NEARLY £1million is to be spent restoring and celebrating picturesque north Essex landscapes which inspired famous painters.

Views recreated by the likes of John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough are to be partially restored, while an 18th-century “Stour lighter” barge will be brought back into use.

The work follows four years of hard work by a small team at the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Stour Valley Project, supported by a host of public agencies.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has granted them £910,000 for 62 projects aimed at understanding, conserving and celebrating the area.

Simon Amstutz, joint manager at the project, said he was delighted at the news, which will see three new staff being hired.

He said: “It’s been a long and arduous process. I was working on this for four years and now in June or July we will actually see some results.”

Mr Amstutz said: “The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is internationally recognised as a fantastic landscape.

“What makes the area so special is that we have so many special features. Our hedgerows are generally in good condition, we have some very fine, picturesque villages, we have some church towers imposing on the landscape and the river is a really important wildlife feature for people to go out and enjoy.

“If you scrape away the surface a little bit, there’s a lot of history on the site. There’s evidence of human habitation going back to Neolithic times.”

Educational projects will cover training events and courses looking at subjects ranging from farming, art, navigation and archaeological projects.

Colchester Archaeological Group will do some work in Wormingford in the next 12 months, while there will be work on protected monuments, such as the Norman motte and bailey castle at Mount Bures, and areas where “crop marks” – evidence of human activity thousands of years ago – have been spotted are to be explored.

The conservation aspect of the project includes restoring parts of the area which inspired the likes of Constable, Gainsborough and Sir Alfred Munnings.

One method is “pollarding”, or trimming willow trees for a sustainable source of firewood, while fencing or hedgerows could be added, or trees trimmed or replanted.

Mr Amstutz said: “They’re not trying to totally restore the view.

“They want you to go back to that spot and be able to recognise the features from the painting.

“The first issue is to work out where the paintings were drawn, and we’re working with the National Trust on this.”

The John Constable Stour barge, currently slowly decaying outside the Visitor and Education Centre at Great Cornard, is to be restored to carry 12 passengers.

In its heyday, it transported goods along the River Stour from Sudbury to the sea.

Mr Amstutz said the barges were the main form of transport from the early 18th century until they fell into disrepair in the 19th century, as the railways took over.

They took out materials including bricks, using good quality local clay, and brought back horse dung for fertilising the fields of Essex and Suffolk.

Mr Amstutz said: “It would have been the equivalent of the A12 200 to 300 years ago. All over the rivers there are locks and systems that would have allowed the boats to go up and down.”

An apprentice will be hired as part of the barge’s restoration.

“The vessel is in a very poor state at the moment,” Mr Amstutz added. “While it’s being done, there will be visits so people can come and have a look.

“We’re keen that it’s built as much as possible using the same techniques as it would have been 200 to 300 years ago.”

The project includes exhibitions at museums in Colchester and Ipswich, along with travelling exhibits at village halls and elsewhere.

The group is seeking to improve the experience of residents and tourists coming to Dedham Vale and Stour Valley.

A website being designed will feature panoramic views from 35 church towers, a couple of which will be open to visitors.

People will be able to use the reintroduced Hopper Bus travelling from Manningtree to Dedham, while there will be new leaflets suggesting good walking and cycling routes.

The aim is not to increase the number of people visiting the area, Mr Amstutz said.

He said: “I think what this project is trying to do is enhance their experience when they do come. We want to encourage them to stay a bit longer, rather than come on a sunny Sunday afternoon.”