I swapped the rain and hills of the previous Saturday for blue skies and fields this weekend. The route this time: Manningtree Circular. The walk would take in the historic village of Dedham and the River Stour.
The area is also known as “Constable Country” because the artist John Constable (born 1776) went to school here, used to trek among these fields frequently, and had many family associations with the area. The landscape features in a number of his classic paintings, including The Hay Wain, The Cornfield, Dedham Vale, Flatford Mill (below), and The Valley of Stour. For enthusiasts of landscape painting, the Romantics, and John Constable’s works of art in particular, this is an ideal hike.
Manningtree is just on the edge of Colchester and an hour away from London heading towards East Anglia. When you arrive at the station you can take two directions – one is the long route, the other is a short-cut circular. If you just want a pleasant stroll by the river and back, you should take the North-westward path adjacent to the big car park outside the station.
But it was the longer route for us, starting with the footpath pointing towards Lawford. This path took us through St Mary’s Churchyard. The church was built in 1340 (which you can tell from its typical Gothic style) and has its own fascinating Reformation history: the discovery of treasonable correspondence via the Church led to it being disowned by the Crown.
Passing through the Churchyard eventually got us on to the Essex Way. Once into the fields, the Essex Way is not too easy to follow because there are multiple waymarks and exits at each corner of the field.
After some pondering and meandering we decided (correctly) on an exit that led in three directions: to a bridleway, a sign pointing towards Sherborne, and a narrower hedge-lined footpath. The latter was our route, opening out to lots of farmland and plentiful views of horses, sheep, and cows along the way.
So far on the walk we had very few meetings with other hikers – we did come across a couple of locals, all of whom were friendly and seemed happy to see us. After passing some barns, we should have taken a footpath behind a sign pointing towards ‘Humberlands’ and ‘Broom Knolls.’ But again, mixed or absent signage meant we (mistakenly) continued along the path we were on, entering a radish field…
…with no way out except through a gap in a thorny hedge that led directly out on to a busy A-road. It was a relief when it turned into a tarmac lane on the right, but it was still not suited for walkers with no footpath or pavement. That part was the least interesting stretch of the hike (naturally, since it wasn’t meant to be in it), and I had no mind to take any photos of it. But thankfully after 40 minutes we reconnected with a footpath back on to the Essex Way that took us on to the very scenic Dedham Heath.
Dedham village with its church spire was in sight in the distance. That church was in fact the Parish Church of St Mary, built in 1492, where Constable attended services and whose tower features in his paintings. ..At last we arrived in Dedham village, which became prosperous in the wool trade in the 15th and 16th centuries and led to numerous more churches being built, far more than was needed by its relatively small parish. If we hadn’t had our little detour we would have made it to the village for lunch – as it was, the teashops there had closed by 2.30pm. So we carried on to arrive at the last stretch of our hike – the river walk.
This took us into National Trust land and on a very pleasant winding walk alongside the River Stour. We were really spoilt by the beautiful weather and lovely view. It was also good to see many of the Dedham locals enjoying the river – it is common to see families paddling upstream in hired canoes.
By this stage we had been walking continuously for hours with only a short stop for our packed lunch. So we took a break by the willow trees on the banks of the Stour and watched the ducks.
Resuming our walk, we came to Flatford Lock and Flatford Mill – more Constable links here since the Mill had been owned by Constable’s corn-merchant father. Perfectly nestled between the Lock and the bridge is a National Trust Cafe (this is also where you can hire the canoe boats).
After a brief stop there, it was a continuous 2 mile walk through hedged footpaths and sheep fields, before arriving at last back at Manningtree station.
Overall, the walk was about 17.7km and took an hour longer to complete than it should have because of our detour on Harwich Road. But we didn’t mind, we had perfect weather, with idyllic views for most of the way. We were glad we saved our river walk for the end (rather than starting with it) because it meant we were happy to go slowly and enjoy the views properly, knowing we were near our destination. A good, moderate hike that I’d gladly recommend. Special bonus: the people along the way seemed some of the friendliest and happiest I have met on my many hikes.