Author: Ruth Philo

Into the Wild and Watery Heart of Things

Matt Gaw explains how the Stour seduced him, inspiring his acquatic adventures through the rivers of Britain.

This is just a wet run, a jaunt to celebrate the building of the canoe, but I’m already lost to the water: the way she holds us, the gentle current squeezing us downstream like muscles inside the throat of some giant snake. The river here is wide and soft, bobbled and furred with a yellow fuzz of catkins blown from groups of willow that lower their tresses to the water like women washing their hair. We are moving slowly, each paddle stroke sending up tiny green whirlpools that dance and wink in the summer evening’s light. Behind us we leave a wobbling trail of water, folding in on itself and disappearing with just the smallest of bow waves that shiver to the muddy bank.

The pair of us – my friend James Treadaway and I – set out just under an hour ago from Sudbury Water Meadows, humping the Canadian canoe past the last of the picnickers and the first of the cider drinkers. We heaved her into position and slid her nose-first into the water, wincing at the sound of her wooden hull scraping along the platform and sighing with relief when she didn’t sink to the river’s silty bottom. It was James who built this canoe. A suburban Noah, he beavered away in his garden while his bemused neighbours peered over the fence, offering encouragement and the odd glass of orange squash. Like me, he has little experience of being on the water, but said he felt compelled to make a boat; spending months bending, shaping and gluing wood, before painting the canoe’s handsome curves and broad bottom a joyous nautical red – the colour of Mae West’s lips.

The canoe is high in the water and reassuringly stable, but it took until the frothing flow of Cornard Weir for us to learn how to keep her steady, our rookie strokes pulling and pushing the canoe’s nose from bank to bank like a swinging compass needle. Once, twice, three times we ploughed at speed into the side or plunged through thrashing branches and into reeds, emerging sheepish and covered with downy seeds and a boatload of surprised insects. The rhythm is easy now, the lifting and the pulling of the paddles unthinking and unhurried, minds and boat adrift.

In front of me James gestures with his hand. He doesn’t need to say anything. Both of us have grown up near this river. Played on its banks, shinned up its trees and cooled off in its waters, but this is the first time we have actually stepped off the land and followed it; have felt its pull; its relentless crawl to the sea. In some ways it’s a strange feeling. I had it as soon as we pushed off, not so much an out-of-body experience as an out-of-land experience. Yet that’s not right either, because I’ve never felt so utterly consumed and engaged with a landscape. I feel like I have been ushered into a world that until now has somehow been hidden. It is as if the river is a vein beneath the skin of the land and has the power to take us into the wild and watery heart of things.

Matt will be talking about his new book The Pull of the River at the Quay Theatre, Sudbury on Thursday 18 April 7.30 pm, tickets £10, book here

Nigel Chapman: Dedham Vale AONB and the River Stour Festival

 

I was delighted when Ruth Philo mooted the concept of the River Stour Festival. it seemed to me there has long been a need to link together in some way  the many attractions of the river Stour from its source in Cambridgeshire to the North Sea at Harwich. The Festival aims to do that and  also will integrate themes and ideas of its own. I am so pleased to be part of the Festival team.

Personally, I have enjoyed many aspects of the Vale all my life. From spring visits to Arger Fen to see the bluebells and to Lawford to walk the watercress beds in the fifties; enjoying the many pubs, most of them now gone, in the sixties and seventies and moving to the edge of the AONB in Boxted in the nineties and travelling from there to work at a small business unit in Manningtree for a short time too. So, I am delighted now to be able to do something to ensure this wonderful stretch of countryside will be enjoyed by everyone well into the future. I am proud to have been involved with the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Stour Valley Project for fifteen years, the last nine as chair of the Joint Advisory Committee (JAC).  I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked to explain what AONBs are and what does the Project organisation actually do. AONBs are part of a group of nationally protected landscapes that include National Parks and Heritage coasts. Our Project area is around 117 square miles. AONBs are designated to ensure that the natural beauty and special qualities of an area are conserved and enhanced for future generations.

Much of the eastern end of Dedham Vale AONB is associated with the celebrated artist John Constable and many of the views he painted are recognisable today. Further west the area is connected to the nationally recognised artist, Thomas Gainsborough.

The local authorities in the AONB have a statutory duty to produce and review a five-yearly management plan. This is drawn up by a partnership of organisations that have an interest in the area, including the local authorities, and the work is co-ordinated by the project team, who also do similar work in the adjacent Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB.

The JAC comprises elected members and officers from the seven local authorities that fund the Project; a none executive board if you like. We also receive funding from the national Government through Defra.

The vision as set out in our current Management Plan is, ‘The AONB and Project area is a distinctive landscape with agriculture and wildlife at its core that retains its natural beauty and special qualities, which is conserved and enhanced by a wide-ranging partnership. It is an area where residents feel a strong sense of belonging, visitors are welcomed to enjoy the countryside and the heritage is understood and appreciated by all’.

Although tourism is not a responsibility of the AONB Project team, we are well aware of the economic impact visitors have on the Stour Valley and that the prime attraction is the very things that we are there to conserve and enhance.

Our visitors come from around the world but we must equally recognise that the population of north Essex and south Suffolk will continue to increase over the next few years and many of these people will want to enjoy, exercise and relax in and around this area. I am encouraged by the number of families, who having moved to the area, have discovered the Stour valley and enthuse to me about all the area has to offer and are as keen, as I am in a ‘Natural ‘ Health Service! I frequently quote Octavia Hill, the 19th century social reformer and one of the founders of the National Trust, who put it so vividly when she wrote, ‘the need for quiet, the need of air and, I believe, the sight of sky and things growing, seem human needs, common to all.’ 

Further information on our work at the AONB can be found on our website www.dedhamvalestourvalley.org

Recording of Professor John Thornes’ talk on Constable’s Skies

Professor John Thornes giving his talk in front of a screen.

Constable’s Skies – A talk by Professor John Thornes at Boat House Gallery, National Trust, Flatford on 6th March 2018.

Professor John Thornes, Professor of Applied Meteorology discusses the sky in John Constable’s paintings. To John Constable the sky was “the keynote”, the “standard of scale” and the “chief organ of sentiment” in landscape painting but how much meteorology did Constable understand? John Thornes, a professional academic meteorologist, discusses why the sky plays such an important part in Constable’s most famous representation of British landscape, The Haywain. Recorded by Stuart Bowditch.

John Thornes and Sarah Milne standing in front of Willy Lott's House, Flatford.

John Thornes and Sarah Milne standing in front of Willy Lott’s House, Flatford.

“I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.”

This week we’ve handed over the blog to Ordnance Survey Outdoor Champion Barbara Walshe, who lives in Boxted and said in the Gazette that her favourite walk is from Flatford to Dedham.

Barbara plans to walk the Essex Way as well as all sorts of other long distance paths. Read more below or on Barbara’s website www.barbsoutdoors.co.uk

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Barbara Walshe writes…

“I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.” Those words, spoken by Celia in ‘As You like It,’ remind me of the first time I stepped off the train at Manningtree in June 2015. The fields were bathed in the warm reds and oranges of the sunset. Though London was only an hour away, we felt we had escaped to some kind of Shakesepearean pastoral idyll. Just under six months later we had sold our flat in London and moved to Boxted near Colchester. My husband and I still work in London but we feel so lucky to be able to enjoy the beautiful countryside in this part of the world.

I have my parents to thank for my love of the outdoors. When I moved to London ten years ago to train to be a lawyer I don’t think I knew that the hours I spent in Richmond Park were not a luxury but were actually a necessity. The importance of time spent outside started to dawn on me when I began my training contract at my law firm and worked very long hours with quite a lot of stress. Going for a run or cycle in the park seemed to make me feel so much better after a tough week. More and more research is showing the positive effects on physical and mental health of being active and being outside. Fortunately, mental health is not the taboo subject it once was and I firmly believe that our own mental health is not something that we should ignore until we reach a crisis. We should consciously try to take care of our mental well-being. Making time to enjoy the outdoors is a crucial part of that.

As we get older we tend to lose our sense of adventure and our sense of wonder. It is so easy to slip into a routine and not take time to explore. When we moved to the Stour Valley I made a conscious decision to explore as much as I could and ordered some Ordnance Survey maps. When I received the paper maps, I discovered the wonderful OS Maps app that allowed me to check I was always on the right track. It was through this I became aware of the Ordnance Survey #GetOutside campaign and was delighted when my application to be a #GetOutside Champion for 2018 was accepted. Being a #GetOutside Champion allows me to combine my love of the outdoors and my belief in the mental health benefits of being outside with my enjoyment of the beautiful landscapes of the Stour Valley.

Through my website www.barbsoutdoors.co.uk I hope to inspire more people to #GetOutside by blogging about my adventures (big and small) and my thoughts on the outdoors. The River Stour Festival has so many fantastic events providing so many opportunities to #GetOutside and I am very much looking forward to attending events throughout 2018 and encouraging others to join me.

Fisher’s rainbow

Professor John E Thornes of the University of Birmingham will talk  about Constable’s Skies – before and after The Haywain?‘  at the Boat House Gallery Flatford on Tuesday 6th March at 2pm. Tickets from National Trust Flatford £8

In this blog post he explores John Constable’s painting of  a rainbow over Salisbury Catherdral. The Archdeacon John Fisher he refers to was once the Parish priest of Langham, at the side of the Stour, and that is where Constable and Fisher became friends.

John Thornes writes…

When and why was the puzzling rainbow in Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadow painted?

As part of Tate’s In Focus: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 by John Constable, I have been researching the rainbow and I have found new meteorological evidence that supports the theory that the rainbow was added over a year after the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy.

John Constable’s powers of observation and his thirst for meteorological knowledge propelled him to paint more natural-looking skies than nearly all other English artists before or since. In his own words:

‘Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?’

This experimental approach was certainly applied to the clouds and weather in Constable’s paintings, but it was not the case with all of his depictions of rainbows. Unlike clouds, rainbows are seen much less frequently in his work and may be considered more mysterious in their symbolic function. Although Constable knew that the sun must be directly behind the observer of a rainbow for the rainbow to be visible, this is plainly not so in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows , in which the sun’s rays emerge from the right of the composition. Why should Constable be such a perfectionist about the weather in his scenes – his accurately depicted clouds, the effect of wind and harmonic daylight – and yet be content to introduce a meteorologically inconsistent rainbow?

My theory is that Constable’s remarkable scientific knowledge enabled him, at a later date, to add a rainbow that corresponds to the time of his friend Archdeacon John Fisher’s death on the afternoon of 25 August 1832. Resting on Fisher’s house, ‘Leadenhall’, the rainbow in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows has been painted into a sky that is lit by sunlight coming from due west, which is confirmed by the way light illuminates the west front of the cathedral. A rainbow produced from this solar geometry and resting on Leadenhall would only have a height in the sky of up to about 22 degrees, and would occur in early August at around 5pm (GMT).

Constable has magnified the size of the cathedral and rendered the rainbow much taller than would have been possible. Solar geometry confirms that from the artist’s viewpoint close to the Longbridge, a full 42-degree rainbow resting on Leadenhall and arching over the cathedral would have been visible during the late afternoon of 25 August at around 7pm (GMT). This reasoning suggests that Constable expressly chose to add the rainbow to a painting in which the sun is not directly behind the viewer as a magnificent remembrance of his friend John Fisher.

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Stour

Stour, Dedham, Flatford, River Stour Festival

John Milne writes…

My wife is a painter and works for the National Trust. It was with her that I started to explore the valley of the Stour river.  I think we are both moved by trees and always have been. That response may be formal – in general landscape goes from side to side and trees go up and down. So for a painter a tree in a landscape is like a mark on a drawing. Our responses may have been to the increased unnaturalness of the post-industrial world we inhabit. We seek out trees in landscape because their scale reflects the human scale and their generally long lifespan appeals to us. Sarah can point to oaks around East Bergholt and Flatford which were there when Constable walked by. It may have been just a colour response – people feel happier, appear handsomer, just look better against a green leafy ground. The effect is doubled if water runs through the scene. The Stour valley is an uplifting place to be.

Stour, Dedham, Flatford, River Stour Festival

Of course on the Essex and Suffolk Stour we have the extra element of John Constable. He dominates the landscape as much as he reflects it. Constable’s childhood is just before the industrial revolution and his adult life takes place during it. He lived in East Bergholt and was schooled in Dedham, across the valley and across the Stour. His paintings often feel to me to be reflections on his walk to school – there’s my father’s mill, there’s Fen Lane, there’s the bargemen on the river, there’s our cart and horses. These images stayed with him even though he was in London. His work is a prism through which we see the landscape which both exists and for us – living long after the Industrial Revolution – is like a dream. If you take photographs in the Stour valley, especially close to Dedham and Flatford, you can’t help but find little glimpses of Constable in your pictures. Much has changed but many of the shapes remain – bends in the river, hand-fired brickwork, calves in a field, sometimes even the very same trees he saw. And this remains true though we are 180 years after Constable’s death.

John Milne

photos by John Milne ©2017

 

John Milne is a novelist, photographer and screenwriter. A version of this post was published at www.johnmilne.photography

Welcome to the River Stour Festival

Ruth Philo writes…

I am very pleased to welcome you to the new River Stour Festival and thank you for dropping by on our website. We now have leaflets ready for distribution across the whole of the Stour Valley in Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire and will be putting these out in December and January. Further events are being added as the year progresses so please check back on the website from time to time to see the updated programme.

The festival came about through a project The River Runs Through Us that I have been working on with sound artist Stuart Bowditch, which has involved a series of public walks and swims in 2017 as well as research for a short film that we are making about the river, supported by Arts Council England and the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project. It has been a fascinating project to undertake and we have met so many different people involved with the river in a myriad of ways. Stuart has been keeping a blog about the project on the website theriverrunsthroughus.uk where you can read individual stories. The Stour Valley is a rich area in many ways, geologically, historically, artistically and there are layers of connections to be found. There are the obvious ones with major artists John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough but there are many others to be found that not everyone knows about, with artists, writers, swimmers, walkers, historians, musicians, foragers, botanists, wild life people, birders, fishermen and women, archaeologists, sociologists, boating people, landscape and food specialists. In working on the project we visited other rivers including the Waveney and the Thames, both of which have festivals and I thought our river was equally deserving of being celebrated. I found a lot of other local people and organisations thought the same, so together we have formed a steering group to put on a festival that not only includes our own events but those by other organisations in the valley, curated together to make a rich celebration of place in the Stour Valley over the year.

 

 

 

In 2017 we ran public walks and swims on a number of topics, all of which sold out, including a Witchcraft Walk in Manningtree by Professor Alison Rowlands, a Wildlife Walk in Nayland by Darren Tansley of the Essex Wildlife Trust, a Painters Walk out of Constable Country by artist Simon Carter, a Foraging walk in Wrabness by forager and mushroom grower Matthew Rooney, a Wild Writing walk from Wissington to Wormingford with Dr James Canton, an East Country walk by Professor Jules Pretty and a couple of Wild Swims with the Dedham River Swimmers. These were all such rich experiences, where everyone could share their own experiences out in the landscape. The festival will build on these. I hope that you will join us on some of the events in 2018. You might event want to come onboard and help us with the festival organisation, we are currently looking for someone with financial experience who might help with our funding plans, but also other forms of help such as distributing leaflets, helping with events and publicity – if you are interested please get in touch through our contact page.

Ruth is a painter and filmmaker and is both the director of the festival and its originator. See her work at http://www.ruthphilo.co.uk