Epic Vale! Exploring the English countryside and Colchester’s Jewish roots

Epic Vale! Exploring the English countryside and Colchester’s Jewish roots

We discover the sweeping beauty of Dedham Vale and Constable Country and finds out more about Colchester’s Jewish roots

A winters morning in Dedham Vale, Essex, UK
A winters morning in Dedham Vale, Essex, UK

You don’t need to go far to escape the hustle and bustle of London life to explore the beauty of the British countryside. 

A mere 90 minutes’ drive from north London up the A12 lies Constable Country on the Suffolk-Essex borders. It’s a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where artist John Constable was born and where he painted many of his most celebrated works, including The Hay Wain.

With the kids bundled in the back of the car, we were all excited about our much-needed escape. The gruelling school exams over, I wanted some peace, fresh air and a change of scenery. We were off to one of my favourite destinations in the Dedham Vale, which is dotted with chocolate box villages and cream teas.

Maison Talbooth, which is part of Milsom Hotels, is well-known in the area as the luxury boutique hotel boasting an outdoor heated pool and its own award-winning, fine dining restaurant, Le Talbooth.

But on our latest visit to the area, we opted for a new addition to the Milsom collection, Idle Waters. This timber-framed 16th-century cottage has recently undergone extensive renovation and is perfect for guests and small groups looking for something that little bit more private, complete with two en-suite double bedrooms.

Idle Waters

Quaint and historic, the cottage actually features in Constable’s painting, The Vale of Dedham. Inside, visitors can expect a décor that is chic and luxurious with all mod-cons at hand, yet cosy too with exposed beams, thick pile carpet, fur throws on massive comfy beds and an original inglenook fireplace.

The real pièce de résistance, however, was the view. From the huge bay windows, we gazed in admiration at a majestic weeping willow and a quaint bridge crossing over the River Stour. It’s small wonder that Constable and other artists were drawn to the beauty of this landscape.

Another nice surprise was the hamper awaiting us, complete with provisions for a continental breakfast.

There’s a fully-equipped kitchen too, but we ate at Milsoms, their other boutique hotel situated just minutes’ walk away, for dinner and breakfast.

This is a foodie part of the world and the brasserie follows firmly in the footsteps of its sister restaurant, Le Talbooth, so it would have been rude not to try it. Sated on fantastic food, we slept like babies, ready for walks in our wellies the next day.

Some of the fine cuisine on offer at Le Talbooth

The Stour Valley Path, which winds along 60 miles of beautiful countryside in Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire, runs right from the door of Idle Waters.

We took the shortest walk through the woods, building dens until the kids tired, before we headed for the pretty hamlet of Flatford, where you can learn more about Constable’s life and work.

From Flatford Mill, once owned by the artist’s family, to Flatford Bridge Cottage, where he was born, history, art and nature combine to make for a fascinating visit. There’s also a little gift shop and attractive tea room sitting directly on the river bank.

We made our way to our next destination, Colchester, which is just 20 minutes from Dedham Vale and boasts a Jewish past and present.

The community in Colchester flourished in medieval times up to the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, before a later community was re-established in the late 1800s after they were allowed to return.

Caron and her family enjoy a short break in Constable Country

A synagogue was established and the first Jewish marriage of Samuel Levy, late of Bury, to a Kitty, daughter of Isaac Abrahams of Colchester, was recorded.

Jews were welcomed and rapidly grew in number to become half of the overall population of the town, bringing with them two kosher butchers, a kosher bakery and Jewish resorts and summer camps.

The community today is fewer in number, with services run by the Colchester and District Jewish Community.

Before heading back to London, an obligatory stop at Colchester Zoo was made.

Now, I’m no zoologist and my last foray to London Zoo was admittedly in the dark for the Christmas lights trail, but I was blown away by the sheer size and variety of animal population seen in their natural habitat. I cannot remember ever having fed a giraffe either!

We saw lions and tigers up close, enormous rhinos, and the children especially enjoyed the interactive areas dedicated to sea, river life and insects.

From sweeping natural beauty to nature at its best, we’re sure to return to this corner of England once more.

Caron’s travel tips

Caron and her family stayed at Idle Waters, Dedham, Essex, where prices start from £250 per night for four people. Access to the spa at Le Talbooth and the pool house is available with prior arrangement. Details: milsomhotels.com

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