North Hill to British Camp, a walk through the Malvern Hills

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 Worcestershire Beacon seen from Table Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

The Worcestershire Beacon seen from Table Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

The Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

The Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Directional arrows and Table Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Directional arrows and Table Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

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.

The Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

The Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Trig point on the Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Trig point on the Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

View towards British Camp from the Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

View towards British Camp from the Worcestershire Beacon, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

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.

View of Worcestershire Beacon from Perseverance Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

View of Worcestershire Beacon from Perseverance Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Flowers on the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Flowers on the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Witch weather vane at Upper Wyche, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Witch weather vane at Upper Wyche, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

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.

View of British Camp from Pinnacle Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

View of British Camp from Pinnacle Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

British Camp from Pinnacle Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

British Camp from Pinnacle Hill, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

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.

View north from British Camp, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

View north from British Camp, Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

British Camp and the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

British Camp and the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

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.

Taking ‘the cure’ in Great Malvern

When they weren’t building vast engineering marvels, or sticking flags in bits of land thousands of miles from Britain’s shores and claiming sovereignty over them, the Victorians loved nothing better than heading to a spa town or mountain retreat to undergo various indignities to benefit their health.

In Malvern, the Victorians fetishised the water springs around the town, and invented a vaguely sadistic form of water torture, known as the ‘Malvern Water Cure’. Two doctors were largely responsible for this health craze: James Manby Gully and James Wilson. Today, they’d be exposed as frauds, but the Victorian-era took this nonsense seriously. In the nineteenth century, on the back of this craze, Malvern went from village to boom town with grand hotels offering the ‘water cure’. Gully and Wilson both opened ‘clinics’ in the town.

Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvern, Worcestershire, England

North Tower water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

North Tower water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

For Victorians it wasn’t enough to drink the water, they invented a psuedo-scientific, mumbo jumbo called ‘hydropathy’. In an age of great scientific advances, including in medicine, the popularity of treatments like the ‘Malvern Water Cure’ is at odds with the spirit of the age. Its not without irony that Sir Charles Hastings, surgeon, founder of the British Medical Association and vocal critic of hydropathy, also lived in Malvern.

The voices of doubt were drowned out (no pun intended) by fashion and desperation. Thousands came to ‘take the cure’ at the clinics run by Gully and Wilson, including some of the most famous names of the time: Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, William Wilberforce, Thomas Carlyle and Charles Darwin’s daughter, Anne. Anne, aged ten, had Scarlet Fever and possibly Tuberculosis. Gully’s treatment offered nothing but false hope: she died in Malvern and is buried at Malvern Priory.

Water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Plaque to Charles and Anne Darwin, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Plaque to Charles and Anne Darwin, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Anne Darwin's grave, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Anne Darwin’s grave, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had polio as a child, came to Malvern in 1889 to convalesce. Although the future President of the United States was only seven years old at the time.

Plaque to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Plaque to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Water literally springs out of the ground in Malvern, thanks to the geology of the Malvern Hills, which form a dramatic, jagged backdrop to the town. Malvern water is exceptionally pure: it contains almost nothing at all, no bacteria, no organic matter and no minerals.  It was this purity that gave rise to a belief in the water’s life enhancing qualities. Queen Victoria refused to travel without bottles of the stuff, which no doubt helped with the marketing.

Walk through the town today and you’ll see several natural spring fountains, including the Malvhina spring in the town centre.

Malvhina water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvhina water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvhina water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvhina water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Flowers, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Flowers, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Water spring, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Houses, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Houses, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

The springs around the area were well known in Medieval times, and credited with health-giving qualities. Water was being bottled and sold as early as 1622 at the Holy Well spring, which still produces bottled water today as part of a family business. The major commercialisation of Malvern Water came in 1850, when Schweppes moved to town. The brand is now owned by Coca Cola and is the only bottled water Queen Elizabeth II drinks (apparently).

Malvern is still trading on its water resources: instead of taking ‘the cure’, most people come to walk in the Malvern Hills, stroll around the Victorian-era town centre or indulge in a pampering spa experience. Its a lovely town to spend time in, even though walking around involves constantly going up or down hills. The town is full of beautiful nineteenth century buildings, but its history stretches back to the eleventh century. Not much remains from that period, but the splendid Malvern Priory traces its origins back to then.

Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Choir stalls, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Choir stalls, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

During the reign of Edward the Confessor, Saint Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester, gave instruction for a monastery to be built. A Benedictine Monastery was founded in 1085. The Priory retains a strong Medieval feeling, including ancient tombs within its walls. It also contains some of the best preserved fifteenth century Medieval stained glass windows and wall tiles in England. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, the Priory was bought by the town’s citizens for £20 and converted into a Parish Church. A role it still retains today.

Medieval stained glass window, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Medieval stained glass window, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Medieval stained glass window, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Medieval stained glass window, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Medieval stained glass window, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Medieval stained glass window, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Medieval tiles, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Medieval tiles, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Coat of Arms, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England

Coat of Arms, Malvern Priory, Malvern, Worcestershire, England