 185cm) painting is one of the bestknown landscapes. The view to the open land that is seen in this work is now obscured by trees, but otherwise it remains true. On the left of the pond is the large, plaster-walled building known today as Willy Lott’s House. The original timber-frame cottage dates from circa 1600, with extensions added in the 17th and 18th centuries. Willy Lott was a tenant farmer who worked the land around the farm then known as Gibbeon’s Gate Farm. Born in 1761, he lived here for all of his 88 years. He eventually made enough money to buy the farm in 1825. By the 1920s, both the cottage and mill were in dilapidated states. The buildings were first restored by an Ipswich builder, before being taken on by the National Trust. Like Valley Farm, they are currently leased to the Field Studies Council. Returning to Bridge Cottage, a right turn heads up the lane towards East Bergholt. This modestly-sized village comprises many examples of late medieval buildings. It is also notable for its striking abbey, combining 18th and 19th century architecture. The village lies 1¾ miles away along Flatford Road.
An artist’s childhood
John Constable was born in East Bergholt House, a red-brick building that was pulled down in 1840/41. Painted by Constable in 1809, it stood close to the village church. Today, only a stable block and outbuilding exist. The artist was baptised in the 14th century St Mary’s church, and it is here that both his parents and Willy Lott are buried. The Constable family tomb lies in the north east corner of the churchyard. The stained glass in the south aisle of the church is dedicated to John Constable. In the church grounds is a structure known as the Bell Cage. This was originally constructed as a temporary
“the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things.”
home for the church bells until a tower was completed. Work began on the tower in 1525, but stopped when Cardinal Wolsey, one of its supporters, met his downfall. He had failed to secure an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Work never resumed and the Bell Cage became permanent. Instead of being swung by a rope and wheel, the five bells are struck by handling the stock of the bell. Weighing a combined total of approximately 4.5 tons, they are the heaviest set of bells in England. By the church is the Old Hall. Once a manor house it then became a convent. Benedictine nuns arrived in East Bergholt in 1856-7, relocating from Winchester when that town was deemed too populous. During their tenure at what became Old Hall Convent, previously St Mary’s Abbey, a chapel and bell tower were added. The nuns left East Bergholt in 1940. It was then used successively an army barracks and a Franciscan friary. Finally in 1974, it became home to a community of families. In the centre of the village is Moss Cottage, a fascinating footnote in the Constable story in that it was once his early studio. It is now the reception for a garage, directly opposite the village shop. The village is notable for a range of listed buildings. One such is a house named Gissings on Rectory Hill. This was built in the 16th century as a clothier’s house, testifying to the wealth that the industry once generated in the vale. The walk now retraces the route to Flatford and, from there, to Dedham. Dedham Vale’s allure today hinges on the peace and solitude it can offer. It is easy to imagine that, for artists such as Constable and Munnings, the vale felt like a sanctuary from an increasingly industrialising world. This beautiful place still conjures up an atmosphere of having stepped back in time, to a slower more tranquil era.
Constable’s exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821.
The Hay Wain,
Dedham East Bergholt Flatford
Walkers can follow John Constable’s daily journey to school when they cross Fen Bridge. The wooden structure is a replica of the original over the Stour.
Castle House, now The Munnings Art Museum, is home to several hundred of his works, the largest single collection.
The flint tower of St Mary’s (centre). Former school, Well House bears the inscription ‘Thomas Grimwood Hujus Scholae Magister 1732’ (bottom)
Constable’s Dedham Vale (1802) is a view of the Stour Valley from Gun Hill. A group of gypsies are camped inconspicuously in the foreground.
The White Canoe on the Stour at Flatford features Munnings’ wife and friend; Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, sitting in their estate, illustrates the wealth of the countryside.
The river is the focus for the valley landscape and supports a rich diversity of wildlife.
The Grade II listed, 16th century Bridge Cottage is another building depicted by Constable.
Valley Farm was once home to members of the Lott family and wealthy yeoman farmers.
For nearly 100 years, from 1742 to 1846, Flatford Mill was owned by the Constable family. It continued as a working mill until 1900.
Willy Lott’s Cottage was renamed Willy Lott’s House because this was the name Constable used in his paintings.
St Mary’s, East Bergholt with its Bell Cage. It was moved from the east side of the church in the 17th century following a request from a family at the Old Hall who disliked the bells’ sound. The heavy bells of St Mary’s are swung by hand applied directly to a wooden headstock.
Moss Cottage, Constable’s first studio, which he is said to have rented for four and a half old pennies (approximately 2p) a year. Cows in the shallows of the river and grazing on the open pasture beyond.