Dedham Vale celebrates 50 years of life as an AONB

PUBLISHED: 10:54 23 June 2020 | UPDATED: 10:54 23 June 2020

Path towards bures

Path towards bures


It is 50 years since the Dedham Vale was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. While celebrations may have been curtailed, could lockdown mean a brighter future for this landscape? | Words: Deborah Sage

The Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has always been a special place; it’s lowland river valley and gently rolling landscape straddling the counties of Essex and Suffolk in an unassuming but quintessentially British way.

For centuries, the wonder of the landscape here has inspired and been captured by the work of renowned artists such as Alfred Munnings, John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough, and also drawn in vast visitor numbers from near and far to take in the same views that have barely changed since.

But these scenes are much quieter at the moment, with only local residents able to breathe in the countryside along this treasured landscape.

Pressing pause on our freedom to enjoy different places, the global situation has certainly made an impression on 2020 that no one could ever have predicted.

AONB 50th AnniversaryAONB 50th Anniversary

The cruel timing of the pandemic spread abutting the tourism sector’s traditional season start with its bountiful bank holidays, has had a dramatic impact.

The AONB’s 10,000 residents aren’t swelled in number with the addition of day visitors and holidaymakers, there’s no usual eager rush to see the bluebell swathes in Arger Fen and no historic queues for cream teas in Dedham or excited crowds at Flatford Mill.

Yet, in this strangest of years, May 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the Dedham Vale being designated as an AONB. Naturally, the celebrations are much-altered, with plans moving either to a quieter online ‘hooray’ or events delayed until later in the year when restrictions become more relaxed.

But in the unusual marking of this milestone lies the opportunity of greater significance than could ever have been planned for.

Canoeing mid StourCanoeing mid Stour

It has created an opportunity to breathe, take stock and re-focus the efforts of the AONB team and its partners to deliver the best outcomes in conserving and enhancing the natural beauty in this part of the world for another 50 years.

This golden anniversary year heralds the start of an ambitious five year National Lottery Heritage Funded project which will see 25 photography posts spring up across both the Dedham Vale and its near neighbour, the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONBs, to capture the change in seasons and views over a number of years.

For the first time, there will be a modern day capture of changing landscapes using amateur photography, plus visitor and local community contributions on a portal.

There will also be more proactive work to encourage new connections with the outdoors with groups who don’t ordinarily feel these spaces are for them.

Constable Country, Flatford looking east - credit Dedham Vale AONBConstable Country, Flatford looking east - credit Dedham Vale AONB

The AONB team have worked before on creating safe havens for people to visit, organised events and guided walks, but in the future will do more to engage with people who haven’t had the opportunity. Suddenly it feels more important than ever to do this.

The team will also be focusing on nature recovery – responding to climate change and working within the AONB area to maximise the opportunities for dwindling species to thrive once more.

This will require reaching out to landowners and communities to build some landscape-scale solutions, which is an exciting prospect.

What is apparent, is that this period of lockdown has crystallised so many of our views on what we miss, what we take for granted and what we value so highly. No more so than now do we acutely value the heritage, green space and biodiversity the Dedham Vale landscape offers.

Willy Lott's House, FlatfordWilly Lott's House, Flatford

Understandably there is an aching for the return to a normality where we have the freedom to again soak up the outdoor space we crave the most, and not just that on our doorstep.

Will lockdown change society’s behaviour in the longer term? Will we treasure more not only the special people in our lives, but also the special places? And will we be more active in keeping them special?

Or will we quickly forget that feeling we’ve experienced in our homes; the pure longing to soak up our British landscapes, to walk among the copses and river paths, to hear the wildlife and inhale the seasons?

Time will tell, but what we do know is the Dedham Vale AONB will be there for you when the time comes – all of it.

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