It’s not often that you would sit down to plan out a paddle, with images of winding rivers and beautiful vales in mind, only to reach the eventual conclusion that you should take a trip to Essex.
But this beautiful, often overlooked gem which neighbours the English capital is full of all that and a whole lot more; from far reaching piers to long beaches attracting crowds in the thousands when the sun pops its best hat on.
Essex actually has the most coast of any UK county, offering a full 350 miles. Make the trip inland from any of the marshy estuaries the county is littered with and you’ll be sure to find incredible, lush fields bordering meandering waterways that have carved their way through thousands of hectares of pristine farmland and areas of natural beauty.
For this trip, our attention is firmly focused on the waterways of the Stour, a calm river which starts its life 15 miles from Cambridge and runs along the border of Suffolk and Essex, making its way to the North Sea via Dedham Vale - the area made famous by English Landscape painter John Constable. Born just two miles from the edge of the National Trust run area of outstanding natural beauty, commonly known as Constable country; John Constable made a concerted effort to express his fondness for the surrounding areas by immortalising them in oil on canvas, once saying "I should paint my own places best".
The idyllic surroundings and still waters encapsulated by Constable's paintings were the inspiration to make the often-walked journey along the banks of the Stour from Flatford Mill through to Stratford St Mary. And the calm river is perfectly suited to stand-up paddle boarding, so it only made sense to make the step off dry land via the jetty opposite Flatford Mill and onto the inflatable paddle boards, along with a camera neatly packed away in a dry bag.
"We make ready a water bowl for the fourth member of our paddle board armada, Cooper, the Harrier hound with a penchant for seafaring vessels"
Before even a sniff of a river registers on the senses, the journey out to Flatford Mill is one of pure delight. The abundance of country lanes that twist and turn through the lush Essex and Suffolk countryside leave your eyes exhausted from the multitude of greens and yellows, blanketing the fields as far the eye can see, and the trees which loom over the tarmac which leads you to your destination. The wide country lanes slim and gradually become tight single track winding down to a rugged carpark covered by a leafy canopy.
As we disembark from the van, we make ready a water bowl for the fourth member of our paddle board armada, Cooper, the Harrier hound with a penchant for seafaring vessels. With the canine hydrated and the flip flops on, it's time to unzip the bags keeping the boards cosy and coiled up. Unravelling onto the rough aggregate of the car park, the pumps are attached and before you know it the Red Paddle boards are ready for their next voyage; the River Stour.
So with leashes attached and dry bag packed with all the essentials (not to mention the handy waterproof phone cases on lanyards) the boards are lowered into the calm waters under the watchful eye of a great many visitors as they devour cream teas by the kilo.
If you haven’t paddle boarded before, the non tidal waters of this part of the Stour really are the perfect place to get to grips before taking things out to the open water or the coast (I speak from experience, a very soggy and chilly experience). The first stretch of water is also great for a spot of limbo, especially if you end up taking a slightly wide line under the bridge which links Flatford Mill to the footpath leading onto Dedham Vale.
Just minutes into the journey and you’re immediately met with an expanse of verdant fields peppered with monochromatic cows grazing along the river banks, and spread across the landscape. These free-roaming four-legged locals are often unwittingly mistaken as entertainment for bold dogs with big character.
Not only will you find plenty of four legged friends as the river cuts its way through the Dedham Vale, but there are plenty of visitors on their own journeys, some out for long rambles, sticks in hand and wide-brim hats on head, others using the path running along the Stour as a commute back from Manningtree, the last port of call as the Stour flows into the North Sea.
As navigating the winding waters gradually sees you move past the weir at Dedham, past the moored pleasure boats for rowing down the stretch between Flatford and the town at the heart of the Vale, the banks begin to become more wild, trees loom unencumbered by felling or footpath over the shimmering mirror in front.
Willows and Poplar help shroud private gardens ending with small jettys to the Stour, and on passing two large concrete arches supporting the roads overhead, sounds of contemporary life are hurriedly expunged from the senses. The glisten from dappled light reflecting onto the rough concrete finish makes for a mesmerising display of organic patterns on a very manmade canvas.
Dismounting from the boards on only two occasions to pass either weir or lock, is made very easy by the boards' lightness and balance. It is not helped by an eager puppy on deck however. No human overboard but a few leaps from the canine kept everyone on their toes squatting for balance, and made the heart race as some sections of still, clear water offered insight into what lies beneath; old roots, hard debris and now derelict foundations of old walkways.
In only five hours pretty good progress can be made - just make sure to take into account the return journey.
We finished our paddle as the light made its way down and cast the long shadows you’d expect from golden hour. And as the boards were packed down, and ducklings were spotted chasing their momma downstream, a final destination of East Bergholt was set, where a local pub meal was on the menu.
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