Weekend report from our recent trip to the Stour Valley..
Deep in the border country that divides Suffolk from Essex lies the River Stour, which wends its sleepy way between fields and rows of trees, and with the essence of lazy summer afternoons becomes the centre-piece of a landscape famous throughout the world because of the paintings of John Constable.
Based at the Stour Valley Bunkhouse, a YHA alongside a working farm and a short walk from the estuary, we spent this walking weekend discovering this part of the countryside. After a warm summer’s Friday evening spent getting to know each other over a curry eaten in the garden, we walked out on Saturday from Manningtree to visit some of the sights Constable made famous.
We began our walk by following the Essex Way (the only way is the Essex Way) west out of town and up to the Norman church of St Mary’s, which commands a great spot on the top of a nearby hill. The route then continued further west, taking us through woodlands and over fields on a slight rise, giving us views north over Dedham Vale and the River Stour itself.
Arriving in Dedham meant time to visit the tea rooms and craft shops before we met up again and sat with a view of the river and of Dedham Mill, made famous by Constable, for lunch. Despite most of the group wanting to fall asleep in the sunshine, our return leg took us along the banks of the river along the St Edmund Way, past boaters and grassy fields, to Flatford, the site of Flatford Mill, and the scene of Constable’s most famous painting, ‘The Haywain’. Our enthusiasm for early 19th century paintings enlightened, we completed the circuit back to Manningtree and headed for the nearest pub garden, with views to the estuary, which was by that time a morass of mud, with boats perched lopsided waiting for the tide.
The only way to complete a sunny Saturday was to have a BBQ in the garden, watching the last of the light go and perhaps wanting to give it all up and become a band of vagrant painters, recording the lives of the country-folk and living in abject but happy poverty.
For Sunday’s walk we decided to explore more of the estuary we had gained subtle glimpses of from the bunkhouse. Luckily the tide was in for the morning, and after following the railway to the muddy shore, we spent a good few hours walking along the raised embankment looking out over the marshes, with the waving reeds and hosts of wading birds. A short circuit inland after reaching the mini-peninsula of Stutton Ness took us back round to a final stretch along the water, looking back to Manningtree on the other side.
Constable painted the world of country life as a kind of romantic ideal; it all looked very sunny and happy, certainly more than it was in reality. Because of those paintings however, and a view of the countryside that persists to this day, the places he loved are still there to see today, and are protected because they represent a shapshot of a world long gone, or which perhaps never really was. A walk in Suffolk and Essex on a warm weekend would be worth it even without this fascinating history, but with it we can join Constable’s romantic vision and really get away from it all.
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