The River Stour at East Bergholt is, in many respects, a very ordinarystretch of river. Meandering waters pass between green meadows before opening out through squidgy marshland on their way to the sea. Cows and sheep graze on the banks, while the valley slopes gently upwards towards low leafy heights. Beside the old lock, a couple of miles from the start of the estuary, stands a hamlet with a handful of cottages and a pretty watermill. And that mill was once owned by the father of one of England's most famous artists, who painted it a lot, hence its landscape has become engrained into the national consciousness. It's Flatford Mill, located on the border between Suffolk and Essex, and it's National Trust nirvana.
A rickety-looking wooden bridge crosses the river at the foot of a steep lane beside a 16th century thatched cottage. It's extremely picturesque, or would be had not a builders van parked up alongside in a photo-wrecking position. Pop inside Bridge Cottage for a small exhibition which places Constable's Stour works in context, and helps you to identify precisely where in the immediate vicinity they were painted. The not-quite-so-old dwelling nextdoor is the NT gift shop, and walk round the back to find the almost sympathetic tea room. Scone of the month is Prunes and Earl Grey, if you're interested, else a crack team lies poised to provide a more normal selection of cakes and beverages. Alongside is the dry dock John painted, currently surrounded by yellow irises, but unless you get a seat by the window you could be anywhere.
Hang around and you could join the hourly tour, or you could instead walk a couple of hundred yards up the lane yourself. Flatford Mill is now a Field Studies Centre, so you won't be getting inside unless you've signed up for a course. Looking through the window I see several grey haired students attempting to identify minibeasts, and something in Latin on the overhead projector, so good luck to them. A little further along is Willy Lott's Cottage, an idyllic irregular homestead, or would be were it not for the stream of daily visitors come to poke around outside. And that's because the adjacent waterside was where Constable set up his easel for The Hay Wain, so the masses descend to take photographic approximations of the scene. By visiting on a wet weekday I managed to grab the view without human intrusion, although none of the trees are originals, and the cottage is a 90-year-old restoration.
Assuming that everyone should visit Flatford Mill once, I'd recommend waiting until after retirement. That's not because the place is anything less than pretty, but because this is a perfect compact cluster you'll still be able to manage at 70. All you need to do is wander along two opposite stretches of river, and the second of these turns out not to be crucial, which you can take as slowly as you like. The car park's not too far away, and there's disabled parking at the foot of the hill if it all gets too much. The RSPB run a rather pretty wildlife garden on the walk down, complete with cameras in the nesting boxes (if you're quick before the last blue tits fledge). Throw in a small tourist information centre and a plant stall, plus of course those unusual scones, and Flatford will do nicely for a half-day out.
Walking from Manningtree: I visited earlier than 70, and I walked in rather than arriving by car or coach. I'd always imagined Flatford as being in the middle of nowhere, which essentially it is, but the mill turns out to be within two miles of Manningtree station so I realised it was eminently doable on foot. I thought I'd walk in along the river, so trudged round to the Cattawade Barrage where the river suddenly becomes a broad estuary. The footpath looked innocuous enough, and not as muddy as I'd anticipated, but the overhanging grasses held a dewy sting. Within a few steps the bottom half of my jeans were sodden wet, and had I not been carrying a pair of waterproof overtrousers with me I'd have got no further. Instead I enjoyed the chance to walk the lower valley and be utterly alone with nature, from the cattle staring across the river to the birds freewheeling above. The path did get a bit muddy later, but half an hour of striding alone through the nettles and reeds felt like experiencing my very own Springwatch.
Dedham: Having ticked off Flatford I though I'd continue up the Dedham Vale, my walking boots tightly tied. A choice of paths leads across the riverside meadows to the next village, or you can hire a rowing boat as some more adventurous families had done. It's wonderfully unspoilt, with the National Trust's land acquisition policy intent on preserving as much of Constable's panorama as possible, but probably even prettier in sunlight with the absence of drizzle. Dedham's a pretty Essex village, with a pastel-tinted centre and a selection of small shops that nod to retired daytrippers as well as residents. The second-oldest church has been taken over as an arts and crafts centre, while a mile to the south is a small museum devoted to horse-painter Sir Alfred Munnings, the postwar president of the Royal Academy.
Stour Valley Path: I thought I'd walk back to Manningtree station on the other side of the river, down the last two miles of the medium-distance Stour Valley Path. Mistake. The correct path is poorly and irregularly signed, making some kind of map essential. The first stretch involved walking through a field of rather messy sheep, the river alas always just out of sight. A muddy squeeze between narrow fences followed, before fighting down the edge of a rarely-trodden field of oilseed rape and out onto a road for the last hike to Cattawade. I should've taken the southern path... much damper, but so much Stour-ier.
» For my walking routes marked on a map, see here
» For the official walking routes leaflet, see here
» For the official Dedham Vale tourist website, see here
» For ten Dedham Vale photographs, see here