East Bergholt villagers explain why preserving Constable Country means so much to them
PUBLISHED: 12:00 04 April 2016
It is the most unlikely setting for a rebellion. But that’s exactly what’s happening in the picturesque village of East Bergholt, which was immortalised by its most favourite son, the great landscape artist John Constable. EDMUND CROSTHWAITE visited Constable Country to find out why feelings are running so high.
There are not many places in Suffolk where you can stroll along and take in a view which has seen very little change in 200 years. East Bergholt, the birthplace of John Constable and a village still strongly associated with the artist, is said to be one.
But now, villagers fear the character and appearance of the place immortalised by the great landscape artist could be altered forever.
The reason for their concern are 144 homes on the outskirts of the village, off Moore’s Lane. The houses have been given planning permission by Babergh District Council, and some residents feel the character, feel and historic nature of East Bergholt could be irrevocably altered by the development – and not for the better.
Action East Bergholt (AEB) was formed to campaign against the plans, a joint effort between Knight Developments and Bidwells, and on Saturday met in the first real sunshine of 2016, which showed off Constable Country at its best, to tell me why they are fighting so hard to protect the landscape of their village.
“We had a vote – there were two people voted for it [the plans],” said Peter Dent, chairman of AEB. “Virtually half of the main part of the village came back to us and roughly 450 voted against it.”
He then added: “I think it’s important to remember there’s no-one in the village who’s against development. It’s absolutely clear everyone fully accepts development has to happen. All we’re saying is not 144 homes.”
That feeling was echoed by the group I spoke to, who added there were clues within the description of the application which suggested it was not right for East Bergholt.
“I’ve spent 30 years in the Dedham Vale both as a landowner and a businessmen and I’ve spent most of my time preserving the land not desecrating it,” Barry Davison said.
“This changes the whole character, the whole feel, the whole approach and makes it urbanised. We’re a village not an urbanisation. It’s not nimbyism, small sustainable development would have been acceptable.”
Mr Dent added: “The design is key. It was called urban design. Wonderful on the outskirts of Ipswich but not in the middle of the countryside.”
After the decision had been made by Babergh’s planning committee, Beccy Rejzek, planning team leader at Bidwells Norwich, said the company felt its “high-quality development” would “suit the character of East Bergholt”.
But the feeling amongst those supporting AEB is that creating a large new housing development, the first thing which would greet visitors arriving from the A12, would ruin its character, giving the impression the village is in fact a town and taking away that feeling of being in the countryside.
For them the surrounding area, the layout of the village and the character of its buildings contributes to East Bergholt having remained a typical, picturesque Suffolk village, surrounded by the rolling fields and beautiful scenery immortalised by Constable.
Rolf Althen explained: “The village is cut in half by the boundary of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so this development is outside that. Technically, we don’t have to worry about it. Practically, it means people wanting to come to Constable’s birthplace have to drive past a very large, modern housing estate to come to the heart of the village with all its historic facilities, buildings, the bell cage etc.
“You are changing that whole perception. It is a little like driving through suburbia to come to the Tower of London.” But is the association with Constable just a handy tool to back up their argument? Or is it something which actually enhances East Bergholt, something villagers hold dear to their hearts?
“I think Constable and what it stands for is fairly precious to the majority of people in East Bergholt,” Mr Dent said. “I really think it is. I would be amazed if you found anybody who didn’t agree. It is very precious to us all.”
Mr Davison added: “The association with Constable throughout this area is very prominent and people do know and they do understand and they do take pleasure from the fact.
“Even when they move from other areas the association is immediately with Constable. They’ve seen the photographs, they’ve seen the paintings, they’ve seen The Hay Wain, they know everything.
“You’re sitting in a historic environment which really has not been changed that dramatically. This development would change it dramatically.”
Martin Cave said: “It’s not just rolling fields, if you go to the other side of the village where you’ve got the Stour, it’s quite hilly there. You can see why Constable painted what he did because its a fantastic archetypal, classical country view.”
There is a feeling similar issues are being experienced across Suffolk and north Essex. Homes need to be built somewhere after all and there is always going to be more space in the country than in already potentially over-developed towns.
East Bergholt recognised this and started to create its own neighbourhood plan which would have included a number of smaller housing developments to meet demand in the village over several years – something the action group supporters feel would protect its character.
“A village is typified by the length of time it takes for it to grow,” said Mr Althen. “You go round the village and see housing styles from Victorian to older Tudor houses to houses which were built 10 years ago. What is significant is they are all different styles, they all look different, they are not uniform, they are not urban.
“If you build 144 houses all based on the same concept, they all have a 55 degree roof pitch, they all have the same this and they all have the same that, then you create uniformity that is not a village.
“I think the countryside is under threat because it is easy. It is an easy target. As soon as someone says ‘oh we’re not really in favour of that’ the word nimby comes up.
“You could say I am a nimby because I live right next door to the site but I am fully in favour of the neighbourhood plan and if someone had said to me ‘we’re going to build 15 houses there, would you be OK with it?’ I would have said yes because that is how villages grow. It grows over time, it grows when people actually need housing.”
The chairman of the BDC planning committee which made the decision, Peter Beer, said at the time of making the decision to build on greenfield sites like the Moore’s Lane development: “After every aspect of this development was taken into account, the majority of members felt that the need to provide new affordable homes, not just for East Bergholt but for the wider district, could not be ignored,” he said.
John Constable – East Bergholt’s most famous son
Born in East Bergholt in 1776, John Constable is probably most famous for his paintings of the Stour Valley and Dedham Vale.
He was raised in Suffolk and lived in the county for much of his life, using it as inspiration for his works.
Some of the famous landscapes paintings he created include The Hay Wain, Flatford Mill and The Cornfield, all depicting scenes in and around his Suffolk home now affectionately known as Constable Country.
His yearly routine involved spending the winter in London and painting in the summer in East Bergholt.
Despite only becoming a big success in England after his death Constable sold many paintings in France.
He was also elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy and later appointed a Visitor, having had his first patining exhibited there in 1803.
He married Maria Bicknell, also from East Bergholt, with whom he had seven children before her death in 1828.
After that Constable cared for his children alone until his own death in 1835. He is buried in London
Constable is probably best know for his series of ‘six footers’, large scale landscape paintings among the most famous works by English painters.
Among them are views of the Suffolk countryside but also views of locations further afield.
There were six of these particular paintings and all were brought together for the first time at the Tate Britain art gallery in 2006.
Some of his most famous works include: Flatford Mill (painted 1816), The Hay Wain (1821), The Lock (1824), The Cornfield (1826) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831).