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Flatford Mill Walk

Frosty Walk at Flatford -Dedham to Flatford Essex/Suffolk Winter Walk

A crisp sunny Winter morning is just made for walking; I’m off to Dedham and Constable Country. After weeks of heavy grey skies, an overgenerous supply of rain followed by snow and hard frosts it is a joy to see the winter sunshine.

Despite the list of “things to do” at the weekend – I play truant and head towards Dedham to walk beside the river Stour on the Essex/Suffolk border. Dedham is located between Colchester and Ipswich – 2 miles from the A12 and the large free car park in Mill Lane is well signed. Driving along the country road towards the village from Colchester there is an informal lay by, on the left, just made for a quick stop to take in the views across the valley: towards the magnificent church at Dedham.

Dedham, has been a thriving village for generations: the wool trade brought merchants and fine houses to the village where their sons could be educated at a excellent local school. Today, the High Street is a rich mix of beautiful listed houses, interesting shops and a fine selection of eating establishments: ancient pubs and a 16th century tea house. The magnificent church: St. Mary the Virgin dominates the village and it’s sturdy tower is a great landmark.

I park in Mill Lane facing the Winter sun, hoping that it’s weak rays will keep the window screen free of frost. As I pull on thermal socks and stuff my feet into polythene bags before sliding them into green wellies I am reminded of my mother’s advice. Many years ago I was instructed to place plastic bags in my Wellington boots – this made them easier to remove, especially when caked in mud, and should help to keep the feet a little warmer. I am relying on this theory today as the temperature is unlikely to rise above zero. Sheepskin mits, a warm jacket, an alpaca hat and scarf plus mobile phone and sufficient money to buy a coffee and a bun – at last I can escape the bustling car park. I am not alone in thinking it is a great day for walking or feeding ducks.

Out of the main entrance to the car park onto the road – turn right taking care to walk on the path. Pass under the Dedham village sign depicting the church and pink washed houses set against the clear blue sky. On the left is a small parking area leading down to a shingle river bed that ducks and doves find a convenient resting place while awaiting donations from bread-laden visitors. It is sometimes possible to buy duck food made from a selection of grains and it may be more suitable than white bread; perhaps wild ducks should be fed organic wheat products!

Over the bridge – do stop and enjoy the breadth of the river – to the left it runs behind apartments overlooking meadow land and on the right hand side of the bridge, there is a summer boat yard on one side of the river and opposite a vast water meadow leading to Dedham Vale. Today the haw frost hangs like fairy tale icicles on dried stems and branches that trail into the river – but pretty scenery comes at a price – under foot there is ice and uneven ground. The cows that usually inhabit the field have left great imprints in the once sodden grass and the frozen ground is not forgiving to the unwary walker. The main track across the meadow, identified by the trail of footprints in the frost, is a smoother path.

On the far side of the field I head for a gap in the hedge, a gate and a sign “National Trust Dedham Vale” leading to a small path protected by a network of hawthorns that reach across the path and provide a tunnel walk. You almost expect to hear Alice with the White Rabbit checking his watch and hurrying past.

I stop, a busy blackbird is systematically throwing leaves across the path as she endeavours to reach a possible supply of hibernating insects; intense on her task she eventually dives down to the bottom of the ditch where a tiny stream of water gives her a welcome drinkThrough the branches to the left mounds of tufted grasses protrude from a winter lake of the frozen flooded water meadow; how envious those affluent garden designers would be to see how nature had carefully spaced each mound of grass to maximise its reflection in the frozen water. Walt Disney’s artists who created the stunning images in “Fantasia “, must have been inspired by such a scene..Beyond the tunnel path there is a meeting of footpaths – signed “Flatford” to the right – “East Bergholt” to the left. I head left over a small bridge where a fisherman tries to challenge the local river life seeking shelter beneath a thin layer of moving ice. At the start of the walk I noticed the rumbling of the A12 traffic then as I relax and concentrate on the peace of the countryside I escape the noises of everyday life in exchange for the crackle of dried sticks under foot.Another sign-post: “footpath” to the left and “footpath” straight on – it is for us to guess or retreat to a map. I head straight on, over a gate, past mellowing silage wrapped in huge bales of black polythene with a whiff of the countryside, just to remind me that this is a living countryside and working farmland. This is a favourite field of mine, a steep climb (well steep for East Anglia) with views extending far beyond the Stour Valley and it is even better on sunny summer days when we should be able to lay on meadow grass and sweet flowers and absorb the energy from the sun before heading on with our journey. But now it is Winter and time to move forward tracking a well schooled German Shepherd and his family enjoying a stroll.

The wooden gate on the far side of the field leads to a narrow lane – here I turn right and skate along the lane for the ice has not yet thawed. Luckily it is a one- way road and most traditional country drivers are aware that people or animals may be round the next corner, so there is time to jump to the leafy bank. Down into the dip and up the hill where to the left sheep are kept close to the farm and the horses are dressed in Winter coats. The quiet country lane suddenly widens indicating the entrance to the car park for Flatford Mill. The ticket collector huddles round a gas heater in his hut and families are busy disgorging children, dogs, push chairs and boots from their cars before exploring Constable Country. Across the car park the steps lead to the Tourist Information Centre, an attractive barn like structure manned by knowledgeable locals and with the greatest benefit known to walkers – clean toilets. It is always prudent to take advantage of a good loo, especially in winter.

Flatford draws people who come to walk in the steps of great artists, John Constable and Sir Alfred Munnings, enjoy the painting classes, rest with a quick coffee or browse in the thatched National Trust shop. My reward is a coffee and a rock bun in the new N.T. tea room overlooking the river and an opportunity to people watch. Most are in twos, some wearing matching jackets, reminiscent of dressing twins in matching outfits, a selection of sturdy footwear, a number of professional looking hiking sticks and an ample range of woolly headgear in bird watching colours. Outside we pass each other with a polite, if reserved, “Good morning” but once inside we become trapped in our reserve status endeavouring not to intrude on fellow walkers’ chatter.

Quickly refreshed, I move on: over the bridge, spurred by the thought that the frost will have disappeared and I need a frosty scene to justify carrying the camera. The sun is melting the frost from the branches but I do catch the last of the icy crystals that cling to spikes of moss on the ancient wall opposite the lock at Flatford, unfortunately I focus on the mill so the frosty spikes become an icy haze, a lesson well learned.Back to the bridge over the Stour and through a “Mensa” style gate – careful instructions “move handle and lift bar” – in order to serve the needs of those of us who do not specialise in mind games the bar has now been labelled “bar” for the uninitiated. Pride forbids me demonstrating my lack of analytical skills that would help identify which piece of metal is regarded as the handle – so I resort to the use of another feminine skill – the ability to ask someone for help. However, as an Essex woman, who knows she could make it work if she really tried, I was delighted when the task could be passed to a gentleman walker. The cattle-gate gave access to a frozen water meadow that overflowed into the river, winding its way back to Dedham.

A sturdy herd of cattle are walking away to our left, I am not fearsome of the beasts but treat them with a certain amount of respect especially if they decide to congregate around the gates. I am assured that they are just animals with a sense of curiosity but sometimes I think they may be disturbed by people who fail to keep their dogs under control, although there are notices saying dogs should be on leads, unfortunately dogs are unable to read and some owners appear to miss the instructions. (Enough griping)

I usually head to the left hand corner of the field, through the gate, up a narrow path away from the river, beside a farm yard and out onto the main Dedham High Street. Today, I am still talking to the “gate opener” who has a sheaf of maps strung from his neck as he is checking a route for a group of walkers, so we take an alternative route. At the far side of the field we head for the bridge on our right that takes us across the still moving river. A very narrow path just above the river between prickly hedge and wire fence leads to more stiles. Disliking the slippery uneven surface I suggest heading across the field but the wisdom of the more experienced walker suggests the designated path might be a wiser move. True as my route would have entailed a long detour to overcome the barbed wire fence preventing our escape into summer cow-pat land.

Over another stile and into the meadow where the children, young and old, are enjoying sliding along shallow flood water. Away from the river, on drier land, a multitude of mole hills indicates a busy underground network of tunnels for these short sighted creatures. The Winter sun is loosing its battle with bustling clouds and the best part of the day is past so the pace quickens till we reach the car park for a quick change of boots. I should report that despite walking through frosty grass and ice covered meadows my feet are not cold – great. Too soon to go home – even though it is 2 hours since I started walking (much longer than on a warm sunny day when you can stride out without fear of slipping) – so left from the car park and into the village.

On the corner of Mill Lane is The Essex Rose 16th century Tea House and the thought of a warm welcome for a lone walker takes me in. Hot chocolate arrives in a lovely china jug giving me at least two cups for a Winter treat – I am feeling very righteous, as I have declined to have cream with the chocolate. Around me home made soup, jacket potatoes and cream teas are being devoured so I retreat to the street before I am tempted. Opposite the Essex Rose is the timber beamed Marlborough Head and close by is The Sun public house which offers a spirited welcome.Dedham is mentioned in the Doomsday Book in 1086 and has enjoyed a prosperous reputation for over 1,000 years. When the thriving wool industry declined Dedham became a centre of academic excellence. The Dedham Grammar School received the Royal Charter from Elizabeth 1 in 1575 and attracted a number of wealthy merchants seeking a good education for their sons.

Past the bustling Co-op, a window full of gifts, and the local butcher I cross to explore the other side – a new nail bar has opened and the friendly dress shop has a sale. Look at how much I could save – trousers at half price – but the shop is closed. I will have to make another journey – perhaps not a great saving in the end but another good excuse to visit Dedham and absorb the mellow calm of this treasured village.

Sally Carpenter – ClientAct PR – 2003

Note: The walk is approximately 3 – 3 1/2 miles.
Please be aware of your own safety..
This time I left a note on the car seat – “Walking to Flatford – 10.30 am” – I am not sure if this is a good idea. If I fall down a rabbit hole and someone is worried it would give them an indication of which track I had taken but in some locations it might encourage someone to take a less than caring interest in my car or its contents. Please place valuables out of site.