Best Rides: The Painters Trail, a tour of 'Constable Country' on the border of Essex and Suffolk

Mike Cavenett guides us round 'The Painters Trail', a 69-mile route through 'Constable Country' along the idyllic River Stour on the border of Essex and Suffolk. Download GPX file.

What will I see?
Cycle through the scenery that inspired some of the world's greatest landscape painters: most famously John Constable, but also Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Alfred Munnings. The ride rarely strays far from the River Stour, which forms the border between Essex and Suffolk, and flows gently from west to east where its estuary eventually joins the North Sea.

The surrounding countryside is picturebook England, with lush green riverbanks and meadows, rolling farmland, and many thatched roofs, not to mention an abundance of pretty weatherboard and half-timbered houses, often radiant in purple Wisteria.

What are the highlights?
Most people will want to tick off Flatford Mill (pictured top) and Dedham. Near Flatford is the stretch of the Stour where Constable painted 'The Haywain', one of the best-known pastoral scenes ever committed to canvas. Dedham is a charming small town with good eating options and easy access from the railway station at Manningtree. There's an easy three-mile circular walk between Dedham and Flatford, which makes a fabulous evening stroll when the crowds have gone home.

Who's the route sultable for?
The full route of The Painters Trail is 69 miles through rolling Essex country lanes, but the route can very easily be shortened or broken up into a multi-day ride (see map). The lack of major hills and abundance of quiet roads, apart from a few short stretches of A-road, make the route suitable for most fitness and confidence levels. The many small lanes do mean the route can be tricky to navigate without a good map (OS Landranger 155 & 169) or GPS.

How to get there?
Trains to Manningtree in Essex leave Liverpool Street two to three times per hour and take just over an hour. Bicycles (including tandems) are permitted on regular trains outside peak times without reservation, but on the faster inter-city trains they must be booked 24 hours in advance. Check the Greater Anglia website for details of its cycle policy. We travelled with a tandem on weekday afternoon, coming back on a Saturday afternoon, and both trains were nearly deserted. Dedham is a 20 to 30-minute cycle away from Manningtree, with a couple of short hills.

Travel tip
Exit Manningtree station via the back of the car park to shorten the route to Dedham and avoid the busy A-road on the edge of Manningtree. Head west, then south and then west again through quiet lanes towards Dedham. 

More rides in the area?
The Company Shed in West Mersea is a fabulously rustic restaurant where you can indulge in delicious, keenly-priced seafood (take your own booze). There's many a posh central London eaterie that sources oysters and lobster from this Essex institution, but you get to eat them straight from the sea at a fraction of the price. West Mersea is only 12 miles or so south-east of Dedham as the crow flies, but the quiet, largely flat lanes east of Colchester could easily provide a whole day's outing.

Watch out for high tides while crossing The Strood over to West Mersea island because the tarmac causeway is regularly inundated. The Shed doesn't take bookings and the last seating is at 4pm so don't arrive too late on busy days.

The area to the north of the Stour Estuary, in the south-east portion of Suffolk, offers less visited but no less appealing countryside. Find out more by downloading the official Suffolk cycling leaflet.

Where to stay
The Sun in Dedham is a wooden-beamed friendly pub offering good-quality accommodation (including one room with a four-poster bed), with excellent food choices. The pub is well populated by locals as well as tourists, and the restaurant does good-value set menus and less expensive bar food.

Camping is available at Rushbanks Farm in the village of Nayland, with pitches right on the banks of the River Stour, while Grove Cottages rents out charming self-catering cottages all around the area.

Bike shops and hire
Bike shops are few and far between along the River Stour, so check your bike carefully before you leave and bring spares. Graham, who runs the Bike Doctor in East Bergholt (01206 298646), works out of a local garage and offers repairs and parts, and might travel if you're stuck and not too far away. Meanwhile, Sudbury at the western end of the route has a Halfords. Off route to the south, Colchester has a number of cycle shops and hire locations.

Food and drink
As mentioned, The Sun does an excellent-value set menu in its restaurant, while The Boathouse on the riverside offers decent food, though not always with a view. The banks of the River Stour en route provide the perfect picnic location, and are accessible by numerous grassy paths if you're prepared to deviate from the main route and travel on foot a while.

The Anchor pub in Nayland has a lovely riverside setting and takes pride in its traditionally smoked fish and fine ales. If you can't make it to West Mersea, the Mistley Thorn pub/restaurant east of Manningtree might satisfy your local seafood cravings.

What else could we do?
Rowing boat and canoe hire on the River Stour are popular pastimes, and there are hundreds of miles of quiet public footpaths throughout Dedham Vale and the Stour valley.

There are several galleries in Dedham, including the Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum and the Dedham Art & Craft Centre. Manningtree has a number of craft and art galleries too. Countywide, Essex organises a Summer of Art festival, from June to October.

Although you'll see plenty of copies around, why not take a quick trip to National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (free) to check out some great British works of art inspired by this verdant countryside? Room 34, where you'll find the Haywain, is just a five-minute walk from the gallery's main entrance.

Where can I get more info?
There's an official guide to The Painters Trail, but it's only available as a paper booklet that costs £3.50 from tourist information centres in Essex, and it's out of date. Trip Advisor for accommodation and eating options is a safer bet. Cool Pedals organises two or three-day guided cycle tours of the region.

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