Flatford is on the River Stour close to the Suffolk-Essex border. The Centre buildings, particularly the Mill and Willy Lott's House, are instantly recognisable since they feature in many paintings by John Constable.
Constable was a romantic painter, and there is no doubt he idealised nature and rural life. Nevertheless in the best of his paintings we see a realism to set alongside romance. There is no simple divide between the rural life Constable celebrated and the industrial society that was emerging. Crossing the bridge beside Bridge Cottage and turning left you will come to the lock depicted in Flatford Mill: scene on a navigable river. This 1817 painting shows a barge approaching the bank, a man on deck leaning hard on a pole as he guides the vessel in. Meanwhile in the foreground two young boys get ready to help pull the barge in. One boy is on the river bank, reaching down to the tow rope, while his companion sits on a horse, looking back. At first glace you would think they were playing. The shoeless boy on horse back rides without a saddle, and seemingly has jumped carelessly on the horse's back in a game. But looking more closely you realise these boys are at work. The man heaving on the pole isn't playing. He is relying on the boys to do their bit with the tow rope. The little boy on the horse looking back is waiting for the signal to start driving his horse forward. This is the realism that underlies the painting's romaticism. As with The Haywain opposites are held together. There is an innocence and peace, along with hard work which starts early.