DEdham is your quintessentially quaint, gentrified English village; even the local co-op carries a hand-painted sign declaring itself ‘high class’. During the tourist season, it draws coach crowds, soaking up the area’s fame as Constable country and a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. And while links to Romanticism are inevitable, Dedham has another fascinating link to art: it is the birthplace of Cedric Morris’ East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, established in 1937 for ‘artists in out 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 has taken a walk through the pretty plains of Dedham Vale far more than just seeing the site of The Hay Wain. On his recommendation, we begin our trek west, on a less traveled path.
We leave the village with the church on our left. Just before the meeting rooms, we turn right passing some housing estates. 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 to climb the Essex Way to reach Saint Mary’s Church, where Constable often came to paint the views over Dedham. On the church door, a fading handwritten sign reads, “Jerry the church cat has passed by to wait in the mouseholes in the sky. For twenty years he provided hospitality service at Saint Mary’s Church. All that was missing was a peaked cap with the “safety” label.
Langham’s Dedham painting of Constable in 1813 is a famous view, probably made from the tower of Langham Church, looking out over the valley and towards Dedham Church. The Glebe Farm (1830), of which there are several versions, is the view from the next stage of the walk as we descend past Church Farm and turn left along the Essex Way for a few hundred yards before turning right onto a dirt road until the river appears. By one finger we turn left, and where the path forks we skirt the river, keeping our eyes peeled for kingfishers, egrets, little grebes and wintering teal. From here the landscape is – and continues largely as – a verdant floodplain and farmland dotted with trees and copses, the winding Stour thick with reeds and rushes.
After crossing a concrete bridge over a portage point, we turn right and with an imperceptible border crossing from Essex to Suffolk we are in Stratford St Mary. We pass through a short underpass, whose 40-year-old U2 and Prince graffiti will surely soon merit a preservation order.
As we reach the river again and the valley stretches out before us, Justin points to a sky covered in bands of dark clouds and dotted with small fluffy clouds. He tells me about Constable’s genius for depicting clouds and how John Nash’s Stour Valley, with its soft, muted colors, makes for an interesting comparison. Another contrasting view, he says, is offered by Lucien Freud, whose A Suffolk Spring Landscape with Welsh Mountains Beyond, painted at Morris School of Art, was recently discovered on the back of an old pub sign.
We continue our walk, the river on our right, through a wooden kissing gate and take the Flatford Way diagonally up a hill to enjoy a rare elevated view of the valley below. We follow the road past the RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden to reach a bridge. From here walkers can continue to the locations of many of Constable’s most famous paintings, including The Hay Wain (1821), following the path around the Flatford Mill Field Study Center and joining the inevitable crowd before returning to cross the bridge.
A criss-crossed path passes through extraordinary skeletal trees by the river. Through a wooden gate, the path leads away from the river to reach a tree-lined path. We follow a final sign towards Dedham. Approaching the Sun Inn, our art walk ends with an appreciation of the near side of the pub sign: it depicts Helios, painted by Tom Keating, former Dedham resident and Britain’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 uncovered more later as counterfeits of his counterfeits.
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 is a curious thing: part of the appeal of Constable’s paintings at the time was his romanticized depiction of rural life in an industrialized age; Constable offered the assurance that the old ways were still there.
“Two centuries later, part of the appeal of this landscape for us is its unchanging nature. But in reality it was a working landscape, completely transformed in the 18th and 19th centuries by agriculture, mills and our use of rivers for transport.
Justin adds that Dedham Vale became an AONB not because of anything dramatic in the landscape, but because it remained so similar to the landscape described by Constable. “We too have romanticized a working landscape into an old landscape. It’s good to remember that. »
Knowing Justin as the author of Old Weird Albion, a book about strange happenings in Sussex, I ask, ‘So perceiving Dedham Vale as Constable Country could be Old Reassuring Albion?”
“I think that’s a good way to put it,” smiles Justin. “And that doesn’t stop it from being a very nice walk.”
To start up: Search for The Sun Inn
Distance: 8 miles
Time 3 hours
Total ascent 50 meters
Google map of the route
“I never want to forget that we are a pub,” owner 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 transformed an unloved 500-year-old coaching inn into a successful and popular gastropub without losing the vibe of a good old local. Paneled in oak with heavy beams and a polished elm bar, the inn is spacious, welcoming and offers plenty of places to sit and dine, including comfy sofas and chairs around the fire. There are newspapers and board games, and even bikes to borrow and boats to rent. The dining room is also cozy and dotted with colorful artwork. the beer garden is spacious enough to host the pub’s annual Americana music festival.
The food here is seasonal English and modern Italian, the latter reflected in its thoughtful choice of wines. There’s pasta and ‘casual’, such as seafood platters, plus a monthly changing menu (mains from £15) using rare breed meat, free range animals, Mersea fish and local vegetables.
The Sun has seven rooms, the names of which are linked to the pub, local history and folklore – including Constable and Boudicca. Next to mine is Elsa, said to be haunted by her namesake, the last Essex woman to be burned for alleged witchcraft. All bedrooms have lovely large beds (up to super king size) and thoughtful touches like real coffee and fresh milk, digital radio, selection of books, rugs, dressing gowns and body lotions. the body.
Double £150 Guest roomsthesuninndedham.com