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.