Dedham is famous for being the gateway to Constable country, but Lilian Pizzichini finds plenty more to see in this Essex village
On Sunday afternoons in the Essex village of Dedham, after a packed- out morning service at St Mary's parish church and drinks at Gould House, David Wood's home-cum-art gallery, the unmistakable smell of roasting joints of meat is almost overpowering.

The crescent-moon shaped High Street is gently buzzing with last-minute, pre-prandial activity; its 16th-century, gabled houses, painted Suffolk pink, disgorging a thriving community of lawyers, architects and business folk. Four hundred years previously, the scene would have been much the same - the vicar bidding farewell to his parishioners under the massive stone archway decorated in 1492 with Tudor roses,and wealthy cloth-traders going about their parochial duties.

And this is the charm of bourgeois Dedham, this and the fact that it was immortalised by one of Britain's greatest landscape painters, and is now best known as the entrance to Constable country.

In the 15th century, Dedham was a wool-producing town rich enough to build its own church. It owes its prime trading position to the Black Brook that flows from springs in the neighbouring hamlet of Langham and which, after encircling Dedham, falls into the river Stour. Now it is a tiny, leisurely village - consisting of a high street, fields, and a scattering of houses. It boasts a pub, The Sun, whose roofed staircase with dovecote is unique in surviving Essex inns, and a prosperous, self- contained community.

So self-contained that the only tourists who frequent this area come from nearby, rather than far and wide. As the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner once remarked: "There is nothing to hurt the eye in Dedham." Understandably, its inhabitants want to keep it that way. Cars are not encouraged, as the streets are narrow and winding, barges no longer work the river, so the best way to get there is by foot, from Manningtree station.

I ignored the farm track marked "Private" that leads out of the station carpark and followed a ditch towards the shimmering ash-green leaves of a cluster of trees; then, over cornfields and a willow copse until the remains of Dedham Old River reared up, its former watercourse still marking the county boundary of Essex and Suffolk. From a plateau of cultivated fields (and following the hedge on my left) St Mary's church tower dominated the skyline, the village gradually unfolding beneath it.

Then, it was over a wooden stile into fields full of glossy Jersey cows that eventually gave way to boggy marshland (ducks and geese gliding in and out of reed-banks), and on to a hawthorn-edged track that enters Dedham at the eastern end of its high street. The Marlborough Head (sister to The Sun) beckoned on my left. Opposite is a fine Georgian-fronted building which was once the grammar school that educated Dedham's favourite alumnus, John Constable. Every day, he would cross the meadows that border Dedham to Flatford where he lived, and later, he sketched and painted the landscape.

Once I had traversed the High Street, supped at The Sun, noting its timbered interior and slumbering open fires, and taken tea at the rather self-consciously camp Essex Rose Tea Rooms, it was time to take a closer look at St Mary's. The 130ft tower had announced its presence at least a mile away but its bells chime the hours just in case you fail to notice its imposing presence. The walls are faced with stone from Caen, and local flint was used for the tower, commissioned by Margaret, the mother of Henry VII. Carved oak pews, memorial stones and stained-glass windows are testament to a rich history encompassing the story of Queen Elizabeth I's appointment of Protestant "Lecturers" in 1578. There is also a bust John "Roaring" Rogers, the Protestant reformer, in the chancel's north wall. If the vicar isn't busy (he was interviewing newly affianced couples when I was there) he will take you into the tower where you can climb the stairs and read graffiti carved by the original builders.

The churchyard is no less impressive - massive, dark-leaved yew trees are dotted around the stone tombs and a cricket pitch spreads out beyond. But Dedham had one more surprise for me; 200 yards south of the Church, in a groove in the valley, are the timber-framed, chocolate-box pink Flemish Cottages. Formerly a medieval cloth factory, they were built in stages as the cloth industry expanded and parts date back to the 12th century. The factory was converted into cottages around 1800. The dainty, pink- hued courtyard is open to the public; an ancient pump, if worked energetically, still dribbles water. Within the tiny, olde-worlde enclave of this cobbled yard an atmosphere of quiet industry prevails, even though I could see through the leaded windows of its cottages that its occupants were mostly pensioners.

Now I really had exhausted Dedham, so I took to the waters in a rowing- boat hired from the boatyard opposite what was once Dedham Mill (now yuppie apartments). But I could still fantasise that I was in Constable's era because the lock basin was full of cows - ranging in colour from mahogany to bluey black - which were sipping from and dipping their hooves in the shallows. From here, it takes an hour's gentle rowing to reach the epicentre of Constable country: Flatford Mill.

Luckily, I was accompanied by a willing and able-bodied rower, so all I had to do was float along the mushy-green Stour, feed my sandwiches to clamouring ducks and admire the gloriously bucolic view. The river once formed the ancient division between the Kingdom of East Anglia and the County of Essex; now it splits in two the meadows and woods of Dedham Vale. The lapping of water and the splash of paddles was the only soundtrack, and the only other travellers were tourists armed with Constable prints in search of his beloved locations.

The man who once wrote: "I love every stile and stump and lane ... these scenes made me a painter," would perhaps be alarmed to find Flatford, its raised wooden bridge and the thatched and beamed Willy Lott's Cottage now presided over by a National Trust field-study centre, information "complex" and tea shop. Still, he can rest assured that the surrounding landscape has been untouched by any industrial activity since the wool trade died out, and farming methods are strictly traditional.

So the banks of the river are flourishing with reeds and meadow flowers; the stately elms and ashes have been left to grow tall. An hour's rowing on the Stour, between Dedham and Flatford, before the river meets its final resting-place in the North Sea, will transport you into a world in which "Information" and study are superfluous. But, in case you're interested, the viewpoint from which Constable painted The Hay-Wain is by the left-hand gatepost of Willy Lott's Cottage, looking across the Mill Pool.

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