Dedham Vale

 Dedham Vale : The Tour de Stour  

Route GPX File Denham Vale 


The ride circles Dedham Vale, a designated 'National Landscape' of 'Outstanding Natural Beauty' comprising the lower Stour Valley on the Suffolk / Essex border. It begins at Manningtree Station and circles back from Bures. Constable Country so it is beholden to all to visit Flatford Mill and Dedham but there are other sights, particularly for olde building nuttes like me. For the most part it follows quiet country roads (there are a few exceptions) and although you might think of Suffolk as being very flat, remember you are cycling up a river valley and rivers don’t flow uphill.

Zooming In

  • Dedham Vale – Bucolic Constable country.
  • Flatford Mill – The scene of Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’.
  • Ancient wool towns and villages
  • Dedham Village
  • The usual oddities including a dragon. 

Route Tips

Flatford Mill and Dedham are near the start and finish of the ride respectively. The northern leg of the route is perhaps prettier. If you like old and relatively unspoilt villages, Nayland is my favourite and Bures has the prize oddity. Don’t try and shortcut the diversion via Holton St Mary, there is no safe crossing of the A12 on the direct route. As at June ‘24 signs at Boxted, signs say the road to the bridge is closed. The diversion is easy but in fact the problem is the bridge itself and the route doesn’t cross it.

Zooming Out

A bit of deep history first. If you also try my Woolly Money Tour ride, much of this preambulatory description is echoed there.

For a general outline of the making of the landscape of the entirety of the northern Home Counties, see my landscape posts here: summarise the deep history, the area sits on a bed of chalk. Over time, the thermostat and sea levels bobbed up and down. Extended periods of glaciation eroding that chalk and playing havoc with coastline and rivers river network. That came to an end around 12,000 years ago by which time much of the the area was covered by the ‘boulder clay’ or ‘till’ left behind as the ice melted or, in a few places and mainly to the east of the A12, the sand left behind as sea levels fell and rivers shifted course. Think Greenland.  Think Greenland. 

The Greenland Ice Sheet

This area has been open country for a very long time. The woodland that appeared after the ice age, initially birch but later hazel, oak, and elm, started to be cleared around 6000 years ago. That process continued and only a few hundred years ago the middle of the County was still known as The Woodlands'.  

Before the Romans arrived the area was inhabited by Brittonic (Belgic and NOT Celtic!) tribes, one of whose Kings was Cunobelinus, later immortalised as Cymbeline by Shakespeare. They were defeated by the Romans who, not long after the crucifixion of a well-known troublemaker in Jerusalem, set to work building Colchester on a nearby ridge. It probably looked better then.

You can find more on the history of the regional landscape and its people in my blog posts here. 

Link : Landscape

As I am sure you know, after the Romans departed some 1600 years ago, Saxons arrived and ruled the roost. Their minor kingdoms flickered in and out like dodgy lightbulbs until the the Danish Vikings turned up. Thereafter the control of the area periodically switched between them and the Saxons until the Normans arrived. 

    Illegal immigrants in Small Boats 

Rearing sheep, mainly for wool, had been important throughout this period and eventuall up until Victorian times although the fortunes of the farmers fluctuated. The period between around 950 and 1250 is known as the Medieval Warm Period. These were good times and the population grew rapidly, but then things came to a shuddering halt. 

Medieval Farming 

You wouldn’t have wanted to be around in the 1300s. By then, with a much larger population and exhausted and over-grazed fields, the country was groaning at the seams. So what better time to start a bloody and ruinously expensive ‘Hundred Years’ War’ with (of course!) the French. In the middle of the century the Black Death arrived to add to the misery. The result was that population shrank dramatically, maybe by half.

The resulting shortage of toiling peasants and increased availability of land turbocharged the wool from a nifty side hustle for the farmers into the pillar of the rural economy. Arable farming produced more calories per acre and had restricted the areas available for grazing. That was especially important on the fields of heavy clay of Mid Suffolk.

This, oddly, was what turbocharged the wool from a nifty side-line for the farmers into a pillar of the economy, with weaving as a major industry and both cloth and the wool itself as major exports. Until then, the open field system of farming restricted the areas available for grazing and the sheep were valued as much as perambulatory fertilisers as for their wool or meat.

Now, the pendulum swing to livestock and sheep in particular. They were easy to care for and while the the meat was an occasional treat, they were mostly valued for their wool while the skins provided leather and the raw material for parchment. As perambulatory fertilisers, they were a useful labour saving device as well.

Crops don't walk but sheep do, so they were accommodated by accelerating the ‘enclosure’ of the previously open fields. Sometimes this was done privately but often by increasingly rich landowners. You will see more of the ‘planned’ fields created by this process as you head west towards Bures.  The landscape in the valley bottoms was more resistant to change and maintained a valuable mix of woodland and pasture. 

Suffolk was in the vanguard of all this and the rich tried to secure their place in the heavens by funding the construction of expensive churches in much the same way as the plutocrats today try and secure their future with tickets on a space ark. [The best are passed on my ‘Woolly Money’ ride, but there is one large and several smaller gems in the villages here] .

The profitability of the industry declined after the 1400’s, following increased competition in their export markets and from new textiles and fashions, disruptive wars and quality issues. The once prosperous towns began to struggle and the area slid into the doldrums. As a result those churches now look out of proportion to the smaller congregations they serve and many of the villages and parts of the valley landscape appear to have been pickled 500 years ago, with scattered farms, narrow lanes running along valley floors, old ‘hollow ways’ up the valley sides and isolated farms.

A Hollow Way

The enclosures continued apace into the 1800s, leaving behind the patches of useful woodland, meadow and pasture which didn't lend themselves to it and slowly morphing into the landscape we see today. 

Dedham Vale was dragged back into the public eye by two artists, firstly Thomas Gainsborough who came from nearby Sudbury in the mid/late 1700’s (and who stars in my ‘Follow the Woolley Money’ route, and then John Constable who was born in East Bergholt in 1776.

The English have had a soft spot for landscape paintings. The Hay Wain (pictured above) was voted the 2nd most popular painting in any British gallery in a poll by Radio 4's Today programme, but before these two became popular, the preference was for portraits or paintings of biblical or classical subjects that told a story or embodied a moral. But slowly, a developing interest in the ‘picturesque’ (think of the ‘host of of golden daffodils etc,) changed that notion. The older Gainsborough in particular painted portraits for income and landscapes for joy. Constable augmented his income by making prints for sale.

Constable : Flatford Mill 

The two had different styles. The older Gainsborough seems to me to have followed the natural style of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ painters from the previous century and many of his scenes were at least partly imagined. In contrast Constable wanted to replicate what he could see, which was a wild idea at the time. You can see many of their paintings at Tate Britain or the National Gallery or the online versions here: Link. WikiArt

I am a sucker for really old buildings of any stripe and Suffolk and in that respect Suffolk is pure pedalling porn. While God & I do not get on well, I have to admire the churches which are a feature of the area, often dating to the 1400’s, many of which have survived the Victorians. If you want detail on any of them, I have borrowed liberally but selectively from this website.

Please forgive the odd numbering of the waypoints that follow. I used Outdooractive to create the GPX file and it plays havoc with them.

Waypoint notes

A.   Manningtree & The Stour Valley

The tour doesn’t go into Manningtree. It was home to Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’ in Cromwell’s time and later Margaret Thatcher who worked here as a young chemist. So the place is troubled by vengeful spirits.

Turning out of the access road to Manningtree Station you turn left and after half a mile cross the River Stour. Pronounce it to rhyme with fur or tower as you wish, it means ‘strong river’ in old English. Or maybe Brythonic! If this is your bag, Wikipedia goes into the etymology in detail!

Stour Estuary @ Manningtree

The bridge controls the waterflow. Upstream, on right bank, is the River Stour Nature Reserve while downstream it is tidal and often mostly sandbanks. The Sweet Chestnut trees in the Nature Reserve are allegedly the descendants of those planted by the Romans and it is one of rare remaining habitats of doormice. Don’t wake them.  

At almost 50 miles long, the river was a transport route and a source of power for flour mills since Roman times. Using locks, many of which have now gone, ‘Stour Lighter’ barges carried the products of the land down to the estuary and onto London.

B. Flatford & Flatford Mill

This is the spot in the header photo, made famous by Constable who is often described as a miller’s son, missing the detail that dad actually owned the mill. There is a collection of old buildings set in the landscapes he loved and painted. Space doesn’t permit a full description here and, anyway, the National Trust have provided one & also a small exhibition on site. Check their description here: 

 I rather like the tale of Willie Lott, a farmer who apparently only ever left Flatford for one night in his life. His rather grand 'cottage' still stands there virtually unaltered since he left.

Wille Lotts' Cottage

Take a look at the trees. If you look at Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’ you can see that they were different then, but willow trees have always liked damp spots and have been coppiced and pollarded for centuries.

C. East Bergholt

The main village of the village is unexceptional and its Wikipedia page has a very long list of equally unexceptional residents. The oversized village church stands out (or doesn’t) for being a medieval mash-up with no tower or steeple. Apparently there were plans afoot to add one but they relied upon Cardinal Wolsey and died with him in 1530. The bells ring forth, from a wooden cage in the churchyard. 

If you want need a cafe, 'Oranges and Lemons' on Rectory Hill, which is just off the route, is excellent. 

G.  Stoke by Nayland

Many, many sheep must have died to fund St Mary’s church whose tower looms over the area and some of Constable’s scenes. It was built on the late 1400’s and competes in scale with St Pete’s at Lavenham. Nice old timber framed buildings but to my mind not a patch on .......

H. Nayland

For me, Nayland is the most attractive village on the route, less touristed and traffic infested and with lots of ancient and wobbly old houses. Here is a plan marking the historic listed buildings in blue. Go see. Photos don't really do it justice. 

'Historic' Buildings in Nayland

A short detour down Mill Street takes you to St James church which I know will be a magnet for you so I will not comment on the lovely pub down by the river. Always struggling to find a meaningful adjective, the National Churches Trust describe it as ‘enchanting’ and ‘captivating’; but the standout attraction is the altarpiece painting which is a Constable original and, unusually, in its original spot. It is also apparently the home to William Jones organ. (Stop it!)

The Anchor @ Nayland 

I. Bures

Bures is nice enough but St Stephen’s Chapel is special. A visit entails a short diversion. You will find it perched on hill just outside the village to the east. on its east side. Search for it by name on Google Maps or, if you check a detailed OS Map, you will see it as a ‘restored chapel’ next to Fysh House Farm off the road to Assington.

Legend has it that the boy King Edmund was crowned here at Xmas in 855. Later, he was shot to pieces by nasty Vikings which earned him a place as one of England's early patron saints before George took over in a political fix. 

St Edmund the Dartboard

The building is dated to the 1200’s, so it is ancient and, unusually, looks it. Later it became a farm, a plague hospital and then a barn before being reconsecrated in 1940. There are some amazingly elaborate tombs here, housing various dead De Vere’s. The family arrived with William the Conqueror, became the Earls of Oxford and fattened on the profits from Suffolk sheep to the point that they were once the second richest family in England. They even owned 10 Downing Street! You will bump into them again if you try my Woolly Money tour.

On the hill opposite you can see the Old Bures Dragon carved into the hill. Apparently the poor creature was killed by a medieval knight, oblivious to its status as an endangered species.

Old Bures Dragon

The second most interesting thing in Bures, and it isn’t really, is Mount Bures. A wooden tower was built here after the Battle of Hastings. There are a few stairs to the top.

M. Dedham

Another village inextricably linked with Constable, but often besieged by tourists and amateur watercolourists. Rumours has it that Henry V11's Mum paid for the imposing church which is a St. Mary’s church is a 1400s rubble and flint rebuild of an earlier version. Constable didn't do much religious painting but 'The Ascension' on the wall is his. Apparently it was originally commissioned to be offered by a brewer as a bribe to get consent to build more pubs. 

The village was the home of another painter, Alfred Munnings, born in 1878 and a very establishment figure. You can see a collection of his work at the little museum at Castle Hill in Dedham. He liked to paint horses and some of his work sold for huge sums. Not my cup of tea and I wonder how he got the models to keep still.

Alfred Munnings

From here, it is back to Manningtree Station. 


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