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S for Stour Valley

The valley of the river Stour on the Suffolk Essex border covers around 300 square kilometres of quintessential lowland English landscape and includes the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  The appearance of the Stour Valley results from millennia of human interaction with the natural environment as evidenced by cropmarks showing the sites of prehistoric settlements, and burial places.

The river was important historically for trade as it provided a ready-made highway and was probably used by the Romans from the estuary as far up as Long Melford. Sudbury and Haverhill are the largest towns, but most of the valley is characterised by the river meandering through grazing meadows with small fields bounded by ancient hedgerows and trees, and picturesque villages with timber-framed houses and historic churches. Local building materials; timber, wattle and daub, and brick influence both building design and decorative features.  Pargetting, stone and brick dressings and colour washing are all prevalent.

The Stour is the most famous of Suffolk’s navigations as its barges and locks were depicted in paintings by John Constable.  The River Stour Navigation Act was passed on 16th Feb 1705 to make the river navigable from Manningtree in Essex to Sudbury in Suffolk.  The improved natural course of the river was opened in 1709, following the construction of various locks, sluices etc.  The first mention of trade was the movement of 2,211 tons of coal from Manningtree to Sudbury in May 1709. Coal was the main cargo carried up river, whilst corn and bricks were carried downstream. Cereal production and water and windmills are important features of the valley from the medieval period to the development of technology resulting in industrialised corn milling in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The main vessel used on the river was ‘the lighter’, measuring 47 feet long by 10 feet 9 inches wide. These were towed in pairs by horses between Sudbury and Brantham lock, from where they could float on the tide down to Mistley Quay. They could carry up to 13 tons and were built at dry docks in Flatford. An example of lighters under construction can be seen in John Constable’s painting boat building near Flatford Mill (1815). The Stour Navigation was largely disused by 1928 and abandoned by 1937.  The River Stour Trust founded in 1968 has since restored various locks at Flatford, Dedham and Cornard.

Over the last 200 years this area has inspired many artists, including John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Alfred Munnings, John Nash and Rowland Suddaby.  Many of the views they painted are still recognisable today providing information on the history and development of this river valley.