‘There it is!’ A phrase heard on a daily basis by the proprietor of the Flatford Mill Field Studies centre as Willy Lot’s house comes into view. There’s absolutely no doubting what your eyes are telling you as you walk down a short track beside the River Stour in the early spring sunshine.
John Constable’s Hay Wain is the archetypal rural idyll; the collective reference point for our romantic ideal of what we imagine the English countryside to be. Incredibly, the scene seems to have remained intact since the artist made his preliminary sketches on the banks of the Stour two hundred years ago before completing the painting in his London studio.
At this time of year the lack of leaves on the branches on the opposite bank permit us a sneaky, seasonal look across to the water meadow beyond; presumably the destination of the hay cart as it made its way across the shallow water. Or was it?
Constable and the coopers
It’s now believed that the cart (or wain) had been deliberately driven into the river allowing the water to swell the wooden wheels ensuring a snug fit to the iron outers, common practice for eighteenth century wheelwrights.
Further evidence for this technique may be the faint, ghostly silhouette of a barrel lying on the river’s foreshore which Constable later painted over. It also hints at his mother’s family trade; a flourishing cooperage business.
Nearby, housed in a newly constructed National Trust exhibition centre, the story of John Constable’s life and work is told through his landscape paintings and informative text panels. He grew up in nearby East Bergholt, sketching the local landscapes and taking inspiration from fellow artist Thomas Gainsborough who also had a family home in the village.
Sit and stare
Beyond Willy Lot’s famous riverside house, tucked away on the edge of the water, the Trust has funded a bird hide from where fleeting glimpses of kingfishers and egrets reward those with the patience to sit and stare for a while. Paths and nature trails can be followed from here across the fields and nearby woodland.
We retraced our steps to the riverside gardens of the Trust’s tearoom from where rowing boats, canoes and paddle-boards ply the tranquil waters of the Stour. Paddle station platforms have been constructed alongside the water’s edge allowing easy access in and out of the river for waterborne travellers and tourists.
Constable made many sketches along this stretch of the Stour, some of which became finished paintings showing off the nearby canal lock with its distinctive timber beams and also the construction of barges in shallow dry docks hollowed out close to the bank. One such dock is still clearly visible within the confines of the tearoom garden reminding us that people have been making a living on this Suffolk river for many centuries.
Our walk back to the car park through a small, but perfectly formed, RSPB nature reserve prompted us to consider what this beautiful place will be like in another two hundred years as future visitors seek out the riverside which inspired one of our greatest landscape artists and became synonymous with rural Britain at its best.
© Robin Redfern 2019