Suffolk Walking Festival : Constable Churches

more photos below

more photos below

The Suffolk Walking Festival takes place each year in May. It’s the perfect month for a walking festival, the countryside is at it’s most verdant, the sun is usually shining, and the days are long. This year I joined a walk that crossed the border between Suffolk and Essex.

We walked along country lanes and across footpaths, visited churches, explored villages and walked along the banks of the River Stour. A perfect walk in the English countryside.

The walk was led by Chris Hunt, who has led many walks for the walking festival over the years. The walk was called Two Constable Churches as it visited two splendid Suffolk churches with connections to the great landscape artist, John Constable, whose roots are firmly set in East Anglia along the Suffolk/Essex border.

We set off from the church of St. Mary the Virgin, in Stoke by Nayland. Like many churches in the area, it was built by wealthy merchants who had made lots of money during the Medieval Wool Trade. The church was our starting point for the walk as it was drawn and painted many times by Constable. Constable particularly loved this church. He didn’t always paint it in the correct place though, as he wasn’t above using some artistic license to improve his work.

After exploring the church, where Chris gave a short but very informative talk about Constable, we followed in the footsteps of the artist and explored the lanes and footpaths between Stoke by Nayland and Nayland.

Today, Nayland is a very attractive Suffolk village, full of timber framed and lime-plastered buildings that have been colour-washed and decorated with East Anglian pargetting. In Constable’s time, and indeed up until the early twentieth century, it was a working industrial village. There were cloth workers in the Medieval period, and in the nineteenth century there was a working mill, a foundry and at one time a forge and a garage.

Now it’s very peaceful, but still at its heart, as it has been since 1400, is the village church. This is the church of St. James, again built from the wealth of the Medieval Cloth Merchants.

This was the halfway point on our walk. Here we were greeted by people from the church who very kindly served us tea, coffee and homemade cake. St. James’ was included in our walk, because inside is an original Constable painting. It’s not one of his famous landscapes, instead it’s an altar piece, called Christ Blesses the Bread and Wine. It’s a companion piece to another religious painting by Constable which is in St. Mary’s church in Dedham, called The Ascension of Christ.

After exploring the church, we set off back to Stoke by Nayland. We crossed the old bridge over the River Stour, where Chris told us about the home-made explosives that had been placed under the bridge during the 2nd World War by the local Home Guard. They were planning to blow the bridge up to stop the Nazi’s reaching Colchester and then London if they had ever managed to invade.

We walked along the banks of the river, and stopped by the side of Nayland Weir. When we were there the weir was full of water, but later in the summer when there had been very little rain, lengths of the River Stour ran dry for quite a few weeks. Anglers in Colchester first noticed it when they went out fishing, and many thought that not enough water had been released from the Great Ouse in Lincolnshire. The water from the Ouse feeds in to the River Stour, and it then eventually feeds in to the great reservoir at Abberton, which is just outside Colchester.

After walking along the river bank, and then back across the fields, past a group of cattle grazing in the warm sunshine, we ended up back in Stoke by Nayland. As I write this on a wet October day, I’m already looking forward to next May and the Suffolk Walking Festival. I wonder where I’ll explore next year?

If you plan to go walking in the area around the two villages, there are some walking guides on the Dedham Vale AONB website which are really useful. And if you would plan to stop to eat in the area, there are two pubs, the Angel Inn at Stoke by Nayland or
The Anchor in Nayland