Travelling northbound on the M5 the long ridge of the Malverns looms close on the westward horizon: a line of undulating peaks like the back of a great geological beast embedded in the land running North-South along the Worcestershire-Herefordshire border. One day, while wandering through the livestock exhibits of the Three Counties Show in Great Malvern right at the feet of the hillss Cee looked up and saw people walking along the top of the ridge and decided she wanted a go. Ok, I said, let’s do it. When do you want to go?
Cue several years of when we get round to it, a move back to the other end of the country on my part (yes, it’s been that long since this was mooted), a new knee joint on her part and the purchase of a tent in which we could both sit and stand up (providing I don’t give myself too lofty a top-knot), three days of fair weather forecast for the second week in May, and Cee and I were finally wending our way up the switch-back path through a bluebell-laced beech hangar from the quarry at Lower Wyche, Great Malvern.
The name Malvern is thought to derive from the ancient British moel-bryn (b’s often corrupt to v’s) meaning ‘bare hills’. Once up and out of the trees that clothe the hillsides the rising line of summits ahead and behind with their braids of pathways running over, round and along, are clearly set before eye and foot, not really bare or even bald, but clad with close-grazed grass, patches of bilberry scrub and a few trees. The twin mounds of Worcestershire Beacon and the nearer Summer Hill marked an M of landscape like a childhood depiction of what all hills should look like at the top of the drawing, between ground level and sky. Out and beyond in all direction lie wide vistas stretching as far as the eye could see: the Midlands, west to the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons, south into Gloucestershire, east towards the Cotswolds, the horizon blending to sky in the spring haze that lay over the distances after a couple of wet days. A chalk blue sky: cloudless yet not clear, a softened panorama over middle England.
The Malverns are formed of ancient igneous rocks which are much harder than the surrounding geology, meaning they have withstood erosion and been left high and dry above their neighbouring countryside. All around lower hill formations lump and bump the landscape, looking like scale model hills on a papier-mâché diorama from the skewed perspective of the Malvern’s height. From that vantage point everything looked close and walkable, as though a few steps would take me hop skip and jump across to the Cotswolds or the Mendips, twenty miles, thirty miles seemed so accessible yet at the same time so small and distant. Everywhere green, the fresh, bright greens of spring that has sprung, like fresh peas, wax crayons, sliced limes, new-opened leaves, colour-popped with zesty quadrangles of oilseed rape in full bloom – the only exception I make to disliking that acid yellow colour.
Great Malvern stretches directly below the eastern flank of the northern hills, its stonework a reflection of the ruddy innards of the hills. People often compare an elevated view of the English countryside to patchwork with its field squares dividing up the vast majority of the farmed rural landscape, and these sights were no exception. Up on Worcestershire Beacon – at 1,395 ft purportedly there is no higher point of land in a straight line eastwards until you get to the Urals – the wind was so fierce I thought I was in danger of getting blown over and swept away. Jackdaws and rooks were riding the gusts from the high slopes where they ganged together, squawking and squabbling then scattering on the winds like a handful of ash scraps cast into the air. I looked for ravens but there were none amongst their corvid cousins. I missed their quorking and tumbling that seemed so in keeping with these tall bare hills, but it would be a dull thing if we saw the same things everywhere and always found what we expect when we’re looking out over a new landscape.
Spring was all round and on the ground and under the ground. Everywhere daisies and dandelions and buttercups, white and yellow counterpoints to the blue of May: speedwell, green alkanet, forget-me-nots; a rash of bluebells on End Hill so deeply indigo they were near purple as we made our way on the first day to the northernmost hilltop and tried to decide if that was the Wreakin we could see in the misty distance (it was). But of course this isn’t the sort of ‘spring’ that the Malverns are famous for. At St Ann’s Well in the rather unimaginatively named Green Valley below Sugarloaf Hill the Victorian building housing a marble basin into which fresh-tapped water sprung from the source is now a cafe and a function room, but in days of yore it gained fame with over-indulged Victorians keen to take the Malvern Cure. The complex treatment lasted several weeks and involved a rigorous scheme of imbibing numerous glasses of water, brisk hill walks, wholesome lunches of meat and vegetables and being wrapped in a blanket soaked in ice cold spring water for an hour every morning. The reality was that the exchange of lifestyle from alcohol, rich food and indolence to a clean regime of fresh air, and daily exercise and was probably of more significant benefit than the fact that it was this particular water that was involved. After a damp winter and a cold spring (the seasonal type) I was certainly feeling the benefit of fresh air, exercise, a change of scene and some stunning views to revitalise the senses, even if it did turn so cold at night that I had to sleep in my hoody – with the hood up – in the tent.
It’s about nine miles from one end of the Malverns to the other. They’re walkable in one go: quite a strenuous undertaking as it traverses about seventeen hills if you choose to climb up all of them, although the paths wind up and over and circumnavigate all the summits so it’s possible to reduce the number of ascents and vary the difficulty of your route. Cee was uncertain what she’d be able to manage with her combination of new knee that she’s still getting used to and old knee that’s not really got any cartilage left so we spread the challenge over three days starting with the northern section above Great Malvern, then the next day taking on the middle section between the Wyche Cutting and The Gullet, and finally walking up both Midsummer Hill and Raggedstone Hill in the south before we left.
Across the A449 near Little Malvern and the remains of its priory the contoured terraces of British Camp sit just enough westward of the northern hill line for it to be named Herefordshire Beacon. The line dividing the counties runs for much of the way down the ridge of the Malvern Hills. Remains of the ancient Shire Ditch – actually more a low ridge like a hedge line – can be seen along parts of the hills, dating back to a dispute between the Bishop of Hereford and the Earl of Gloucester in 1287 that apparently played out like a more drastic and permanent version of school kids’ fall-out involving a strict line of pencil cases down the middle of the desk. British Camp is one of those hill fort relics augmenting the natural vantage of the hill’s height with its massive tiers of terraces and ditches. (I was avoiding comparing it to a wedding cake until I saw it described thus elsewhere, albeit on Wikipedia.) Constructions such as these are so huge in scale I find it hard to grasp the concept of their being built, let alone attempt to visualise what they must have looked like inhabited. British Camp is thought to date back to the 2nd century BC and has housed an iron age fort purportedly destroyed by the Romans as British leader Caractacus made his last stand – although comparisons of the geographical details cited in this tale make it unlikely that this actually did take place here. Later a Norman Castle stood here, probably built by the future King Harold II of Battle of Hastings fame and destroyed by Henry II. Throughout history these great leaders and builders probably thought they were constructing something that would last forever. Up on those windswept and close-grazed terraces I found myself trying to get my head around standing up there 1000 years ago, 2000 years ago, in a massive man-made structure. You would never think that at some point in the future people would be eating their cheese sandwiches up there, dangling their legs over one of the ditches while sheep and rabbits kept the sward manageable. It makes me wonder what our great modern day settlements will look like in a thousand years. Or two…
Our progress on the second day was halted by the disused quarry at the Gullet below Swinyard Hill, beyond which a road cuts through the hill line. There are several disused quarries like bite chunks taken out of the sides of the Malverns, many of which were actively blasted during the early 20th century with the aggregates making a popular road surface material. With the hills standing proud above the lower surrounding countryside it’s no wonder they made for attractive quarrying prospects, although with their protected landscape status and present day designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty it’s hard to imagine it being allowed. The quarries divide opinion: some people seem to think they detract from the quality of the hillscape, others cite their ecological value as they provide alternative habitats that wouldn’t otherwise be found here with their bare rock faces and deep pools created by stone removal. Neither are wrong, and it’s not like we can put the rock back in. Besides, anyone criticising human shaping of the hills ought really to be advocating the smoothing over of the stepped sides of Herefordshire Beacon and Midsummer Hill where the hill forts have irrevocably changed the faces of the slopes. Such striking and visible landforms as the Malverns will always have, and always will, draw the eye from the surrounding landscape. And where the eye leads, the feet follow. People have been drawn to the Malverns for millennia and their traces are all over the hills. Their shape may be natural but how they look on the outside isn’t exactly as nature made them. Nobody would want to be prevented from walking on them so they’re scarred with pathways allowing all and sundry to explore, many of which have been constructed in such a way by Malvern Hills Conservators to enable greater access for wheelchairs, pushchairs and mobility aids. The defining bareness that gave rise to the Malvern name wouldn’t continue if the grasslands weren’t kept grazed. It’s the same story all over England, these natural places that both are and aren’t. I guess it’s just getting that balance right, so that the perceived natural and desired accessible are attainably balanced with the conservation and preservation without denying that changes both manmade and natural always have and always will be a part of the Great British countryside.
From Swinyard Hill the top of Midsummer Hill beyond the Gullet and the quarry looked more wooded than the hills to the north. Its peak was shaded blue-purple between the trees. We’d seen enough bluebells that even Cee had stopped exclaiming over them. I was reminded of walking with her one September when the hedges were heavy with some of the best blackberries I’ve ever eaten. We grazed as we rambled. How many blackberries are too many blackberries? Cee asked. I mumbled through a fruity mouthful that I couldn’t tell. Later that afternoon as we were making our way home she said you’re not still eating them are you?! as I continued to pop them in at the path side. How many blackberries are too many blackberries? Clearly fewer for Cee than me. This, however, was more like how many bluebells are too many bluebells. I haven’t yet discovered. Over three days we must have seen thousands if not millions. They blotched the open upper slopes of the Malverns in patches so deeply indigo they were almost purple. Cee was surprised to see them both out of the cover of the trees and so deep in hue, but for me they were reminiscent of the coastal bluebells I see at home in Cornwall, bright and intense in their defiance against the windswept exposure. Lower down the hillsides in the woody glades their lilac masses were stopping traffic along Black Hill. Their scent, like a lighter, more sylvan hyacinth drift, made it feel as though I were wearing perfume even though I wasn’t as it followed me throughout the day, tempered sometimes with a leafy, woody undertone, or cut through with the onion-stink of ramsons.
I’d like to return in the autumn, I decided, to witness the sweeping panoramas when they’re rusted with the shades of the other end of summer. Cee, however, was happiest with the Malvern spring: the spectrum of greens, the colour-pops of yellow, the ethereal undertone of bluebell-blue hazing the hillslopes, and somewhere below a cuckoo calling unseen amongst the newly opened leaves.
Check out the Malvern Hills Conservators’ website here for more information about the hills, their conservation work, the history, geology, ecology and more.