Photograph of Flatford Dry Dock
Flatford Dry Dock today

1984/5 - Discovery of the Dry Dock

Building a Tea Room

The National Trust bought the land around Flatford’s Dry Dock in 1984 with a view to building a tea room. When work began on digging the foundations for the tea room, the River Stour Trust identified the remains of a dry dock including:

  • Floor – a disintegrating brick floor to the dry dock
  • Stocks – three wooden stocks standing on the brick floor –  Stour lighters (barges) would have rested on these stocks while being constructed or repaired
  • Chunkers – the remains of the wooden pipes (called chunkers) allowing water to drain away from the Dry Dock into a ditch (or culvert) on the other side of the river – so making it a dry area in which to work
  • Decayed barge – an old Stour lighter that was much decayed and blackened (see the first image above)

The Dry Dock you see today is one of three dry docks that would have operated at Flatford during the boyhood of John Constable.The base of the dock is below the normal height of the Stour and so a boat can be floated in by raising the planks and so partially filling the dock. The chunker provided a way of emptying the dock after the barge in need of repair had been floated into it. Today the dry dock is drained in the summer so visitors can see the brick floor and wooden stocks.

That there were multiple dry docks dedicated to building and repairing Stour lighters gives  an idea of the demand for lighters to transport good up and down the River Stour.

The location of the other two dry docks is known but only one has been excavated so far.

1988 - Reconstructing the Dry Dock

  • Using Constable’s drawings and paintings, the Dry Dock was fully restored in 1988.
  • The old lighter (barge) was thoroughly inspected before being reburied behind Willy Lott’s House –  in damp ground to preserve the timbers.
  • The damaged brick floor was repaired with new bricks manufactured at the Bulmer Brick and Tile Company in Sudbury. Although Bulmer’s did not make the original bricks, the company supplies hand-made bricks to the National Trust and many other organisations involved in the restoration of old buildings.

Links with John Constable

Painting of the Dry Dock at Flatford called Boat Building by John Constable 1814
Boat Building (detail) by John Constable 1814 - V&A Museum

Boat Building

The edge of Flatford’s Dry Dock appears in a couple of John Constable’s landscapes but there is only one painting in which he makes it the main subject.

For more information on this small oil painting (approx 20″ by 26″) painted in 1814 click Boat Building