Brushing up on Constable

Posted: February 22, 2019   •   Posted in: Local Interest


A walk along the river or through the countryside at Flatford is, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of one of the greatest painters to have lived.

There’s a good reason why the Dedham Vale, home to Flatford, is so often called ‘Constable Country’ – it’s the place where John Constable was born and spent his formative years.

It’s also the place that inspired so many of his paintings, including, of course, The Hay Wain, thanks to its pastoral scenes with cattle grazing the riverside meadows, old hedgerows and willow trees.

The National Trust looks after a number of historic buildings in Flatford, with connections to Constable’s family. Flatford Mill, Valley Farm, Bridge Cottage and Hay Barn are all cared for by the conservation charity, together with Willy Lott’s House, which famously features in The Hay Wain.

Last month, the Trust also announced it had taken on the care of The Granary, a former flour mill once owned by John Constable’s father, Golding Constable.

Originally a wool store before being converted to hold grain and flour, the 18th century building passed to Golding’s younger son Abram. But it also caught the imagination of John Constable himself, who created a pencil sketch of it in 1813.

The Trust is now developing plans for how to tell the story of The Granary and its place in the history of Flatford, as well as how to ensure it can become a place for visitors to Flatford to discover.

The National Trust also cares for around 235 hectares of land within the Dedham Vale AONB. Most of this is farmland, but there is also wood pasture, woodland and grassland.

“The landscapes and buildings depicted by Constable are still remarkably unchanged, and the sense of timeless “Englishness” within the Dedham Vale is profound.”

Visitors to Flatford can start their exploration of the Dedham Vale by following one of several walking routes, both along the River Stour or heading further inland. Views of the meandering river, small fields, church towers and half-timbered cottages are all recognisable as the same features that Constable painted 150 years ago.

Flatford Mill

The landscapes and buildings depicted by Constable are still remarkably unchanged, and the sense of timeless “Englishness” within the Dedham Vale is profound. This landscape has inspired many other artists, including Sir Alfred Munnings.

But, scratch under the surface of this peaceful and bucolic landscape and the remains of its busy industrial history are revealed.

A mill is mentioned at Flatford in the Domesday Book, and by 1491 it was operating as a fulling mill linking Flatford with Suffolk’s lucrative wool trade. The mill came into the possession of the Constable family in 1742, by which time it had been converted for use as a grain mill. The exterior of the building bears scars which reveal how the mill formerly functioned, and to the rear is a wheelhouse associated with a large cast iron wheel installed after 1846. The mill machinery was removed in the 1930s, but the facades of both buildings are little changed since they were depicted in Constable’s paintings and both properties are listed Grade I owing to their significance to his life and work.

Grade II listed Bridge Cottage, at the west end of the hamlet, has continually changed over time. It has provided accommodation for a miller and his family; an official toll point on the river navigation; a point of supply for fresh provisions including bread baked in distinctive beehive ovens; a rest area, possibly serving beer brewed on the premises; a site offering assistance with boat repairs for the lighters.

Today, visitors to Flatford can see inside Bridge Cottage, gaze at the view depicted in The Hay Wain and imagine how the gentle River Stour we see today was once a hive of industrial activity. In the summer months, few things could represent a day out in the English countryside better than a slice of cake and tea from the National Trust tea room, enjoyed gazing out at the surrounding scene.

In the colder months, the countryside takes on a different beauty, with frosty trees lining the river and walking routes that just ask for a welly-booted exploration.


As featured in David Burr Rooftops Winter Edition

Article extracted from David Burrs Rooftops Winter Edition