Local guides

Where to eat in Dedham Vale: Beautiful views, independent vibes and creative small plates
Published 30 May 2022

Credit: The Crown

There’s a reason the landscape artist John Constable hung out in the Dedham Vale: this Suffolk-Essex borderland, just north of Colchester and inland from Manningtree, could not be more painterly if it tried. It’s got it all, as spring slips into summer: the gentle weave of the river Stour, meadow-grazing cattle, distant clusters of houses and handsome churches, lanes frothing with cow parsley. AONB? Obvs.

But views alone do not sustain. So where to eat? A wander along Dedham’s pastel-pretty High Street could start with breakfast at the Essex Rose tea room, a pretty spot with leaded windows and bags of charm owned by Essex jam people, Tiptree; drop in later for cakes on tiered stands, homemade scones and – of course – the house preserves. The Old Bakery Café will meet your light-lunch needs with salads, soups or bagels, including their ‘New Yorker’ with pastrami, Emmental, gherkins and mayo.

The Old Bakery
Credit: The Old Bakery

Opposite Dedham’s imposing St Mary’s church is the much-loved Sun Inn
with its creaky floors, comfy sofas, and generous joy of a menu. An Italian flavour runs through the cooking so come for properly made pasta and risotto, but also Mersea Island seafood, or pork tenderloin, or even just a well-made burger. Stay over if you can, if only to do proper justice to the exceptional wine list, and look out for the return of the pub’s Al Festo mini-festival 9-10 July. (Next day you could explore the work of equine artist Alfred Munnings – Dedham isn’t all about Constable – displayed in Munnings’ magnificent Georgian home.)

The riverside setting of the Boathouse is glorious. Simple, home-cooked food is served all day – salads, fish cakes, ploughman’s, ice creams – and will inject energy before you take to the Stour in a hired rowing boat. Walk the classic Dedham-Flatford circular route from here (repairs to Fen Bridge currently mean a diversion extends the walk – do check). Willy Lott’s cottage, immortalised by Constable in his famous painting, The Hay Wain, is National Trust-owned and can be visited, so too Flatford Mill, and don’t miss picturesque East Bergholt, Constable’s birthplace.

Credit: Talbooth

For the elegant precision of classic French cooking with all the gleaming trimmings, book the Talbooth Restaurant, which this year celebrates a regal 70th birthday. A table by the mullioned windows gives you a beautiful river and garden view, or linger on the covered terrace. Start, perhaps, with Orkney scallops, which come with celeriac purée and pickled cucumber, before the Dingley Dell pork cutlet with smoked pomme purée. Finish with a Black Forest soufflé or – we’re in classical territory here – a Welsh rarebit savoury. The wine list is a wide-ranging spectacle, so it’s good to know there are rooms (and a spa…) at nearby Talbooth House.

Onwards, maybe via a pitstop at Stratford Hall Farm because the café is delightful from breakfast through to tea and cake time, and the range of local produce is wide (as it is at friendly Assington Farm Shop further towards Sudbury). In minutes you’re in Stoke-by-Nayland where a table at the Angel Inn will make a special occasion memorable. The building re-opened in April after a multi-million pound renovation, and very much identifies as a restaurant, despite its pubby name and beams/fireplaces/exposed brickwork looks. Spanish chef Ruben Aguilar Bel nods to the sunny flavours of his heritage, so look out for garlicky, smoky romesco under a piece of wild bass, bomba rice and Iberian ham served with rabbit, and the playful ‘costa del sol’ lemon tart with burned meringue foam.

The Anchor
Credit: The Anchor Inn

For something more casual cross the road to The Crown, where glorious rural views stretch away from its meadow tables, there’s a tipi for semi-alfresco dining, and an easy-going menu of pub classics. The riverside setting at Anchor Inn at Nayland is a perennial draw (the igloo pods are popular) or make your way to peaceful Polstead where a few tables at The Cock Inn and the village Community Shop promise tea and respite for walkers and their dogs at the heart of village life.

You’re close to the family-owned Stoke by Nayland Resort – anyone for a golf or spa day? – which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a facelift throughout the property. It’s looking smart!

Luca Enoteca
Credit: Luca Enoteca

Beyond the Vale? Manningtree and Colchester reward. The former’s estuary setting and independent vibe are appealing; it claims also to be the UK’s smallest town. Colchester, however, is now officially a City, and its ancient walkable walls and remarkable Roman history are worth exploring. In Manningtree, bookmark Lucca Enoteca for all things Italian, especially their pizza; in Colchester you’ll eat and drink well at Church St Tavern whose art-filled space is as comfortable as a daytime lunch spot as it is a cool evening cocktail bar. Check out also tiny Kintsu, applauded since opening a year ago for its creative, small-plates menu.

-Tessa Allingham