Stour valley scenes that made Constable a painter
The tidal waters of the Orwell and Stour brought wealth to the Suffolk-Essex border region in the Middle Ages, when Ipswich grew rich from the cloth trade. Both rivers are still busy waterways, with large ships loading and unloading at Ipswich and Mistley, and pleasure craft crowding the waters in summer. The spaciousness of the landscape has inspired paintings by many artists, from John Constable to Sir Alfred Munnings.
This village on the way to Harwich has an attractive main street. Its landmark is a superb post-mill, built in 1842 and restored in the 1970s. Post-mills, once common in Suffolk, were so called because the body revolved on a central post and could be turned so that the sails faced the prevailing wind. The Ramsey mill is the only one of its type in Essex and can be visited by written arrangement with the owner at The Windmill House, Ramsey.
Beach huts down a lane leading from Wrabness mark one of the few sandy stretches on the Stour. Wrabness church has a detached belfry by the church gate. The single bell is housed in a wooden cage now overgrown with ivy. From Wrabness Point there is a fine view across the river to the Royal Hospital School.
A tree-lined road called The Walls runs for half a mile westward along the river from Mistley to Manningtree, giving spectacular views of mute swans, part of a population of some 400 that live there. Mistley is now a flourishing port, trading in timber, grain and soya flour, with a quay taking boats up to 2,500 tons. It also has a Victorian-built malthouse still in operation, giving the air a malty smell.
Mistley’s chief curiosity consists of a pair of identical church towers in the middle of a graveyard – the remains of a church built in the 1770s by Robert Adam. The church was part of an unsuccessful plan to turn Mistley into a spa, undertaken by Richard Rigby, a politician who made a fortune as paymaster-general of the forces. Another surviving part of the scheme is the stone swan fountain in the centre of Mistley.
Once a busy port, this little Georgian town has now lost its trade to Mistley, a short way downstream. At the end of July Manningtree holds a regatta for the local punts -flat-bottomed boats with pointed bows, often home-made and originally fitted with wide-bore ‘punt guns’ for shooting wildfowl. In the 17th century Manningtree was the headquarters of Matthew Hopkins, who terrorised East Anglia in his role of ‘Witch Finder General’. With poetic justice, in 1647 he was himself accused of witchcraft, bound and thrown into the water- the usual test for witches. When he floated he was presumed guilty, and hanged.
The birthplace in 1776 of John Constable is one of the most attractive villages in the area. Constable’s father was the miller of Flatford Mill, a watermill 1 mile south of the village, now owned by the National Trust and run as a residential field studies centre. The beautiful brick mill and nearby white Willy Lott’s Cottage are still as Constable painted them. As a boy, Constable spent many hours on the banks of the Stour and became enchanted with the riverside scenery – scenes that, as he later wrote, ‘made me a painter’. In 1799 he became a student at the Royal Academy in London, but returned to the Stour many times to make sketches for landscape paintings. The subjects he chose, such as Flatford Mill, Dedham Mill and stretches of the willow-lined river, make up the heart of ‘Constable Country’. The house where the painter was born stood near the parish church, but only an outbuilding remains, now converted to a private cottage.
Hast Bergholt church has a timber-built bell cage, free-standing in the churchyard. Constable’s parents and his friend Willy Lott are buried in the churchyard. John Constable himself is buried in the churchyard of St John’s Church, Hampstead, London.
Stour Gardens, at the home of the late Randolph Churchill, are open daily.
ROYAL HOSPITAL SCHOOL
The school, moved from Greenwich in 1933, has an enormous tower, topped by a white stone pinnacle, that is a landmark for miles on both sides of the Stour. Greenwich Hospital was founded in 1694 for disabled and retired seamen of the Royal Navy; a school for their sons was founded in 1712, and the Holbrook school is its descendant. Preference is still given to the sons of seamen, including lifeboatmen.
South of the school is the isolated Stutton church, from which a path leads round Holbrook Bay to Shotley Gate. A landmark on the winding road that leads east from Holbrook to Shotley is the brick Tudor gatehouse of Erwarton Hall, built about 1550.
At the end of the promontory that separates the Orwell and the Stour are the rows of buildings and towering fully rigged ship’s mast that until 1977 made up HMS Ganges, a naval training base named after the training warship that formed the original base. It has now taken on a new lease of life as the Eurosports Village, a residential sports complex opened in 1981, providing training facilities for footballers, swimmers and gymnasts.
There is a good view across to the shipping of Harwich and Parkeston from the end of the road by Shotley pier.
Reached down a lane from Chelmondiston village, Pin Mill is a famous riverside beauty spot. In summer the Orwell is crowded with pleasure boats of all sizes, from dinghies to red-sailed Thames sailing barges. At high spring tides, sailors can moor close to the walls of the Butt and Oyster Inn and order drinks without stepping ashore. The name Pin Mill has been explained in various ways;
WORKHORSE OF THE THAMES
With their enormous red sails and broad, flat-bottomed hulls the Thames sailing barges were a familiar sight in Victorian times as they plied between London and the East Anglian ports. They carried grain, bricks and hay to the capital, returning with horse manure to fertilise farmland. one theory is that it derives from the wooden pegs or’pins’ that were made there and used in boat-building. The Pin Mill Barge Match is held there each July.
The National Trust owns the 17 acre Cliff Plantation, on the river bank between Pin Mill and Old Wharf, 1 mile to the east. Access is on foot only.
A private road through parkland leads to the marina and sailing centre at Cat House where there are launching and casual-berth facilities. The name Cat House is said to date back to the 18th century, when the Orwell was a smugglers’ river: a stuffed white cat, placed at night in a lighted window, was the signal that the coast was clear. The Royal Harwich Yacht Club has its premises at Woolverstone.
A path along the foreshore leads downstream to Pin Mill and upstream to Freston Tower. This is a lookout tower probably built about 1550, rising from trees beside the B1456.
The county town of Suffolk, with a population of 123,000, Ipswich has been a port since the days of the Romans. In Anglo-Saxon times it was England’s largest port, and throughout the Middle Ages it prospered with the growth of the wool trade. In 1404 it was made a ‘staple port’ – one of the ports from which wool could be legally exported -and also traded in skins, leather and fish. Cardinal Wolsey was born in Ipswich about 1475, and a few of the town’s fine half-timbered buildings still survive from the Tudor period, notably the Ancient House, with superb pargeting, or moulded external plasterwork.
For centuries Ipswich was a centre of shipbuilding, with yards extending from the present dock area as far as Nacton. The town’s official seal, dating from 1200, is the earliest known depiction of a ship with a modern rudder instead of the traditional steering oar. As Ipswich is a dozen miles from the open sea, the port has been at constant risk from silting. By 1800 the harbour was almost choked, and it took almost half a century of dredging and dock-building before trade recovered. This period saw the building of the fine porticoed Old Custom House, opened in 1845, which is now the headquarters of the Ipswich Port Authority.
The dock area, stretching for more than a mile along both banks of the Orwell, handles timber, grain, general cargo and raw materials. A short way downstream, the immense Orwell Bridge links the A12 with the A45, and carries heavy lorries to Felixstowe harbour.
There are two museums: Ipswich Museum and Christchurch Mansion, a 16th-century house which has paintings by Constable and Gainsborough. There is a theatre, and a 1 mile town trail.
A track on the east side of Orwell Park School leads down to the foreshore, an expanse of tidal flats with wide views and the bubbling sound of curlews calling. In the 18th century Orwell Park was the home of Admiral Sir Edward Vernon (1684-1757), whose nickname of ‘Old Grog’, given him because of his suit of coarse grogram cloth, was applied to the ‘grog’ introduced by him to the navy – a daily ration of rum mixed with water. By the house is a domed 19th-century observatory, and a medieval church lies on the other side of the lane.
SUFFOLK YACHT HARBOUR
This large marina, on the foreshore below the pretty village of Levington, has both launching and casual-berth facilities. Downstream are the lonely saltings of Trimley Marshes, across which a coastal footpath leads to Felixstowe.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Dedham, 4 miles W of Manningtree. CasJIe House, home of Sir Alfred Mannings, with many of his paintings, some afternoons in summer.
Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, 12 miles NW of Ipswich, Daily in summer.
The Rosarium, Claydon, 3 miles NW of Ipswich. Rose gardens. Afternoons mid-May to mid-July.
Wolves Wood RSPB Reserve, nearHadleigh. 9 miles Wof Ipswich,