As the sunny glow of this year’s great British summer starts to fade, my trip to Flatford Mill and Dedham Vale couldn’t have been more timely.
This place epitomises the spirit and tradition of the English countryside with its rural landscapes, thatched cottages and slow-going pace of life.
It is like walking straight into a John Constable painting.
For this is where the greatest of British Romantic artists was inspired to paint some of his most famous works including The Haywain and Flatford Mill, so often found on greetings cards.
The hamlet has changed little since the artist’s time in the early 19th Century. As a result, it’s great to soak up the atmosphere far from the madding crowd and noise of modern life.
Even 200 years later you can lose yourself in the beautiful landscape and forget the outside world.
Dedham Vale and the surrounding landscape has been preserved pretty much as it looked when Constable was painting his landscapes.
Picturesque villages, rolling farmland, rivers, meadows and ancient woodlands mesh together to create the iconic English lowland landscape.
The Suffolk-born artist Gainsborough was also inspired by the landscape which features in some of his 18th Century paintings.
On my visit, the only disappointment was the gradual encroachment of modern life at the borders of this unspoilt countryside.
Listen hard and you can hear the whirring sound of traffic a mile or so away. Gaze beyond the trees and you can just see the new-fangled wind farms popping their heads up in the far distance.
This is modern life creeping up to the edges of this rural idyll.
That aside, this is a really beautiful place to escape the fast-moving life of the city and chill out in the countryside.
Two hundred years ago, John Constable visited Dedham Vale and was inspired to paint some of his most famous works.
Constable was born a mile or so down the road from here in East Bergholt in Suffolk.
He made many open-air sketches around Dedham Vale, using them as the foundation for the large-scale oils which he worked up in his studios.
So the first stop on my trip was a quick look around thatched Bridge Cottage which houses a small exhibition about the artist’s life and work.
Constable tells how the countryside in Suffolk “made me a painter”.
He describes his passion for capturing “the sound of water escaping from mill dams” and the minutiae of the landscape, “the willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork. I love such things”.
Looking around Flatford Mill it’s clear how the look and feel of the place crept into his canvases and became an integral part of the work.
We took a stroll in the sun to nearby Flatford Lock, watching the boat trips floating by as they meandered down the River Stour.
It was one of those perfect summer scenes and nobody appeared to have a care in the world. The outside world had been forgotten for just one day.
One of the joys of this landscape is that it provides an opportunity to compare the scenes captured in Constable’s paintings with our view of the countryside today.
The Constable below shows how the old boat building yard looked during his day, and although this activity has long gone, the landscape hasn’t really altered much.
Turning back time
After a charming stroll by the ducks on the riverfront, we ambled down over the bridge to the old Granary building and Flatford Mill itself.
I love these old, red brick buildings with their gables and overhanging eaves – they exude an air of rustic simplicity and capture a time when craft skills were at the centre of rural life.
Surprisingly, Flatford Mill is as idyllic as it is portrayed in the glossy brochures, even when several hundred tourists are milling around on a summer’s day in August.
A wildlife pond surrounds the mill which has now been converted into a nature and education centre where field courses and activities are run.
My instant reaction was – wow, what a great place to stay and study nature!
At this point in the trip , competition started to develop between my partner Tony and other Alpa ‘camera males’ to capture the perfect photographic re-creation of Constable’s Hay Wain.
This is how the shot turned out with Tony’s new Olympus camera. I’m told it’s an OM-D model although I though it was an OMG – short for ‘Oh My God – how much did that cost?!.
Anyway I think it has captured something of the essence of Constable if not the complete landscape from the painting.
The photo doesn’t capture Constable’s scene in totality and for one good reason – Constable cheated and compressed the distances and fiddled with the composition to make it fit the painting.
Our final stop on the Constable circular trail was Willy Lott’s 16th Century Cottage, a white brick dwelling which is the sort of house I’d like to live in when I win the Lottery.
The cottage is famous for its starring role in The Hay-Wain although today it’s part of the dormitory for the Field Studies Centre.
Originally called Gibbonsgate Farm, it was the home of Willy Lott, a local farmer and close friend of the Constable family.
Over the road, there was just time to take in the views from the fields and gaze longingly at another old farmhouse, Valley Farm, from the end of its drive.
This 15th Century medieval great hall is the oldest building at Flatford, formerly home to wealthy yeoman farmers.
Sadly, the Field Studies Centre has taken it over so you can only see the farm from the outside unless you’re involved in one of their courses.
It was almost the end of our trip but just as we were leaving, we called into the RSPB Wildlife Garden which proved to be extremely interesting.
How often is it that you see a caterpillar in its pupa stage ready to emerge as a beautiful butterfly?
We watched in wonder as the warden showed us how the caterpillars had been feeding, leaving large, nibbled holes in the green vegetation.
Soon they will emerge in their new butterfly form. This process is one of life’s great natural wonders.
Flatford Mill and Dedham Vale are also wonders of the English landscape, not least because they’ve survived untouched for two centuries and continue to exude an air of tranquiilty.
Walking back into Constable’s time is a great pleasure and privilege. This iconic landscape speaks volumes about the past and continues to evoke images of the artist’s paintings in every visitor’s mind.
Just remember to pick a glorious sunny day to make the most of the ‘Constable Country’ experience!
Tammy’s top travel tips – Dedham Vale
Flatford Mill and Dedham Vale are located close to East Bergholt in Suffolk, England. The nearest big town is Colchester.
The National Trust manages the area and the properties. The visitor centre is open daily 10:30-17:00. There’s an admission charge which covers the car parking.
Why not get out on the water? Take a boat trip along the river – the cruises look great fun and take around one hour.
Pick a day when the weather is warm and sunny to make the most of your visit as most of the attractions are outdoors, except the visitor centre and shop.
If you love nature why not book yourself on a short course or residential weekend at the Field Studies Centre at Flatford Mill – you could find yourself staying in the old mill.