The Essex Way is a walk very much about history, and it is the townships and buildings on the route which provide most of the interest along the path. There are some hints of medieval times but the history which can be seen today really starts with the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century. William of Normandy rewarded his faithful French barons with tracts of land, many of them in Essex. This particular section cruises northeast from West Bergholt and across farmland to the River Stour and the achingly beautiful Vale of Dedham which proved such an inspiration to the artist John Constable.
A great deal of this last section is on either roads or metalled pathways, but some fine views over the Vale of Dedham make up for this at the end. The route leaves town along the drive to Armoury Farm, and then goes into open fields. Due to the mildly undulating nature of the land in this vicinity, navigation across these fields can be somewhat tricky as the route heads northeast towards Horkesley Heath. Just to the west are the ramparts of Pitchbury Castle, defensive earthworks dating back
to the Iron Age. Continue into Horkesley Heath and turn left on the A134 Colchester-to-Sudbury.
The route turns right along Ivy Lodge Road, and follows this for about 0.25 mile (400m). At the
bottom of the hill, a footpath on the left leads northwards along a grassy meadow to a couple of small cottages.
From there the path becomes a proper track, and continues past two small reservoirs on the left. After a right turn and a short spell in a wood, this track reaches a road by a pair of houses. The countryside along this stretch is rather flat and featureless, offering no hint of the beautiful views into Dedham Vale waiting only a mile (1.6km) or so up the road.
Turn left along Boxted Lane and then right along Holly Lane; the route eventually passes Holly Lodge Farm. The path goes through the farm buildings and carries on across a field to the left by a line of low trees to reach a minor road. Turn right then leave the road on a track to the left waymarked to Dedham
Vale Vineyard, an excellent place to stop for some refreshment.
Passing the vineyard and reaching a road, turn right and then first left along a lane signposted to Nayland. Turn first right onto a track heading for Boxted Hall Farm. The route goes along the north side of the hall and alongside a field to St Peter’s Church at Boxted, which is noted for the reddish
‘puddingstone’ in the Norman tower.
Passing the old school on the northern side of the church, the route then joins a small road running through trees and past some pleasant houses. Suddenly, the Vale of Dedham comes into view to the north, and one can immediately see why John Constable was so inspired to paint his pictures. Where the road begins to descend, a track leads off right through the trees, which takes the walker into a lush valley with a large expanse of water on the right. The track then ascends to the fine estate of Rivers Hall, where some considerable effort has gone into routing the walker around its far reaches.
From the top of the drive there is another 0.25 miles (400m) of road-walking, and then the route turns eastwards across the middle of some mighty fields. For a short while the Essex Way follows the driveway of Plumb’s Farm, then there are more fields to cross as it descends very slowly into the Vale.
After following the base of an area of woodland, the track turns sharp right to climb to Langham Hall and, beforethat, Langham Church, once one of John Constable’s favourite haunts. It was from here that he painted ‘Dedham Vale’, which hangs in the National Gallery in London. The church has a resident cat called Jerry whom you are almost certain to meet if you visit. Be sure to let him out afterwards if he takes you on a tour of the nave, as he is wont to do. From the church, a pleasant tree-lined drive leads to a road, which crosses over the A12 main road to Ipswich.
Shortly after crossing this busy trunk road, a left turn into the driveway of Milsoms Hotel leads to a footpath that descends to the banks of the River Stour. Although nothing more than a small river at this point, in just a few miles it opens out into a large estuary. The final mile (1.6km), along the riverside, leads straight into Dedham itself; another old wool town considered to be the heart of ‘Constable Country’. Aficionados may recognise the Church of St Mary. The old grammar school at the side of the churchyard square, built in 1732, was attended by John Constable, who had been very unhappy at school in Lavenham.
Lanes, field footpaths, farm tracks
Orchard, farmland, river, lovely Dedham Vale
On lead when near livestock or on roads
OS Explorer 184, 196
Plentiful on street parking at start in West Bergholt
None on route
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Essex is full of pleasant surprises. It has the largest coastline of any county in England, with its fair share of castles, royal connections and scenic valleys. Take Colchester, for example, which was built by the Romans and is Britain’s oldest recorded town. Its castle contains the country’s largest Norman keep and yet, a stone’s throw from here, East Anglia’s newest arts centre promises to put Colchester firmly on the map as Essex’s capital of culture.
Tidal estuaries are plentiful and their mudflats offer migrating birds a winter feeding place. Essex was known as the land of the East Saxons and for centuries people from all over Europe settled here, each wave leaving its own distinctive cultural and social mark on the landscape. Walking a little off the beaten track will lead you to the rural retreats of deepest Essex, while all over the county there are ancient monuments to explore:
- the great Waltham Abbey
- Greensted, thought to be the oldest wooden church in the world
- the delightful village of Pleshey has one of the finest examples of a former motte-and-bailey castle
- Hedingham Castle, magnificently preserved and dating from the 11th century.