The Maison Talbooth lends decadence and relaxation to Constable land

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travel page - Credit: Archant

Great food, invigorating walks, charming scenery...and champagne in a hot tub were highlights of my stay in a bucolic vale

‘The sound of water escaping from mill dams, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork, I love such things,” so wrote the artist John Constable of his beloved home landscape on the border between Essex and Suffolk.

Dedham Mill and nearby Flatford Mill – both owned by Constable’s corn merchant father and painted by the artist – survive today.

Grade I-listed Willy Lotts Cottage next to Flatford Mill, look much as they did when he painted them in The Hay Wain, nearly 200 years ago.

Marketed by the tourist board as Constable Country, this bucolic vale bordering the River Stour is a handy 90-minute drive from north London yet feels a world away.

Constable, however, was familiar with both areas and regularly travelled between them.

Though he had a house in central London, he began his annual summer migration to Hampstead in 1819, renting a house for his wife and children almost every year until 1826.

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Ever the country boy, it allowed him a rural lifestyle within spitting distance of the capital.

He wrote to his friend Fisher: “I am three miles from door to door – can have a message in an hour – and I can always get away from idle callers – and above all see nature – and unite a town and country life.”

In 1827, he moved to Hampstead permanently, leasing a house on Well Walk. His wife Maria was already showing signs of the tuberculosis that would kill her and it was thought that Hampstead’s famous waters would be good for her health.

But there was something for Constable too, the chance to wander the heathland painting cloud formations and landscapes.

Tragically, the country air and waters didn’t save Maria. She died in 1828 and is buried in Hampstead Parish Church alongside Constable and six of their seven children.

Also, rather sadly, the artist, who was admired by the likes of Delacroix and France’s Charles X, never found the recognition he deserved in his lifetime.

It’s well worth a trip up the A12 to investigate where the great master began his life and career.

On a very chilly February day we checked into the 12-room Maison Talbooth, settled on a ridge overlooking the vale, just two miles from the idyllically pretty village of Dedham.

Though the building dates to Victorian times, there’s nothing 19th century about the facililties.

Appropriately enough we stayed in the Keats suite – and it’s odd to think of the romantic poet, who lived in Hampstead from 1818-1821, passing a sketching Constable on some Heathside ramble while composing an Ode to a Nightingale.

Back in Essex, there’s a watery theme to the luxurious accommodation where each room has been individually decorated and kitted out with great attention to detail including goosedown duvets and Egyptian cotton sheets.

Not only did we have a marble bathroom with sunken bath and walk-in shower that was bigger than our London living room, but there was a piping hot jacuzzi on the secluded terrace, and, along a path lit by a string of low-level lamps, a walled open-air pool, warmed to 30 degrees complete with hot tub and seating area with fire.

There’s something both bracing and slightly naughty about ploughing up and down a steaming pool while the winter wind whips the tree branches overhead.

Our two boys loved the thrill of disrobing in nigh zero temperatures in the twilight before plunging in. After a good deal of squealing and shouting they hopped into the hot tub’s bubbling warmth, then dived under a blanket in front of the open-air log fire.

The pool house has an honesty bar where guests can help themselves to coffee and all manner of drinks so a warming glass of red wine or a cold beer in the jacuzzi is an enticing prospect.

Back in the suite there was a well-stocked children’s bedroom with bunks, toys, Playstation and DVDs where the boys plugged into a movie before their tea was delivered, and I – oh, the filthy decadence of it – drank champagne in the hot tub.

These thoughtful touches meant relaxation for mum and dad while the kids were contained. We’d ordered a babysitter, one of the staff very experienced with children, so were happy to be whisked by courtesy car to Le Talbooth restaurant less than a mile away.

Something of an Essex institution, the former riverside tollhouse was packed to its 15th century beamed rafters on a Saturday night as the destination of choice for local romantic trysts and family meals.

Priding itself on modern, locally-sourced British fare, the menu offers fine dining; delicate plates of smoked salmon tartare and caviar or carpaccio of venison; duck breast on an onion puree or loin of Dingly Dell pork. We shared the Dedham Vale Chateaubriand with all the trimmings, a fine bottle of Rhone red and a plate of local cheeses, which were all top quality.

Creative genius

The next day, after an extensive breakfast (you won’t need to bother with lunch) that once again sourced excellent local ingredients, we had another bracing swim and a yet more bracing walk by the Stour, braving the icy wind to cross the mill race and channel Constable’s creative genius. There’s a pretty boat house and pond with hardy fishermen and ducks to feed. Those wandering further afield can travel a mile or two to East Bergholt to see Flatford Mill or to nearby Maldon where the famous salt is made on the Essex flats. You can sit by the canal at Heybridg, visit Maldon’s museum, take a pleasure cruise or hit the promenade with its kids’ playgrounds.

Also not far is Tiptree, where Wilkin and Sons have been farming for 300 years and making their famous preserves.

There’s a museum and tea room in the village, and the family also own a tea room in Dedham.

Though we didn’t take advantage of Maison Talbooth’s spa, our flying visit left us feeling refreshed and spoilt by the lovely old-school charm of the setting, area and delightful staff.

And thanks to myriad thoughtful touches it wasn’t a chore to take the kids along.