Dedham Vale: Straddling the Counties of Essex and Suffolk, Dedham Vale AONB Is in the Heart of Constable Country, a Rural Idyll of Sleepy Farming Villages That Provided a Wealth of Inspiration for One of Britain's Favourite Landscape Painters. Natalie Hoare Reports from the Quintessential English Countryside

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It's my first time in this part of the world, yet it all seems strangely familiar. And I think I know why. Standing here at Flatford Mill in Suffolk is like stepping back in time. I'm on the exact spot where John Constable, one of England's best-loved landscape painters, would have set up his easel to create what was to become one of Britain's most iconic paintings.

Voted the second-greatest painting in Britain in a BBC Radio Four survey, The Hay Wain, completed in 1821, is one of a series of pastoral scenes that Constable painted of Dedham Vale and the River Stour. Now forming part of an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), the landscapes he painted eventually came to epitomise the English countryside.

'There's a real concentration of Constable scenes around here,' explains Martin Atkinson, National Trust property manager at Flatford Mill, gesturing towards the 16th-century thatched mill cottage. 'This was one of Constable's father's mills, where he spent a lot of time sketching and painting. Almost everywhere you go, you walk past a scene Constable painted. People often walk past without realising.'

Two hundred years on, these scenes remain virtually unchanged. But this is no coincidence. As a popular honeypot site for the area's tourists (Dedham and Flatford attract around 220,000 visitors a year), it's in the National Trust's interests to maintain the scenes as they appear in the Constable paintings, at least to a degree.

'What we don't do is try to fossilise the landscape,' says Atkinson. 'What we try to do is keep an impression of the paintings. So with regard to The Hay Wain, we obviously try to make sure that it's looking similar so you can get an impression of what it was like when Constable painted it.'

VITAL LIFELINE

The undulating slopes that descend to meet the River Stour with its hedged water meadows, copses and distinctive pollarded willows were a source of great inspiration not just to Constable, but also to Alfred Munnings and Thomas Gainsborough, both of whom are 'local lads' who depicted the region in some of their work.

'All of these painters tried to capture country life--they really bring East Anglian life alive,' says Neil Catchpole, the AONB's landscape and biodiversity officer. 'But a lot of the inspiration was from the river itself and the trade on it.'

Separating the counties of Suffolk and Essex, the River Stour (pronounced 'stoor') was once a vital lifeline for the people of Dedham Vale, powering a series of mills and providing a trade route upon which to transport goods to London. Designated in 1970, the Dedham Vale AONB encompasses 90 square kilometres from the outskirts of the village of Bures in Suffolk downstream to Manningtree in Essex.

'One of the overriding things that you have to think of when you're talking about this AONB is the fact that it's a river valley and was once a working river valley,' says Catchpole. 'There was an act of parliament in 1705 to create navigation on the River Stour for the purposes of trade. And to this day, anybody has the right to navigate that river (by hand-powered craft) from Sudbury right through to the sea.'

At its height during the mid-19th century, the river would have looked very different to today, with dozens of Stour 'lighters' gliding up and down it throughout the day. A type of shallow-hulled open wooden barge, lighters were often lashed together in tandem and towed by a single horse, which was trained to leap on and off the foredeck as the towpath changed sides--a local phenomenon captured by Constable in The White Horse.

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As with most inland waterways, the advent of the steam engine marked the beginning of the end for the River Stour's fleet of lighters, and the last barge came up the river to Dedham in 1930. But there are still signs of the old wharfs and locks, many of which have been painstakingly restored or maintained by the River Stour Trust. …