On Constable’s beat
PUBLISHED: 11:44 05 January 2016 | UPDATED: 11:44 05 January 2016
David Falk, manager of Suffolk County Council’s Brandon Country Park, kicks off 2016 with a gentle walk in the very heart of Constable Country between Flatford and Dedham
The scene in front of me is softly illuminated by a clean blue winter’s sky. There is a millpond, a cream-coloured cottage and tall leafless trees. Through the trees I can see water meadows stretching out into the distance. A soft breeze sways branches and ripples water. The cottage is a mix of sharp straight lines covered by deep russet coloured roof tiles. This was once home to William Lott, a local farmer who lived here all of his 88 years. This is also the site where John Constable once sat as he prepared one of his most famous masterpieces, The Hay Wain. And this is the much-loved heart of Constable Country.
Constable Country stretches along the Stour Valley, straddling the border of Suffolk and Essex between Manningtree and Dedham. The scene for the Hay Wain lies in Flatford, a tiny hamlet of beautiful homes and the National Trust’s centre at Bridge Cottage. For my first walk of 2016 I’ll be following one of Suffolk’s most popular footpaths, a gentle three-mile wander between Flatford and the village of Dedham, just over the border into Essex.
Standing at the millpond I look up at Flatford Mill, now a Field Study Centre, an imposing structure of red brick smothered in sprawling wisteria and rambling rose. It’s unusual to have the scene of The Hay Wain all to myself. I recall some years ago an American uncle on an overnight stay refusing to head back to London until he’d seen Willy Lott’s Cottage and capturing the scene on his camera. It might be the most photographed location in all of Suffolk. It’s certainly the most iconic.
I wander towards Bridge Cottage and stand on the crest of the arched Flatford Bridge, looking down upon the deep brown, flowing waters of The Stour. Faint remnants of autumn leaves drift upon its surface. On its edge is a landing platform for the boats that ply the river in the summer. Today, the platform is a refuge for dozens of quacking mallards. On surrounding trees I see flocks of long-tailed tits and spot a treecreeper picking its way up a trunk.
From the bridge I pass through kissing gates, squelch through mud and enter the aptly named water meadows. I follow the blurred outline of a path keeping the river to my right. In the absence of people, nature comes alive. Overhead a magpie peals past soon followed by a shiny black cormorant. A heron loops over the river like a soaring pterodactyl, and a cackle of fieldfares flap across the scene. I peer at the landscape, flat in all directions, reaching towards the fuzzy outline of distant woodlands before meeting ripples of mackerel grey clouds. They shield the sun’s light and warmth. I button up.
In the near distance swans dot the riverbank like white markers. They feed methodically, tearing at grass and then one by one sit, lazing in one spot, clipping the grass around them. On the river more mute swans swim towards me. They are expectant, clearly used to receiving treats, but soon lose interest, chomp on waterweed and then drift away. Upriver a little grebe dives into the water. It disappears for an age before popping up further downstream.
On a weathered post I see a yellow waymarker disc for the Stour Valley Path, a long distance trail that stretches some 60 miles from near Manningtree to Newmarket. It signs me over Fen Bridge, and from the bridge I gain an elevated view of the meadows. The brown outline of those well-walked paths cuts across the landscape. I see a couple approaching. The man is in red, appropriately the colour Constable often used to add balance to his paintings.
Away from the bridge, the path narrows between ivy-smothered tree stumps, thickets of blackthorn and tall reeds. Recent rains have left the route waterlogged. It turns sharp left along a mesh of oaks, screening Constable Country from view. The sun has emerged and shafts of light fuss across the route ahead of me. At a metal gate I re-emerge onto the meadows and a sun-filled view. The contours are illuminated and to my right, the land gently rises reaching towards Stratford St Mary. To my left the land is almost flat, the riverbank lined by a procession of pollarded willows. The landscape seems simple, uncluttered, and featureless. And yet it continues to inspire artists. An ancient tree trunk, hit by lightning, sits squat, blackened and misshapen. It looks sculptured, as if it was hand carved into a twisted figurine. It’s Mother Nature’s addition to this artistic landscape.
I approach Dedham with cows grazing lazily in the near distance and reach a road bridge to re-cross the river. Dedham is a kaleidoscope of tightly packed historic homes and businesses. It should hold me longer, and on many occasions it has, but today I decide to head back to Flatford. As I retrace my steps across the meadows I see the landscape in a new light and with refreshed views. I look upwards and quicken my step as I see dark clouds – a Turner sky approaching.