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Out Again

I never thought that a sausage sandwich could carry such significance.

We’re sitting in the tea rooms in Dedham, having our first lunch out since the Corona lockdown began. We’re at a corner table, one of half-a-dozen widely distributed across the available space, served by waitresses whose masks can’t quite conceal their pleasure at being able to work again - nor hide the tinge of anxiety that’s mixed with it. It’s an unexpected visit for us, as we are on a circular walk based on East Bergholt and have had to abandon our plan.

After parking in East Bergholt behind the Red Lion, still being refurbished, we put on our boots and turn down Cemetery Lane. We pass John Constable’s studio, its walls increasingly grubby and the commemorative plaque continuing to fade; and walk down the gently sloping lane, past energetically floral front gardens and regimented rows of gravestones. It’s a cool, grey morning but pleasant enough to have coaxed us out. By the firmly closed gate at Vale Farm, the land plunges enticingly downwards, the mysteries of the farm invisible over the twisting brow of the hill. Our path branches off and runs alongside the tall hedge that deepens the mystery. We cross a farm track and glimpse some fine old outbuildings to our right and keep on along the edge of an open field, largely fallow but with some residual clumps of wheat from a previous year’s seeding.

The path meets Dead Lane, coming down from the Commons north of here between East Bergholt and Stratford St. Mary. It’s an old cart track and runs in a deeply sunken holloway between trees, which join together overhead to form a tangled vault. It’s dark inside and the ground feels very ancient here. There’s been some weather damage since we last walked this path and we need to duck under branches that have fallen from their previous place in the canopy. In a while we emerge from the shadows to turn left on to the eastern, unbuilt end of Donkey Lane. The path here used to run along the field edge, left of the ditch, less well defined but softer underfoot and offering a more homely vista across the pasture. It’s been re-routed slightly, now passing between wire fences, clearer but less attractive, though the farmer has kept the way accessible.

Soon, at another path junction, we turn on to a track that passes over a tributary of the Stour, where, as it’s always been when we walk here, the water is dead still and covered with algae. It’s a slightly forlorn corner, scarred by a large utilities pipe and fallen branches; but today the green surface is broken by a few bright, diminutive water lilies. The path leads further on down to Fen Bridge, which we had planned to cross, to reach the water meadows on the other side, from where we would follow the river to Flatford Mill; but the bridge is closed. We learn later that some local youths, in a moment of lockdown inspired bloody-mindedness, had used it as a trampoline until it broke, leaving it currently unsafe.

The map suggests other options to us. We could backtrack and take a different path uphill and then walk along the lane to Flatford, picking up our original circular route from there; but the tower of Dedham church rising above the trees beckons instead. The Stour calmly shows us the way. Here and there beside it, people sit in couples and small groups whiling away the day, brushing aside the greyness of the sky and enjoying being out in the open. It seems busy for a weekday – but then weekdays have still not quite returned to what they used to be. A dark cloud throws down a handful of cold raindrops, calling for waterproofs; but you could hardly even call it a shower. It’s quickly over, as if the cloud couldn’t quite muster the energy to disrupt our day and has decided to leave us in peace.

Sitting over an early lunch, we reflect on the months past and how having a coffee and a sandwich in a shared, public space has become suddenly a new and special thing, never again to be taken for granted. We look again at the map and ponder alternative circular routes through Flatford for next time, maybe alongside Dedham Old River where we’ve walked previously and whose wilderness has stayed in the memory. But today, we have decided, is not a day for venturing so far afield, and we are instead content to simply to retrace our steps.

Returning by the outward route doesn’t come as a disappointment, even though our initial expectations for the day have been frustrated. It deepens our familiarity with the landscape here and at the same time brings different perspectives and things previously not seen on the way out. A tern appears from nowhere and skims bravely over the water, just ahead of an erratically handled canoe, swerving up and away from the burst of laughter coming from its occupants. We notice, returning past them, that the brambles are starting to put out their flowers ahead of their summer transformation into fruit; surprisingly bashful blooms, given the armour carried by their stems. Black cows stand heads down in the fields below the Old Hall, grazing, motionless. The house itself now appears through the trees from this new angle, slyly monitoring our progress. In a cottage garden back on the edge of the village, young apples ripen with a promise of pies.

It’s been a day of grey clouds but a satisfying one. Back in the car, we share a brief memory of our lunch and our optimism for another. As we take off our boots, the sun breaks through at last. It’s come a little late for us today, our walk finished and now heading for home - but it still feels like an invitation to return.

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