Memory Maps: 'Constable's Other Country' by Jules Pretty
When the vast ice-sheets of the Anglian glaciation retreated nearly half a million years ago, the meltwaters drained east and south-east to form the main river valleys of south Suffolk and north Essex. One river, the Stour, now forms the boundary between the two counties, and its rolling hills and tributaries form what we now call Constable Country, a nationally-designated Area of Outstanding Beauty. John Constable lived at Dedham in the valley’s lower reaches, and it is to Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s cottage that many visitors are attracted. Come a few kilometres upstream, though, and you find another country where some of Constable’s relatives and descendents lived, and through which his father’s barges passed daily in the early 19th century.
This country is rich with the signs of history. We begin this trail at the village of Nayland, a former wool town made rich in the mid 16th century by the arrival of Flemish weavers. At Horkesley lock, one of fifteen on the river, weeping willows flank the old millpond, and a dense patch of mixed woodland planted a decade ago by local schoolchildren hides the river. Stand on the wooden bridge at dawn, on a crisp winter’s morning, and you may be lucky to see a chain of bubbles that marks an otter hunting for eels. Forty to fifty years ago, otters disappeared from all these rivers, mainly because of persistent pesticides and destruction of riverine habitats. Today, though, they are back, and taking advantage of new holts build by the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley Countryside project (Figures 1 and 2). The 10-15 kg animals are secretive and rarely seen, but they do leave distinctive five-toed footprints and their spraints on the river bank.
The Stour navigation from Sudbury to Manningtree was created by a 1705 Act, and in Constable’s time barges carried agricultural produce downriver to the sea, and then down to the Thames, returning with night-soil to put on the land. There were, of course, very few trees by the river, as horses had to pass easily with ropes attached to the barges. When the navigation fell into disuse by the 1920s, and was eventually abandoned in 1937, so trees were replanted. Now grey-green cricket willows line the river bank, and become a source of dismay among local people when they have to be chopped down for their valuable wood.
Inland from the lock is Court Knoll, the remains of a moated Roman settlement. Just ten kilometres north of Camoludonum, capital of Roman Britain, this would have been situated on a busy straight road striking into the heart of Trinovantes territory. With the better-known Iceni to the north, these Iron Age civilisations had been present in these river valleys since the first Neolithic farmers settled the region more than 4500 years before the Romans arrived. Their landscape signs are in the barrows, ring ditches, field marks and village remains dotted across the land.
Amongst the Tudor and Georgian houses in the market square in the centre of the village is the listed Alston Court, part of which dates back to the 12th century, and the Guildhall built in 1522. The nearby St James Church dates mostly from the 14th century, and some of the stone work was crafted by John Wastell, who also worked on King’s College in Cambridge. The church is now famous for its altar piece, a painting by Constable entitled 'Christ Blessing the Elements'. It was commissioned in 1809 by his aunt, who lived in the village, and is one of only three religious paintings by Constable. The model for Jesus was the artist’s brother, Golding. Looking down from the rafters above the nave is the face of a green man, wreathed in oak leaves, and symbol of many woodsman, wildmen and woodwoser myths that remain from a mysterious past. Behind the flint church are the allotments, and by them a meadow restored for its wildflowers. The return of bee orchids was a source of great local excitement, though last year each flower was carefully nibbled off by muntjac deer. We like the presence of the deer, and we like the orchids, but it seems the two cannot coexist in the same landscape.
Next to this meadow, in the sweep of the river, is a much larger open pasture. The Fen, as it is known hereabouts, is a landscape relic too. For six hundred years, the church tower has gazed through village trees upon an ever-changing agricultural landscape. This common, though, has survived intact. It is parcelled into 180 fennages, or rights to graze cattle, and so is in common ownership. When the harsh easterly winds drive across the North Sea, the grass crunches underfoot, and the pasture hollows are thick with ice. On a summer’s day, you walk the same route through carpets of yellow buttercups, and may be lucky to see the buzzing and laboured flight of a rare stag beetle. In autumn, after a few days of rain, the river floods and spills upon the pastures, lighting the landscape with the colour of the sky. In the long evenings, bats flit through clouds of insects, and owls hoot in search of scurrying prey. This Fen is different from the surrounding farmland, and it has been this way for centuries.
Soon, though, you can climb out of the village by Gravel Hill, or by the pathway leading from the cemetery past a seemingly ancient wooden scout hut. This was donated by Miss Oates of Gestingthorpe Hall, sister of Captain Lawrence Oates, who famously went outside on his 32nd birthday during the Scott polar expedition of 1912. Glimpses of the mosaic fields of the floodplain and valley sides are possible (Figure 3), including of the new wetland created by the village’s Conservation Society. Soon the paths and roads converge on sunken lanes. These are at least Anglo-Saxon in origin, perhaps set out in the time of the 7th century dynasty of Wuffinga. Centuries of cart wheels have eroded the clay tracks, leaving some deep below the surrounding fields. These green lanes are a world apart, warm and damp in mid-winter, cool in the heat of summer, where there is a permanent half-light, and pheasants and partridges run in line when startled from the undergrowth, eventually lifting in a rattle of wings where the overhanging branches thin. The deepest lanes in the region are six to seven metres below field level, though here they are at most two to three metres deep.
The lane leading into the hills is one of many St Edmunds’ Ways in the area, created by pilgrims heading north to Bury St Edmunds, which then leads into Farthing Lane, with spectacular views of the church at Stoke-by-Nayland, and then to the completely enclosed Beachams Lane. In the banks of these sunken lanes, deep in the twisted roots of pollarded oaks, are badger sets marked by sandy entrances. In spring, bluebells carpet the patches of woodland with a haze of purple light (Figures 4 and 5). Here there are elms alongside the ancient oaks. Two of the patches of woodland are planted with match poplars, another industrial remnant in this landscape, as they no longer had economic value when matches could be sourced more cheaply from overseas. Walk these woodlands at dusk, and you may see small herds of roe deer, or the more solitary muntjac. You will certainly hear tawny, barn and little owls, preaching desolation, as Ronald Blythe has put it, and possible the wild calls of foxes too (Figure 6). What they may mean in this animated land is difficult to know. 'At best', writes local poet Dave Charleston, 'earth only teaches you silence'.
This is rebel country too. In the early 1300s, this was one of the most densely populated and economically-advanced regions of England. In 1381, it provided many of the rebels for the Peasants’ Revolt that marched on London. In the 1600s, it was the site for religious upheaval, with non-conformist protestants coming to believe that each congregation should govern itself entirely. John Winthrop was born at Edwardstone, a village in the nearby Box valley, and lived at Groton before leaving with 500 people from these valleys for the new colonies in 1630, where he became first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, studied under William Jones, celebrated composer and later vicar of Nayland from 1770 to 1800. The organ in St James Church is in memory of Jones, and the Constables came to celebrate its installment.
The route from the scout hut will take you across steep pastures, past the Old Pest House, where people were sent when the black plague struck the village, and where today’s villagers take their sledges when enough snow falls (Figure 7). You will also pass under a rooks’ daily flyway. Their gregarious craas and tsaks mark their swirling easterly morning migration and westerly homeward return. A line of poplars contains a tree where I have twice seen a rooks’ parliament. On the leafless branches, some 30 birds gather and perch, respectfully equidistant from one another. They face inwards, apparently unconcerned about a circling sparrowhawk, towards one or two birds in the middle of the tree, debating something unknowable to us. Incoming birds seem to receive a summary of proceedings, and then the parliament continues. These appear not to be the court-style affairs recorded by some writers that have ended up in the death of some birds.
This is an animated landscape of birds and animals, and within a few minutes you can feel far from civilization. The sunken lanes continue for several kilometers until they rise to the highest point at Stoke-by-Nayland, where St Mary’s church tower affords distant views of Dedham and then the estuary of the Stour (Figure 8). Constable painted the church, as well as trees in the nearby parkland (Figure 9). Some have taken his paintings to be of a quintessential English rural idyll, an unchanging landscape where people are tied to place and land. I prefer to think of them as snapshots of an economic as well as cultural landscape, geared mainly to producing food. Now we increasingly recognize that our land has many values and functions, and with care may be able to maintain some mystery and tranquility as the urban continues to sprawl out into the rural.
There is a constancy in this natural and historic landscape, with its cycles of life and death, and rhythmic change. 'Round and round we all go', writes Ronald Blyth in neighbouring Wormingford, 'the living, the departed, the abundance, the death, the planets, the prayers.' It is too easy to take our attachments to place for granted, and thereby forget to renew them. If we ask, 'what happened here', as Keith Basso suggests, we may find the wisdom that sits in places – places that are shaped by thousands of years of human-nature interactions. Natural and social history is everywhere in this country, and some of the ancient memories can be unlocked by feeling the wind on our faces and hearing the alien language of birds.
Alienation from nature has contributed to environmental problems in today’s world. Until fairly recently in human history, our daily lives have been intertwined with living things. Now we are increasingly suffering from an extinction of experience. David Suzuki says, 'we must find a new story', and Thomas Berry writes 'we are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective'. Observation today can bring much needed respect, and if we are lucky, we will find that animals, birds and places intercept us in our wanderings in Constable’s Other Country, helping to bring forth a distinctive and personal story of the land.
Copyright © Jules Pretty
Jules Pretty is Professor of Environment and Society in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Essex, Colchester (email firstname.lastname@example.org )
The author is very grateful to Ronald Blythe and Marina Warner for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this paper.