Is Malvern a town with an identity crisis? I’ve been here for a few days now, in that time I’ve discovered six different and distinct places using the name Malvern. Yet on closer inspection, it turns out ‘Malvern’ doesn’t really exist.
This isn’t an existential identity crisis though. People use ‘Malvern’ as shorthand for Great Malvern, the biggest of all the Malverns. In no particular order, there are also North Malvern, West Malvern, Malvern Link, Malvern Wells and Little Malvern. None of these Malverns is more than a couple of miles from any of the others. I have sympathy for those who might think this is deliberately confusing.
In a spirit of adventure, I set out to discover all of these different Malverns. Some (Malvern Link and North Malvern) are so close to Great Malvern that I’d walked through them without knowing it. Others were more difficult to track down. So I headed off to locate Malvern Wells and Little Malvern, in the hope of solving the mystery of the ‘Malverns’ for ever.
The walk from Great Malvern to these two lesser Malverns takes you along a disused railway line, now covered in shady trees, and then across farmland. Its a beautiful walk through perfect picture postcard countryside. It wasn’t long before I was cutting across fields towards Malvern Wells and the area’s most famous natural spring, Holy Well.
Holy Well got its name because its waters were believed to have God-given healing powers. Holy Well was on pilgrimage routes in the 12th and 13th centuries, allowing pilgrims the opportunity to bathe in the ‘healing’ waters. Its likely that the Friars from the nearby Priory at Little Malvern used it for this purpose as well. Holy Well’s water grew in popularity, thanks in part to deluded individuals crediting the water with curing all sorts of ailments.
In 1756, Dr. John Wall did an analysis of Holy Well water. It was very pure, containing almost no organic matter or minerals, almost pure enough to be distilled water. This is attributable to the filtration process the water undergoes passing through the ancient rock of the Malvern Hills. By the late 18th century, Dr. Wall was advocating the bathing of sores, tumours and all sort of other infections, including leprosy, in the water of Holy Well – which gives an indication of how far medicine has come in the last 200 years.
In 1850 the Schweppes company bought the rights to bottle water at Holy Well, and the water became one of the most recognisable drinks anywhere in Britain. Water has been bottled there almost continuously ever since.
Importantly, Holy Well is public. We all have the right to drink from the fountain. It was a hot day when I walked there. Thirsty upon arrival, I scooped a few handfuls of water – it was cold and refreshing, but tasted of nothing. My only other drinking companion was an Irish Setter, who was taking advantage of the dog bowl on the floor. I believe I speak for both of us, when I say we were grateful to drink fresh spring water that didn’t come in a plastic bottle costing 1000% more than tap water.
Refreshed I moved off towards Little Malvern. The smallest of all the Malverns is an interesting place thanks to the 12th century Benedictine Monastery, Little Malvern Priory, and the nearby 15th century country house, Little Malvern Court. Sadly the Court wasn’t open to the public, but the Priory was unlocked.
The Priory was established in 1171 and functioned as a Benedictine Monastery until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. The buildings then became the property of wealthy landowners – its been in the same family since 1539 – and turned into a country house, Little Malvern Court. The current Priory Church dates from a time after 1539. Walking inside, it is remarkable how small it is, giving the impression that it functioned like a private family church for Little Malvern Court.
The other ‘attraction’ in Little Malvern lies a short walk away in the cemetery of the Catholic Church. Here the locally born composer, Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934), is buried. Elgar is probably Britain’s best known composer today, famous for his Pomp and Circumstance Marches – considered the embodiment of ‘Britishness’. Ironic then that, as a Roman Catholic, he was treated with suspicion by the Anglican authorities and, in class conscious Victorian Britain, considered an outsider due to his lowly birth – his father was a piano tuner. Not sure much has changed since then.