Weaving along the country lanes in search of the celebrated Constable Country in Essex gave me a huge urge to dispose of my 4×4 and slide into a posh shiny red convertible Porsche Boxster that I had spotted on my way to my hotel for the weekend. Was this a mid-life crisis that had suddenly hit me just two months into my 42nd year?
Thank goodness, I had a weekend to recuperate at the four-star Wivenhoe House Hotel, situated in Colchester within Wivenhoe Park.
And why did I choose this hotel in particular? It was the subject of a painting by John Constable 200 years ago and the reason for my visit? It was twofold, to find out more about this celebrated painted and to explore the beautiful countryside, ‘Constable Country,’ during this special year of appreciation.
The story goes that in 1816, the owner of Wivenhoe House, General Francis Rebow paid Constable 100 guineas to paint his family home which is set in an extensive parkland setting.
The payment helped to secure his financial future and to win the hand of his fiancée Maria Bicknell whose father was not keen on their marriage. Today the National Gallery of Art in Washington displays the painting as one of its main attractions now worth many millions.
On our arrival the hotel was buzzing with excitement. It wasn’t the red shiny sports car that I had seen that had caused all the excitement, it was the confirmation that a contemporary artist, Kate Bright from Suffolk, had just agreed to paint the Grade II listed Wivenhoe House to celebrate the 200th year since the date of Constable’s original masterpiece. Heritage and stories go a long way in creating an atmosphere, this is something that Wivenhoe House has built its reputation upon since re-opening in 2012 following a £10 million refurbishment.
It was fascinating to learn about the history of the house and how it was used during World War II as the headquarters of the SAS. It is now home to the Edge Hotel School where university students learn ‘on the job’ under the guidance of professionals.
There is an abundance of enthusiasm that runs through the veins of this hotel school. We were taken up in a lift to be shown our suite which is named after the original owner, Rebow. It has a panoramic view of the park, lakes and part of the grounds of the University of Essex, which is where the hotel is situated.
There’s a king size bed that is dwarfed by the enormity of the bedroom, a lovely walk-in shower, a roll top bath and my personal favourite bathroom luxury, a double sink, where there’s enough space to place all my beauty products neatly. Yes, over the age of forty there is a requirement for many many lotions and potions which seem to take up more space than clothes even for a two night stay!
Despite the fact I have started yet another diet, my excuse to indulge was that it was ‘a Friday’ and we were away for the weekend. I had heard that the afternoon tea at Wivenhoe House is very special, so we decided this would be a great idea to kick start our break. We were not disappointed with 13 different types of tea on offer with delicious finger sandwiches, pastries and scones.
We were served by courteous students, from whom we learnt that we were overlooking two ‘Quercus Subers,’ or Cork Oak trees grown from cuttings that were brought back from the Peninsular War in General Rebow’s boots!
Today these Cork Oaks stand tall and proud next to the hall. We took a stroll out to see the trees and walked down to view the hotel and parkland from Constable’s standpoint.
There’s plenty to see and do, Wivenhoe is an interesting place to visit, rich in cultural history that has a vibrant art scene. Follow the Wivenhoe Trail down to the heart of town, stroll along the tidal river watching the boats come in, visit the art galleries or pop into the Rose & Crown pub at the Quay, overlooking the River Colne.
Take a visit to the Colchester Castle Museum which is set within a large park, this area was buzzing with families enjoying one of the first sunny spring days. From March 2016 visitors to the castle can discover the Fenwick Treasure, a fascinating display of Roman archaeological finds together with hoards of Roman silver and gold coins and jewelry.
There are several art galleries in Colchester but Firstsite stands out from the crowd with its exciting programme of exhibitions by established and emerging artists. (http://www.firstsite.uk.net).
To learn more about Constable and to explore the countryside that he loved, visit the old-fashioned village of Dedham on the border of Essex and Suffolk. This is the village, only a fifteen minutes’ drive from Wivenhoe House Hotel, was made famous by Constable’s landscape paintings. The picturesque main street is lined with Georgian-fronted houses, old inns and a large art and crafts centre.
The magnificent 15th Century church was built from the wealth of the medieval cloth industry and nearby you can find Dedham Mill which was owned by Constable’s father and features in one of his paintings. Opposite there is great restaurant, Dedham Boathouse Restaurant, that also offers day boat hire on the River Stour.
No trip to Constable Country is complete without a visit to the quaint village of Flatford, a place where you can discover the inspiration behind Constable’s work.
This hamlet lies in the heart of Dedham Vale and was the inspiration for some of his most famous paintings including, The Hay Wain, Boatbuilding and Flatford Mill. You can learn more about Constable an the history of his masterpieces by joining one of the guided tours and it will give you the opportunity to make fascinating comparisons of the scenes in his paintings with the views today, just like Wivehoe House Park. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/flatford
We had a date back at Wivenhoe House Hotel with another famous local, Nik Kershaw and his wife Sarah, whom we were meeting up with to try the food at The Brasserie within the hotel. Meeting at the bar, they too were reveling about their panoramic bedroom balcony overlooking the Cork Oak trees.
At the lively the bar we perused the impressive food menu that was varied. The starter options including terrine of game, tea smoked salmon, seabass, rabbit and mussels were priced from £5 up to £9. The main courses were equally tempting with options from fillet or sirloin steaks to roasted venison, belly of pork, cod and their signature dish of Halibut, spiced cauliflower puree and spinach. Dishes started from £14 up to £21.70.
Ending with desserts and cheese, the choice is ever expanding not only with temptation in the mind, but also on the waistline, we pondered further on the flashy sports car that we had seen earlier but we decided we’d stick to our 4X4 as the sports car seats would prove far too hard to get in and out of, especially after all the amount of delicious food we’d eaten!
Factfile: Try the Constable Challenge
Amateur artists can sign up now for the Constable Challenge on Sunday 12 June when members of the public of all ages, are invited to set up their easels in the parkland grounds of the Grade II listed hotel, home of the Edge Hotel School. For further information: Heather Leathley, Wivenhoe House hotel, 07791 724736.
About the Hotel
Wivenhoe House hotel in Colchester is loving landscape in 2016 with a series of events and offers for art-lovers everywhere as the four-star hotel celebrates 200 years since artist John Constable painted Wivenhoe Park.
Kate was a guest of Wivenhoe House Hotel and stayed in the Rebow Suite. Priced from £190 per night including breakfast. Standard rooms with breakfast start from £99 per night.
Guests can enjoy two nights’ bed and breakfast in the elegant Constable suite, or similar, including a bottle of Prosecco in the room on arrival, one dinner and afternoon tea for just £190 per person sharing a double room, valid throughout the year. Terms and conditions apply.
To book telephone: 01206 863666 | Visit http://www.wivenhoehouse.co.uk/