Tips & Ideas

Tips & Ideas

Constable Country: Off the Beaten Path

submitted by: Sheila Sobell and Richard Every

            England’s greatest landscape painter, John Constable, grew up in Dedham and East Bergholt, in  Suffolk- part of East Anglia (along with Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire), not on the conventional tourist path.

In Dedham, a pretty pastel-washed village, we were surprised to discover a tribute to the Apollo 11 Space Mission- a commemorative medallion bearing the crew’s likenesses displayed on a pew in the village’s 16th century church.

Locals work hard at preserving the villages as they were during Constable’s lifetime, so it was necessary to ask for directions to find the small lane leading down to Willy Lott’s 18thcentury cottage, where the artist painted.

In an almost surreal “art as a mirror of life” experience, across from the cottage someone had positioned an easel with a print of Constable’s “Haywain,” as if to underline both how little nature had changed and how staggering was Constable’s skill in rendering it.

On the way to Saffron Walden, we stopped at Great Dunmow where a contest is held every four years to find a newly married couple who can swear that they neither quarreled nor wished themselves single one year and a day after their marriage. The victorious couple wins a whole leg of pork, known locally as a “flitch,” and are carried through the village in the flitch chair. According to local gossip, one year the winning couple quarreled for days after about how to use the prize.

To our disappointment, St. Mary’s, where the flitch chair is stored, was locked, but a key was available from Mrs. Coates who lived in the first house down the lane. Having served as church organist for more than 36 years with just one Sunday off a year, at age 92 she continues to play at “every other funeral.”

At Saffron Waldon, we were impressed by well-preserved examples of pargeting, a decorative method of applying plaster to the exterior of the houses to depict scenes like that of Tom Thyum and the giant on the Old Sun Inn. We walked across the commons to explore the 800-year-old maze built by monks. Traversing it proved less than challenging as it seemed either the monks were dwarfs or the land on which the maze was built had settled dramatically as the hedge is barely waist high. Later we learned that in medieval times penitents attempted the maze on their knees in retribution for their sins.

Our next stop was Kentwell Hall, an Elizabethan country house restored by a London barrister and his wife as an educational experience for schoolchildren. Staffed by volunteers who come from all over the world to audition for the  summer re-enactment’s of Tudor life, the estate is kept in a state of readiness as though Queen Elizabeth I might drop in unannounced, as was her wont. Outside, youngsters, dressed in period costumes of their own creation, played traditional Elizabethan games on the green.


During the Cold War, Parliament created a series of 18 concrete subterranean bunkers from which to run the government in the event of a nuclear attack. At Mistley, we had a chance to visit Furze Hill, observed its emergency communications equipment and watch the government’s ironic propaganda films produced to assuage fears of such attacks.

Furze Hill was top secret, partly to avoid enemy detection, but also to thwart an invasion of terrified locals seeking shelter as it could only accommodate a few hundred intelligence officers.

Because of a wood shortage triggered by Henry V’s massive ship building campaign, house construction in the 16thcentury relied on timber recycled from ship hulls. As a result, most of the period houses looked decidedly bowed. This architectural curiosity was immortalized in a nursery rhyme celebrating “ a crooked man who lived in a crooked house on a crooked street.”

We found the inspiration for the rhyme on High Street in Lavenham, where Pocahontas once lived. In the village is Tickle Manor Tearoom., also of historical significance. During England’s Civil War, a young couple new to Lavenham was arrested because of allegiance to the king. They were tortured to death by having the bottoms of their feet tickled with a goose feather in the building where the Tickle Manor Tearoom now stands, marked by a sign depicting the practice.

We stopped for a pint at the bar at the Swan Hotel, which served as the local pub for the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force pilots who fought with them in World War II. All that is left of many of these brave men are their signatures scrawled across a sketch of an American bomber.

At Thorpness village, we finally saw the accommodations we tried to book. Called the House in the Clouds, the elevated structure is really the village water tank, with supports, converted into lodgings. Designed in 1910 by the squire as a fantasy village to attract tourists, all of the buildings, including a hotel made to look like a medieval castle, is a massive trompe l’oeil.

In Dunwich is Blythburgh Church, where on Aug. 14, 1577, while the priest was conducting services, the church spire was struck by lightning. It crashed through the roof along with a huge black dog with red eyes. According to legend, the dog was a hellhound named Black Shuck. In clawing at the door to get out, it left scorch marks on the wood, still clearly visible today.

At Norwich, we shopped the largest open-air market in England and bought period postcards from the Mustard Shop in nearby Bridewell Alley, where Colman’s fine mustards has been sold for 180 years. Housed in an 18th century replica of a Victorian shop, the store also features a mustard museum, mustard pots and kitchen accessories.

We took tea 20 miles down the road at Blickling Hall, a great red brick Jacobean mansion surrounded by a lake and 5,000 acres of park, where a haunting collection of memorials designed by young artists had been installed. A trail of footprints set in paving stones led to a mirrored cross reflecting the garden’s changing landscape. On a simple stone obelisk, another had chiseled a poem to her own immortality, “Forever a singer/my fragrant songs from the heart/It will be spoken of when I am gone.”

Among the home’s stunning art collection is famous oil of Henry V by Holbein. If you’re there t dusk, watch out for a headless woman, Anne Boleyn, who lived at Blickling as a girl.

We concluded our tour in King’s Lynn at the Tales or the Old Gaol, a clever re-creation of prison life throughout history. In 1646, the town fathers sent for Mathew Hopkins, the most famous witch finder in England, who was responsible for the death of over 300 witches. Through a sound-and-light show and a tape-recorded self-guided tour, we witnessed confessions being extracted from suspects and a witch being burned at the stake.


Getting There: We flew on British Airways, (800) 247-9297, to Gatwick. There we rented a car from Avis, (800) 331-1212, along with an invaluable mobile phone from the Parker Co., (800) 282-2811.

Staying there: The Bauble, a B&B in a medieval house with impressive gardens and swimming pool, preferred by even executive travelers for its intimacy (doubles with private shower across the hall begin at about $60; call 011 44 1206-337254)

The Beeches Hotel & Victorian Gardens: This restored Victorian manor house, owned by the National Trust, is situated within five minutes’ walk of Norwich’s city center. Doubles begin at $110; call 011-44-1603-621167.

Arundel House Hotel is an elegant 19th century Victorian terrace hotel close to the center of Cambridge and overlooking the River Cam. Doubles with Continental breakfast begin at $90; call 011-44-1223-367701.

For more information, contact the East of England Tourism Board, Toppesfield Hall, Hadleigh, Suffolk 1P7 5DN, England.


Sheila Sobell is as SATW Active and Richard Every is a member of the NATJA. Visit them at