Dedham is your typically picturesque, gentrified English village; even the local Co-op bears a hand-painted sign declaring itself to be “high class”. In the tourist season it draws crowds by the coach-load, soaking up the area’s fame as Constable Country and as a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And while ties with Romanticism are unavoidable, Dedham has another fascinating connection with art: it was the birthplace of Cedric Morris’s East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, established in 1937 for “artists outside of the system”. Notable students included Lucian Freud, Maggi Hambling and John Nash.
This and more I learn from my guide, local resident, author and psychogeographer Justin Hopper, who made a walk through the pretty flatlands of Dedham Vale so much more than going to see the site of The Hay Wain. On his recommendation we begin our trail westwards, on a less-travelled path.
We head out of the village with the church on our left. Just before the Assembly Rooms we turn right, passing some allotments. We soon reach the River Stour, and follow the Essex Way past a house to Milsoms restaurant, turn left along the driveway then right to cross the A12. We continue uphill on the Essex Way to reach Saint Mary’s Church, where Constable would often come to paint the views over Dedham. On the church door a fading hand-written sign reads: “Jerry the church cat has passed to wait at mouse holes in the sky. For twenty years he provided a meet and greet service at Saint Mary’s Church. All that was missing was a peaked cap with the label ‘security’.”
Constable’s 1813 painting Dedham from Langham is a famous view, probably done from the tower of Langham church, which looks out over the valley and across to Dedham church. The Glebe Farm (1830), of which there are several versions, is the view of the next leg of the walk as we descend past Church Farm and bear sharp left along the Essex Way for a few hundred metres before taking a sharp right down a dirt road until the river comes into view. By a fingerpost we swing left, and where the path forks we hug the river, eyes alert for kingfishers, egrets, little grebes and wintering teal. From here the landscape is – and largely continues as – a verdant floodplain and farmland dotted with trees and copses, the meandering Stour thick with reeds and bullrushes.
After crossing a concrete bridge overlooking a portage point, we turn right and with an imperceptible border crossing from Essex to Suffolk, we’re in Stratford St Mary. We go through a short underpass, whose 40-year-old U2 and Prince graffiti will soon surely be worthy of a preservation order.
As we reach the river again and the vale spreads out before us, Justin points at a sky layered with bands of dark cloud and dotted with little fluffy ones. He tells me about Constable’s genius for depicting clouds and how John Nash’s Stour Valley, with its soft muted colours, makes for an interesting comparison. Another contrasting vision, he says, is offered by Lucien Freud, whose A Suffolk Spring Landscape with Welsh Mountains Beyond, painted at Morris’s art school, was recently discovered on the back of an old pub sign.
We continue our walk, the river on our right, passing through a wooden kissing gate and take the Flatford Way diagonally up a hill to enjoy a rare elevated view of the vale below. We follow the road down, passing RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden to reach a bridge. From here, walkers can continue to the locations of a large number of Constable’s most famous paintings, including The Hay Wain (1821), by following the lane around to Flatford Mill Field Studies centre and joining the inevitable throng before returning to cross the bridge.
A furrowed pathway passes some extraordinary skeletal trees by the river. By a wooden gate, the path heads away from the river to reach a tree-lined avenue. We follow a final sign to Dedham. Approaching the Sun Inn, our arty walk concludes with an appreciation of the near side of the pub sign: it depicts Helios, painted by Tom Keating, one-time Dedham resident and the UK’s most famous art forger. Keating claimed to have forged over 2,000 paintings from Degas to Gainsborough. He was arrested on suspicion of fraud in 1977, but his work is now so collectible – originals sell for over £10,000 – that it’s not uncommon for new “finds” to be later discovered as forgeries of his forgeries.
As Justin and I sit by the fire with our pints, he says: “For those who think of this walk solely as ‘Constable Country’, there’s a curious thing: part of the appeal of Constable’s paintings at the time was his romanticised depiction of rural life in an industrialised age; Constable was offering reassurance that the old ways were still there.
“Two centuries on, part of the appeal of this landscape to us is its unchanging nature. But in reality this was a working landscape, utterly transformed in the 18th and 19th century by agriculture, mills and our use of rivers for transportation.”
Justin adds that Dedham Vale became an AONB not because of anything dramatic in the scenery but because it has remained so similar to the landscape Constable portrayed. “We, too, have romanticised a working landscape into an ancient landscape. It’s good to remember this.”
Knowing Justin as the author of Old Weird Albion, a book about strange goings on in Sussex, I ask, “So might perceiving Dedham Vale as Constable Country be Old Reassuring Albion?”
“I think that’s a good way of putting it,” Justin smiles. “And it doesn’t stop it being a really lovely walk.”
Start: The Sun Inn, Dedham
Distance: 8 miles
Time 3 hours
Total ascent 50 metres
Google map of the route
“I don’t want to ever forget we’re a pub,” landlord Piers Baker tells us as we sit by the crackling logs of one of the Sun Inn’s three working fires. After taking it over in 2003, Baker converted an unloved 500-year-old coaching inn into a successful and popular gastro pub without losing the feel of a good old local. Oak-panelled with heavy beams and a bar made of polished elm, the inn is spacious, welcoming and offers plenty of places to sit and sup, including sofas and comfy chairs around the fire. There are newspapers and board games, and even bikes to borrow and boats to be hired. The dining area, too, is cosy, and peppered with colourful art; the beer garden is ample enough to accommodate the pub’s annual Americana music festival.
The food here is seasonal modern English and Italian, the latter reflected in its considered choice of wines. There are pastas and “casuals”, such as seafood platters, plus a monthly changing menu (mains from £15) using meat from rare breed, free-range animals, fish from Mersea and local veg.
The Sun has seven rooms, whose names connect to the pub, local history and folklore – including Constable and Boudicca. Next door to mine is Elsa, said to be haunted by its namesake, the last woman in Essex to be burned for supposed witchcraft. All rooms have nice big beds (up to super kingsize) and thoughtful touches like real coffee and fresh milk, a digital radio, a selection of books, rugs, dressing gowns and body lotions.
Doubles £150 B&B, thesuninndedham.com