The Malvern Hills are the single most striking geographical feature in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, between which they form a natural border. A ten mile long row of steep, jagged hills, rising sharply out of the surrounding plain and towering over the villages and farmland below. The views are breathtaking – on a good day you can see the towns of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester, as well as the Black Mountains in Wales.
When you’re stood on top of the highest point in Worcestershire, the Beacon, its hard to imagine just how these hills came to be here. They seem such an anomaly. From the commanding viewpoint on top of the Beacon, it is also necessary to keep reminding yourself that you’re standing on a lump of rock only 425 metres (1395 feet) high. It feels an awful lot higher.
The peculiar shape is thanks to the geology of the hills, and their formation through tectonic plate activity. The rock in the Malvern Hills is some of the most ancient in Britain, clocking in at a respectable 680 million years old, give-or-take a millennia. The rock is hard and durable, one reason why, over the last several millennia, it hasn’t eroded away like much of the surrounding countryside. The hills were formed when tectonic plates collided with massive force around 300 million years ago, forcing the ancient rock to spike upwards. These hills are a striking visual reminder of the history of the planet.
Despite their modest size, walking here is fairly challenging – a series of steep descents followed by steep climbs. There isn’t a scrap of shade on the majority of the hills, on a hot day it can be an exhausting, if rewarding, experience. Even though the surrounding area is highly populated, walk here on a week day and you don’t see many people. At times the sense of isolation as you look out over the surrounding landscape is overwhelming.
The human history of the Malvern Hills is as extraordinary as their physical attributes. The most obvious and dramatic site is the Iron Age hill fort at British Camp, thought to have been first constructed around 500BC and extensively expanded around 400BC. Seen today, without its battlements and defenders, the pyramid-like hill looks more like a giant sculpture. Walking to the top, its clear how difficult it would have been to attack the fort.
Running north and south for several miles from British Camp, across the tops of the Malvern Hills, are ditches. Known as the Shire Ditches, these were originally thought to be Medieval, but recent archaeological surveys date them much earlier. They were most likely constructed in the Late Bronze Age (1500BC – 700BC), offering a tantalising glimpse into the history of human occupation in the Malvern Hills.
When native resistance crumbled in the face of the Roman Occupation of ancient Britain in AD43, the fort was abandoned, only to be reborn as a Medieval castle sometime after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The castle was probably made from wood and linked to the Duke of Gloucester’s hunting estate at Malvern Chase. Nothing remains of the castle or the Iron Age fort, but the earthworks are living testimony to human civilisations who have occupied this region.
In the 14th century, the site of British Camp was one of the inspirations for William Langland’s famous poem The Vision of Piers Ploughman. In the poem the character ‘Will’ dreams of a tower high on a hill. A reference to British Camp.
The hills have been inspiration for other great literature as well. W.H. Auden wrote some of his finest poetry while living near here, including one of my personal favourites, Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love. He also wrote the less well known, The Malverns, about…the Malvern Hills. The area also provided inspiration for C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia), and J.R.R. Tolkien (of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame).
When you walk amongst these hills its easy to appreciate just how inspirational they can be.