Manningtree to Stratford St Mary
Secret informant and myself have arrived twenty minutes early, having allowed for rush hour traffic which didn’t materialise on account of its being the school Easter holidays. Stratford St. Mary is not the sort of place where you can get a coffee at twenty to ten in the morning, although it does have three pubs and a post office which is not bad for a Suffolk village. Fortunately, Ebb Tide seems to have made a similar miscalculation, for he too turns up early and we pile into his car – which contains Florence, Master F. and, for the first time in ages, Clare Balding (most promising beginner) – to set off for Catterwade on the Stour estuary and begin the walk back along the Dedham Vale. Constable country.
We were here this time last year when we walked from Shotley Gate to Catterwade in a snowstorm. Today the weather is far more congenial and traditionally spring-like, with blue skies and a haze of colour beginning to distinguish the trees on the hills to the north of the estuary (One of the problems of posting a blog late is that the trees are, by now-early May- pretty much in full leaf). An avocet is always a good start to a walk, and Secret Informant spots a lone one whizzing downriver a few feet above the water. There are shelduck, oystercatchers, ducks and swans We are heading up the River Stour back to Stratford St Mary. Nowadays, this is a pastoral landscape dotted with houses which exude prosperity or venerability and sometimes both at the same time.
It was not always thus, for the Stour was a trading artery from the early eighteenth century, and coal and bricks were shifted up and down here in a fleet of lighters – horse drawn barges, usually coupled in pairs – as far as Sudbury, via Dedham, and Bures. There were 26 locks on the river, but it didn’t have continuous towpaths and there were designated crossing points for the horses as the towpath changed banks, or they had to leap across fences, in the manner depicted by John Constable, at points where farmers had penned in their fields or sometimes be encouraged to jump onto the boats and be ferried to the other bank.
Golding Constable, John’s father, was a commissioner for the waterway, along with two of Gainsborough’s brothers. So both painters had firm roots in the local economy. We take the footpath to Flatford Mill, round the National Trust tea room and a couple of converted barns to look at the vantage from which Constable painted The Haywain and Willie Lott’s House. There is also a vintage dry dock, again, the subject of a Constable painting, Boatbuilding on the River Stour.
From Flatford, it is a short walk across the flood meadows to Dedham, its church tower iconic above the trees.
Iconic of what exactly? Well, er… of a John Constable painting, which raises the question can a thing be iconic of its own image? Can it even be evocative of its own image?? I suppose that the many tourists who presumably flock to Dedham have seen the picture before they see the real thing, and so the Stour Valley tourist gaze represents a quest for some quality within the picture. Constable himself, never rich or famous in his lifetime, was concerned to depict working life , Dedham Vale was a working environment in his day and not the stockbroker haven it has become. but the dung-heap diggers and boatmen and wagoners are often, to the contemporary eye, subsumed into a more abstract and nostalgic landscape. Perhaps the medium of oil paint, being emblematic of ownership, is the problem, for, as John Berger pointed out ‘’Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property’’, a manifestation of the belief ‘you are what you own’ (although he excepts landscape painting from this general idea). The practical upshot of this kind of visualising is that people want to buy into it and the most cursory glance at the prices in the window of a Dedham estate agent reveal that people are willing to pay very high prices indeed in order to own a piece of Constable country.
My friend Eric Hobsbawm (no relation), lives in Dedham, and was involved in an effort to start a local allotment site. Every time a piece of land was found, objections were raised by local residents, who did not want anything so prosaic as an allotment intruding upon their rural idyll, and the local council capitulated to this view. Eventually, a piece of land was given by the National Trust, and the allotments got going. This did not stop the complainants, but they couldn’t do anything about it. There is a sad end to this story for Eric, being a busy man, had difficulty maintaining his plot. Being the membership secretary of the allotment association, he, tragically, had to send letters to himself, first reminding him of the cultivation standards expected of plotholders, and finally, telling himself that he had to relinquish his plot.
Turning right near the church and then down to Dedham Mill, which Constable painted. I’m not sure that Constable ever painted an Egyptian goose, but there is one sitting on the mill pond.
From Dedham, it is a short hop, through the tunnel under the A12, back to Stratford St Mary, whose mill, demolished in 1850, was painted by John Constable.