Constable Country is a term widely used to describe the birthplace of one of England’s most famous artists, John Constable. He painted many of his most important works here, but where exactly is this area and what does it mean?
John Constable was born in East Bergholt in Suffolk in 1776 and grew up exploring the surrounding countryside of the Dedham Vale. His father was a wealthy corn merchant who owned two mills – one in Flatford and another in nearby Dedham, as well as several barges which he had built to distribute his flour.
Attending school in Dedham, John would walk the few miles there across the fields from his home in East Bergholt, and it was during these early years that his love of nature and of the Suffolk countryside developed. He was inspired to paint what he saw around him and it was this inspiration and love for his home county, which would sustain him creatively for the rest of his life.
Many of Constable’s most well known paintings are of the immediate area where he grew up: The Hay Wain (1821), was painted from a sketch made at Flatford Mill and features Willy Lott’s House; The Cornfield (1826), or ‘The Drinking Boy’ as Constable referred to it, was probably of a lane leading from East Bergholt to Dedham; and The Leaping Horse (1825), was taken from a scene somewhere between Dedham and Flatford.
If you want to search out these scenes, do bear in mind that some elements (church spires for example), may have been ‘moved’. Constable used his artistic licence to create a more satisfying composition, which makes it difficult in some cases to identify their exact location.
The heart of Constable Country (or ‘Constable’s Country’ as he himself used to call it) straddles the Suffolk/Essex border and is made up of the three villages which were of such importance in his development as an artist: Flatford and East Bergholt which are both in Suffolk, and Dedham, which is just across the River Stour, in Essex. The wider Constable Country extends to some neighbouring villages: Stoke By Nayland (it has a lovely church which was often painted by Constable); Nayland, which sits on the banks of the River Stour; Stratford St Mary; and Polstead, famous for its outstanding cherries, the Polstead Black.
Constable Country at its Best
A jewel in Suffolk’s crown, Constable Country is worth exploring at a leisurely pace, by bike or on foot (or in a canoe!) and it’s easy to access by train with Manningtree Station just a 40 minute stroll away from Flatford. The area is at its loveliest during the off-peak season, when the crowds have dispersed and its beauty and tranquillity can be best appreciated. The spring and autumn are perfect, but if a summer visit is on the cards, it’s worth considering stopping by mid-week, or making the most of the long summer evenings and exploring then.
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Constable Country falls within the Dedham Vale, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and there is a useful visitor’s guide, available free of charge, to help you plan your visit. There are also many Constable Country walking and cycle leaflets to download or purchase from the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley website.
What to See
Flatford Mill is now a field studies centre, running courses on art, photography and botany and is not open to the general public (unless attending a course). Visitors can walk around outside it though and look across to Willy Lott’s House to view the location of The Hay Wain. The scene is remarkably similar to how it would have been in Constable’s day and if you are there on a quiet day, it’s worth lingering for a while to enjoy the serenity of it all.
The National Trust have a tea room on the banks of the River Stour as well as a Constable exhibition in the beautiful, thatched Bridge Cottage. Admission is free and the exhibition, tea room and gift shop are open from 10.30am – 5.30pm (please check for seasonal openings outside of the main tourist season). Guided walk take place from April to October.
A wildlife garden, owned and managed by the RSPB, is open during the main tourist season. Admission is free and there are volunteers on hand to offer advice on creating a wildlife garden of your own.
When to Visit
My absolute favourite time to visit Constable Country is on a crisp autumn day when it’s peaceful and the leaves have taken on a golden hue. We visited in October, which is when these images were taken and we had the added bonus of driving along Flatford Lane just as the sun was setting. This gave us the most amazing views across the Dedham Vale, which turned a magical, misty shade of blue tinged with orange, before turning completely dark. As night fell, the sounds changed suddenly and dramatically as owls and other nocturnal wildlife made their presence felt.
Download our itinerary Constable Country on Foot (pdf): Itinerary – Constable Country on Foot
Images from top: Willy Lott’s House | Flatford Mill | River Stour | Bridge Cottage | Dedham Vale at dusk