The Painters Trail is a seventy-mile roam of Suffolk back lanes that follows the Stour Valley in the oily footsteps of some famous daubers, chiefly Constable and Gainsborough. From the saddle you can enjoy the same views they did over two hundred years ago – all virtually unchanged, except for electricity pylons, telegraph poles, housing developments, industrial estates, and blooming cars everywhere.
I travelled last night and stayed in a Travelodge outside Ipswich. On the train down from York, as usual, I reserved my bike space to ensure no problems. As usual, there were problems. I couldn’t fit my bike in the cupboard because it was full of luggage. So I turfed out the cases and bags. Then I still couldn’t fit my bike in the cupboard, because the designers haven’t made it big enough.
Anyway, this morning I joined the Trail at East Bergholt, birthplace of landscape great John Constable (1776–1837). I enjoyed recreating the views in some of his paintings, starting with the village church. His working method was to do a few sketches in situ, and work on the painting itself in his studio. He’d have to be a very quick drawer today, because if you stand in the road you have about ten seconds’ window between passing SUVs en route to Waitrose in Colchester.
Constable’s most famous associations are with Flatford Mill. I was there before the cafe opened and had the place to myself, trying to reframe his well-known pictures of the waterside and its buildings.
These include The Hay Wain, featuring an inadvisable-looking ford attempt by a big farm cart. I can identify with this, having come a cropper while attempting an overambitious MTB crossing of the ford in Clumber Park, out Mansfield way, in 2002.
Having emulated various views of Willy Lott’s cottage and the Mill, only with my bike in the foreground, I considered Constable done for the morning, and carried on clockwise round the Painters Trail to Manningtree and Dedham.
That was the home of Alfred Munnings (1878–1959), who got rich painting horses for the upper class in bright colours, as if someone has overdone a Photoshop saturation filter; his house and studio is now a museum, though it was closed for the winter when I passed.
Alf became pres of the Royal Academy, but it all went wrong in 1949. Emboldened by a few ports too many, his after-dinner speech slagged off modernism and boasted that he and Churchill – who was sitting next to him, and presumably was no stranger to the cognacs himself – would go round and kick Picasso and Cézanne “in the something somethings”.
Unfortunately for Alf, his speech went out on the radio, and for many art lovers confirmed the RA’s reputation as stuffy, behind the times, and snobbish.
I followed the Trail on lovely untrafficked back lanes, and a few just-about-OK bits of bridleway. It’s well thought out. I passed dozens of pretty half-timbered houses, cottages and farmsteads in liquorice-allsort colours: black and white, caramel and black, yellow and black, orange and black.
I also passed a Mini with its front wheels half-submerged in a roadside bog, as if it had been imitating that amphibious hay wain. It was either crashed or clumsily parked, but temporarily abandoned either way. And I went past a few water works that looked like art-deco power stations; goodness knows what progress-sceptic Alf made of those.
After a lot of laney views of the Stour Valley, rolling in gentle green waves up or down in the middle distance, I got to Sudbury. This was the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), mainly known as a portraitist to the toffs. His home is now a museum, which I’d visit tomorrow; but just outside Sudbury, on the way in through Bulmer Tye, is a tantalising glimpse of one of his most famous works. Mr and Mrs Andrews depicts the landowner pair with their territory laid out behind them.
The pair don’t come off well in Gainsborough’s stealthy skewering of the snooty privileged. Mr A sneers at us, eyebrows arched like an upper-class Tory MP lecturing the poor on how to survive on fifty pee a day, his gun cocked ready to bully you off his land. Mrs A, seated, has the smug grin of the gold-digger who’s struck lucky and ain’t gonna share none of it with you. An empty space is on her lap, left unfinished by Tom for an unknown reason. What would have gone there? A baby? A pet rabbit? A bunch of flowers? A book, perhaps arguing against Abolition?
Sadly, the spot where they were painted is on private property in the Auberies estate, and stern warnings make it clear to keep out. But maybe that’s appropriate.
Before heading to my Airbnb, I had a couple of beers and a burger in Wetherspoon. I can just imagine what Mr and Mrs A would have thought of that idea.