Shotley to Dedham
The rain is lashing down at the quayside in Shotley as the ferry to Hook of Holland bludgeons its way down the estuary and a lone swan serenely rides out the storm. We are not expecting a big turnout for the days 17 mile trek up the River Stour into Constable country, but a handful of hardy souls appear and we set off. John is rejuvenated by his ankle treatment yesterday, but is reading the sobering list of side effects that the drugs can have. Violent diarrhoea and projectile vomiting are mentioned. I don’t know whether to tuck in behind or keep ahead, but my painful right foot soon dictates the former and I am once again falling behind.
Fortunately I have Emma for company. She’s from Stutton which is about ten miles up the riverside path and knows all the best beaches and where to detour to see them. Large oyster shells litter the sand around the high tide mark. The water is receding and is soon populated by curlews, gulls and a few avocets. Stutton is a quiet rural backwater, Emma explains, where nothing much ever happens. There is annual flower show at which she managed to snatch the prestigious fourth place in the beetroot competition one year. “I won twelve pence and a certificate which I’ve framed.” There are thatched houses adorned with roses, a herd of black alpacas and an atmosphere of deep English tranquillity. Emma grows potatoes in buckets that do extremely well because of the compost she uses.
“I got hold of it after the police raided the cannabis farm. It’s a special variety.”
Cannabis farm? I thought Stutton was a haven of tradition and peace?
“It wasn’t in the village, but a neighbour did get convicted of drug dealing.”
Any other criminal activity? She shakes her head, “No, not really – except for the woman who bashed her husband’s head in with a claw hammer.”
Stutton is sounding more and more like a location for Midsummer Murders. We come to a fence across the path. “It’s been diverted away from the river. I’m not sure why. The land down there is owned by some wealthy residents.”
We pass some idyllic lawns that are being cut. Children play tennis behind hedges. The sun comes out and the flints in the church walls sparkle. Unfortunately the door is locked. Why would a door be locked in a village where nothing ever happens? It seems like previous visitors have also had to wait here because the stone columns either side of the magnificent oak timbers are heavily graffitied. I.S carved his initials here in 1600; W.M did the same in 1632, BB had a go in 1675 and SC in 1899. In fact, Stutton seems to have suffered a plague of defacement for over four centuries. We move on swiftly. Perhaps idyllic bucolic England isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
As the miles go by, we are soaked repeatedly by short savage showers, then warmed by sunny spells. Emma heads home and we meet Jenny who shows us a favourite tree, a fallen giant whose whitened skeleton sits on the sandy shore of the estuary. All along here are huge trees that have been felled by the tides. How far is Essex, I ask. Jenny points to the distant power lines. “Beyond those.”
The border between Suffolk and Essex is the Stour and further on I am expecting Constable country, the epitome of rural tranquillity, where the artist found a romantic slice of our countryside that had survived the onset of the Industrial Revolution. But then we cross a railway and come across a derelict factory protected by a security fence. There’s a pungent smell of glue and round the back lorries being loaded with bulk containers. It’s not the kind of thing Constable painted, but a couple of miles on we are back in countryside and reach Flatford Mill. It is perfectly kept, exactly as the artist might remember when his Dad bought it, a charming confection of thatch, curving walls, reeds and gentle clear water.
We cross via the old wooden bridge and head through flower meadows and the air is filled with skylark song, all the way to Dedham where we finish for the day. John has made it intact, without side effects. Mike, our photographer and back up, is there waiting. He has got over a damaging incident where the keys to Butley village hall went missing, although we try to remind him regularly. The sun is out, a bicycle rattles past with a wickerwork basket on the front laden with vegetables, and an old lady totters up the picture-perfect street and into the village shop. This is, I reflect, olde England. Behind her in the queue, I notice she has picked out limes and mint leaves. “Cooking something?” asks the assistant.
She laughs. “Are you kidding me? I’m making mojitos.”
Beach of Dreams Blog
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Route: Walk 10
Gallery of the Miles
See all the mapped miles on the Storymap, find a selection below. Slideshow images are by Mike Johnston.