Explore East Anglia
Six miles or so north of Colchester, the Stour River Valley forms the border between Essex and Suffolk, and signals the beginning of East Anglia proper. The valley is dotted with lovely little villages, where rickety, half-timbered Tudor houses and elegant Georgian dwellings cluster around medieval churches, proud buildings with square, self-confident towers. The Stour’s prettiest villages are concentrated along its lower reaches – to the east of the A134 – in Dedham Vale, with Dedham the most appealing of them all. The vale is also known as “Constable Country”, as it was the home of John Constable, one of England’s greatest artists, and the subject of his most famous paintings. Inevitably, there’s a Constable shrine – the much-visited complex of old buildings down by the river at Flatford Mill. Elsewhere, the best-preserved of the old south Suffolk wool towns is Lavenham; nearby Sudbury has a fine museum, devoted to the work of another talented English artist, Thomas Gainsborough.
The villages along the River Stour and its tributaries were once busy little places at the heart of East Anglia’s medieval weaving trade. By the 1490s, the region produced more cloth than any other part of the country, but in Tudor times production shifted to Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich and, although most of the smaller settlements continued spinning cloth for the next three hundred years or so, their importance slowly dwindled. Bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, south Suffolk had, by the late nineteenth century, become a remote rural backwater, an impoverished area whose decline had one unforeseen consequence: with few exceptions, the towns and villages were never prosperous enough to modernize, and the architectural legacy of medieval and Tudor times survived.Read More
“I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the Stour,” wrote John Constable, who was born in East Bergholt, nine miles northeast of Colchester in 1776. The house in which he was born has long since disappeared, so it has been left to FLATFORD MILL, a mile or so to the south, to take up the painter’s cause. The mill was owned by his father and was where Constable painted his most celebrated canvas, The Hay Wain (now in London’s National Gallery), which created a sensation when it was exhibited in Paris in 1824. To the chagrin of many of his contemporaries, Constable turned away from the landscape painting conventions of the day, rendering his scenery with a realistic directness that harked back to the Dutch landscape painters of the seventeenth century.
The mill itself – not the one he painted, but a Victorian replacement – is not open to the public and neither is neighbouring Willy Lott’s Cottage, which does actually feature in The Hay Wain, but the National Trust has colonized several local buildings, principally Bridge Cottage.
Constable went to school in DEDHAM, just upriver from Flatford Mill and one of the region’s prettiest villages, its wide and lazy main street graced by a handsome medley of old timber-framed houses and Georgian villas. Day-trippers arrive here by the coach load throughout the summer.
LAVENHAM, eight miles northeast of Sudbury, was once a centre of the region’s wool trade and is now one of the most visited villages in Suffolk, thanks to its unrivalled ensemble of perfectly preserved half-timbered houses. In outward appearance at least, the whole place has changed little since the demise of the wool industry, owing in part to a zealous local preservation society, which has carefully maintained the village’s antique appearance. Lavenham is at its most beguiling in the triangular Market Place, an airy spot flanked by pastel-painted, medieval dwellings whose beams have been warped into all sorts of wonky angles by the passing of the years.