By Michael Algar 1100 words

Within easy reach of London, some of East Anglia's landscapes will live forever in Constable and Gainsborough paintings. But it is wealth from this area's cloth weaving industries that is reflected in its historic communities of such appeal today.

From several self-drive themed itineraries available from the East of England Tourist Board, we chose one recently that took us into some of England's most picturesque towns and villages. Here, the grand dwellings originally built by prosperous cloth merchants are show places and museums. Mills have been converted to hotels and restaurants. Cottages house crafts and antique shops - so many that the BBC-tv Lovejoy series seen on PBS, which gives a lighthearted look at East Anglia's antique trade, never seems to run out of new locales.

Our particular tour covered approximately 120 miles and could have been accomplished in a day. Instead we allowed three days from Friday to Sunday, permitting us to see the area at its best (and enjoy weekend-break hotel prices) while giving us time to browse and generally enjoy the scenery. Flying into Stansted Airport in Essex, northeast of London, we began our tour only 15 minutes away in Braintree.

Throughout this region weavers continue to produce cloth, often using looms in place for the past l00 years or longer. Such are the silk weavers, converting thread imported from China into exquisite fabric which can sell for something like $1,000 a yard. Even at this price, orders are steady from castles and stately homes throughout Europe, where patterned silk is used to cover walls as well as windows. Buckingham Palace has Braintree silk lining salon walls; the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London are displayed on Braintree velvet.

Silk weaving is a relative newcomer to East Anglia. Craftsmen arrived in the 1830s when Samuel Courtauld, a descendant of Huguenot refugees, came from London to set up shop here. Braintree was already a thriving market town at the end of the 12th century, shipping raw wool to the Low Countries. Then everything changed in the late 1400s with the realization that weaving cloth was more profitable than exporting the raw materials. When Flemish Protestant immigrants fled oppression in the 17th century, they brought skills in weaving fine worsteds and baize, creating a market for domestic cloths. As demands changed, weavers turned their hands to imported wool, even horsehair and coconut matting.

Towns prospered and merchants built fine homes. They erected trade guildhalls and other public buildings, and endowed churches of cathedral-like proportions. Because local stone was scarce, timber was the chief domestic building material, and now many examples of these medieval timber-framed houses - often plastered and colour-washed - survive today.

Halstead, 6 miles north of Braintree, is where Courtauld opened his Townsford Mill in 1827. Here his family went on to become pioneers in the weaving of rayon, first of the synthetic fabrics. The mill, prettily sited beside a stream, is now an antique centre. About 5 miles to the west, the village of Thaxted has a Cutlers Hall, a fine example of the trade guildhalls. During the middle ages, Sudbury to the north was a wool town which now preserves its history through many half-timbered houses and three gracious old churches. The 18th century English artist Thomas Gainsborough was born here, in a house that has become an art centre. Although best known as a portrait painter, he enjoyed working on landscapes of the surrounding countryside.

Lavenham is without doubt one of England's most picturesque towns. Among its immaculately preserved houses, you will find the magnificent 16th century Guildhall of corpus Christi, now a National Trust property containing a museum to 700 years of the East Anglian wool trade. Less obvious is the old Wool Hall because it is incorporated in the 14th century Swan Hotel, an excellent choice for an overnight stay. Slightly apart from the community, the local church was built around the turn of the 16th century.

Turning east towards Hadleigh, another wool town with fine church and guildhall, we entered Dedham Vale. This is Constable Country, a beautiful landscape of gentle hills and valleys, rivers and streams still as inspiring as ever. You'll want to linger in Dedham, a picture-postcard village of timbered houses and Georgian frontages, containing shops and businesses which serve this and surrounding communities. St. Mary's Church dominates the village centre. It was featured in Constable's works, and owes its beginnings to a wealthy wool merchant. Do take time out for a short walk along the footpath to the River Sour for a view of Flatford Mill, another Constable favourite which has changed little since the artist made it famous.

Continuing on through Dedham Vale, you will come to Colchester, Britain's oldest recorded town. Far from the sea now, it was a major port in the Middle Ages, with wool as its main export until 16th century Flemish weavers reversed the trade. They settled here in an attractive area known as the Dutch Quarter, where narrow lanes are still lined with half-timbered houses built by those first weavers who brought prosperity to Colchester. The Colchester Mill Hotel, housed in a converted flour mill, is one of a number of several good hotels in town.

Final stop on our triangular tour was Coggeshall (pronounced "Coxhall") another principal weaving centre. Paycockes, a National Trust property is open to the public. Noted for its fine wood panelling and wood-carving, it illustrates a prosperous wool merchant's home at the beginning of the 16th century. Another sign of past wealth is the church of St Peter and Vinculum, rebuilt in the 15th century in the rich cathedral style of the wool towns, but incorporating material from Roman remains.

Coggeshall deserves far more time than we were able to give it, and we suggest at least half a day. This town is known for its antique shops and restorers who specialize in clocks and metal work as well as rare books. The Coggeshall Antique Fair, held on Sundays, has some really superior antiques and collectibles. The White Hart Hotel lives up to its five stars, while the Chapel Inn on Market Hill, said to occupy the site of a former chapel, serves a great English Sunday lunch.

IF YOU GO: For more information on East Anglia contact the East of England Tourist Board, Toppesfield Hall, Hadleigh, Suffolk IP7 5DN England. Tel 01473 822922 or visit www. eetb.org.uk