This is a walk through the Stour valley that Constable loved, passing by the settings of some of his most famous paintings, a landscape now protected as the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Lunch is in the beautiful village of Dedham. In the afternoon the route goes past Dedham Lock and Mill, and from Essex into Suffolk, along the River Stour to Stratford St Mary and its church; and from there to East Bergholt, Constable's birthplace, which has a church with an unusual bell cage and an old friary that is now an organic farming community. Tea is by Flatford Mill and more Constable connections.
After prolonged heavy rain, the river may overflow and you may have to make a detour to avoid flooded water meadows.
John Constable was born in 1776 in East Bergholt and his successful corn merchant father owned Flatford Mill and eventually Dedham Mill. Though supposed to take over the family business, Constable became a landscape painter and much of his work reflects his attachment to Suffolk scenes. The love of his life, Maria Bicknell, was the granddaughter of the rector of East Bergholt known to him from childhood but he had to overcome opposition due to their social class differences before they could marry. When Maria died of tuberculosis in 1828, Constable had to bring up their seven children alone. He died in 1837, at the age of 61. Constable never went abroad, concentrating on painting landscapes in Suffolk, Hampstead, Salisbury and Brighton (they moved south for the sake of Maria's health). The walk passes the buildings in Dedham where Constable was a grammar school pupil and the scenes for many of his paintings, including The Hay Wain, The Cornfield, Dedham Vale, Dedham Mill, Flatford Mill and The Valley of the Stour.
St Mary's Church, Lawford, has long views over the River Stour and its estuary. It was probably built by Sir Benet de Cokefield, Lord of the (Lawford) Manor, in about 1340. It has a fine chancel in the Decorated Gothic style and a timber roof typical of the area. The discovery of treasonable correspondence led to the church's forfeiture by the Crown during the Reformation.
The village of Dedham prospered with the wool trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Work started on the Parish Church of St Mary, Dedham, in 1492. Constable attended services at this church, and its tower is a feature in his paintings. The church was renowned for its preaching and contains a seventeenth-century monument depicting a preacher known as 'Roaring Rogers' with a book in his hands.
Stratford St Mary contains a henge, a circular sanctuary dated around 4,000 BC but it can only be detected from the air. The church, a fine example of Decorated Gothic, is far larger than needed by the village, which had a peak population of 673 - it was built as big as their prosperity from agriculture could afford, to honour God. The letters of the alphabet are depicted around the exterior, to remind passers-by that all the sacred scriptures can be composed from these letters. Inside, note the variety of embroidered church kneelers in the pews. The oldest house in the village dates from 1334 and the timber-framed Priest's House has solid oak beams, four to five inches thick.
The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, East Bergholt, contains a possibly fifteenth-century inscription that reads: 'What ere thou art, here reader see, in this pale glass what thou shalt be, despised wormes and putrid slime, then dust forgot and lost in time.' In its churchyard is the tomb of Constable's parents. The tower was never completed, it is said because of the death in 1530 of the church's benefactor, Cardinal Wolsey. The bells were therefore 'temporarily' housed in a bell cage, built in 1531 - one that is still used and is unique, in that the bells are rung, not by wheel and rope, but by force of hand.
Old Hall, East Bergholt, has had many incarnations: a country house (painted by Constable), a nunnery and then a friary. In 1972, it was set up as a commune by a group who advertised in the Guardian for middle-class Greens, and has matured into a stable community.