Updated: Feb 24, 2020
There are many good places to swim in Essex, especially on the coast, being mindful of the high tide to avoid muddy shallow estuaries. Today I am not on the coast, far from it. I have driven to Dedham Vale, Place of Outstanding Natural Beauty (it is official, therefore capitalised), Constable Country. This is also capitalized, to make it a place tourists want to come to, like The Cotswolds. A few years ago the District Council in the area where I live just west of Oxford decided to rebrand itself as the ‘Oxfordshire Cotswolds’ as if that alone would bring in the tourists – you can imagine ‘The Oxfordshire Cotswolds, right next to the Real Cotswolds – be almost in the Cotswolds’. No-one is taken in. Life goes on, and the tourists still go to the Cotswolds. Similarly Constable Country. John Constable lived (some of his life) and painted here (some of his life), and left a legacy of a reimagined English countryside. Not dramatic of itself, but a stage upon which dramas play and play out. His most successful and popular paintings, like the Haywain, are small local dramas which play out in the splendour of the transforming countryside – there are boats, locks, signs of the impending modernisation of the countryside. There are little people, often with a red coat (a painter’s device to enliven a canvas) often at work, sometimes at play, fishing, bathing, their little lives become much bigger, ennobled, on this stage of the rural every-day. Sometimes the drama is the sky – a big sky where you can see the dark clouds, rain and thunder rolling in from as far away as a day’s walk, maybe twenty kilometres or so. This is the everyday drama when I arrive – will it, won’t it rain? “No, you have plenty of time, the rain is veering south and should miss us” says the guide at the National Trust car park at Flatford Mill. The name is made famous by a thousand reproductions of two handfuls of paintings by Constable, and then a thousand reproductions of those thousand reproductions. Probably many more reproductions than that. So you get to Flatford Mill feeling you have been here before, maybe a couple of hundred years ago, in a different season. The weather today has changed from Autumn to Winter, and my mind has flipped centuries back and centuries forward again. I was here a decade ago, when Pauline and I came with my in-laws, Brenda and Phil, to spend a weekend looking for the scenes in the catalogue from a recent Constable exhibition at Tate Britain. The catalogue has maps of where Constable painted to various paintings in the exhibition, we all love art, we all love being in the outdoors, so it made a good project around which to hang a pleasant weekend break from Oxford. Today, it’s more serious. Brenda has recently had some major surgery, and with concern about her, the previous Dedham visit is brought firmly to mind. It had been an excellent trip. Today I would swim the river I had longed to swim then, but didn’t, the River Stour.
Seeing the church tower in the distance, as in Constable’s paintings is, admittedly, a thrill. I find a beach away that is sufficiently from people, even in this flat landscape, a beach with some stumps of deteriorating wood, hopefully enough is solid down there to get a foot hold. Yes, I can get in, sort of – I quickly became glad that I put some swim shoes on. It is muddy and my feet sink, but not too far. Then I am stuck, and the only way to work this now is to bend knees and push out into the river, which is flowing, but not too much. The bite of the water is not severe, and it is good to get out of the mud, which washes off quickly. I swim upstream with a view to look at the view, which changes with each gentle turn of the river. I can see why people swim here. Especially in Summer, which is the time of year we were here with Brenda and Phil.
I didn’t swim in the River Stour last time I was here, but have made an important shift in my life. I spend many years looking at open water longing to be in it. Now I have less longing, more swimming. My parting thoughts satisfy me, as I dress and drink tea from my flask – again I think ‘It is better to swim in the river now, than to spend a lifetime regretting that I never swam in the river’.