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 1776 and grew up exploring the countryside of the Dedham Vale. His father was a wealthy corn merchant who owned two mills, one in Flatford and other in Dedham, as well as several barges, which he had built in the dry dock at Flatford, to transport his flour.
John went to school in Dedham and he would walk there across the fields from his home in East Bergholt. He developed a love of nature and of the Suffolk countryside during his childhood, which inspired him to paint, and this inspiration sustained 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.
Constable Country (or ‘Constable’s Country’ as he himself used to call it) includes the three villages which were of such importance in his development as an artist: Flatford, East Bergholt and Dedham. For visitors to the area today however, it also extends to some neighbouring villages: Stoke By Nayland, which has a lovely church, often painted by Constable; Nayland, on the banks of the River Stour; Stratford St Mary and Polstead are all included under the Constable Country banner.
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 or rowing boat!) and it’s easy to access by train. Manningtree Station is just a 40 minute stroll away from Flatford, which is the heart of Constable Country. 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.
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 which has lots of information to help you plan your visit. There are also many Constable Country walking and cycle leaflets to download or purchase.
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 and view the location of the Hay Wain, which looks surprisingly similar to how it would have looked in Constable’s day.
The National Trust have a tea room on the banks of the River Stour and 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.
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 soon as night fell, the sounds changed dramatically as owls and other nocturnal wildlife made their presence felt.
This is an edited version of an article I originally wrote for Heart of Suffolk Tourism. To view more articles plus an itinerary I developed for visiting Constable Country, please visit the Heart of Suffolk website.
Images from top: Willy Lott’s House | Flatford Mill | River Stour | Bridge Cottage | Dedham Vale at dusk