Still I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate “my careless boyhood” with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful; that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before ever I touched a pencil…
Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), from John Constable’s Correspondence, part 6, pp. 76-78
John Constable (1776 – 1837) was en English romantic painter born in East Bergholt in Sussex. He spent his childhood on the banks of the Stour, sketching the landscape around him in his free time. Although he lived in London for most of his adult life, the landscape of his youth never left him and he spent many hours capturing them in his later work. And it is easy to see why.
Last month, my partner and I took the train to Manningtree and began walking in Constable’s footsteps following this handy guide. The walk began straight out of the station, down into the car park, and into a rural lane surrounded by gold autumn leaves, illuminating the landscape with one last dash of colour before the onset of winter.
Our footsteps were silent on the carpet of damp leaves allowing us to listen to the breeze in the trees and occasional bird songs. In a few minutes we were walking along the river banks, reeds separating us from the water. Everything was flat and we could see for miles around. There were cows endlessly grazing in their pasture, a silent heron flying low over the water, and the distance churn of a train passing by. The path soon became shadowed by vegetation and slippery with mud momentarily turning our attention away from the water to our feet.
We emerged into a green field, proudly bearing a National Trust sign as we entered the AONB (Area of National Outstanding Beauty) of Dedham Vale. Passing 56 Gates, an Environment Agency Flood Defence Barrier that used to separate the fresh water of the river Stour from the main estuary, I couldn’t resist recording the clang of the metal as the wind slide into its cavity, making it sing with the stream below.
Leaving metal and concrete behind, we headed for Flatford Mill, a scene well-known by John Constable. The landscape is now managed so visitors can experience the same view that inspired the painter. But trees have come and gone and the water level of the river has risen since the 19th century. It is only a pale comparison we can see today. There was no horses when we arrived and the mill was silent, the hive of activity it supported long gone. In spite of those changes though, it was easy to see what had inspired John Constable to become a landscape painter. Everywhere we looked, palettes of green and brown were displayed before out eyes, waiting to be captured.
We left the tourists and school children behind to enter another field. We hugged the serpentine river, occasionally disappearing into tunnel of woods before reappearing into vast field. Everything was flat and green, the perfect illustration of typical English lowlands. The views there were the same as the one John Constable knew, the only trace of modern life marked by airplanes streaks in the sky.
We made it into Dedham and visited its old church in search of a work of the artist but there was only a laminated copy of one of his painting resting on a table. The original was undergoing restoration. A little disappointed not to have been able to immerse ourselves in the vision of Constable, we walked around the village in search of a pub. Everything was quaint and old-fashioned. I felt like we were walking in a quintessential English village. This feeling wasn’t diminished as we found a pub and sampled the local ales while resting on a leather sofa by a chimney. On the table in front of us lay the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley News, a paper filled with stories of conservation, countryside life, and art.
Eventually we extirpated ourselves from the warmth of the pub. We had a train to catch in Manningtree. We rejoined the river Stour, crossing the same field we had walked into previously and retraced our steps back to Flatford, to 56 Gates, and finally to the golden paths.