Great Malvern, Worcestershire - beautiful and historic spa town
Great Malvern, Worcestershire, England
Great Malvern is the biggest of the cluster of small towns and villages, collectively called The Malverns, that nestle against the Malvern Hills. Great Malvern came into prominence in Victorian times, as a spa town. The rich and famous came from London to Malvern in great numbers to be rejuvenated by the 'water cure'. The wealth they brought with them allowed Great Malvern to grow in scale and stature. Nowadays, the town is well known for its history and beauty but also as a centre of excellence for culture, education and scientific research.
This hub is a photographic record of just one of the many possible walks around the old town.
First, some colour. These colours are everywhere on the hills. Bright green bracken, rosebay willowherb, yellow gorse and pink-white bramble. There's an old saying about gorse - the kissing season ends when the last flower falls. It's a good saying too, because gorse will flower twelve months of the year. Kissing is all very well, but in the old days, for going too far with the Squire's daughter, you could end up in...
the old stocks. I'm not well enough up in local history to know when these North Malvern stocks were last used in earnest. Interesting to note that this is a pillory built for two. Quite cosy, really. You and your partner in crime could plan your next escapade, while dodging the flying clods.
Malvern stone. From Norman times (11th Century) until the early Victorian era, Malvern was mainly a monastic settlement. But after the Industrial Revolution the town developed quickly as a highly fashionable spa. Malvern Water, from the hills, is as pure as any spring water anywhere. People flocked from London for the famous water cure (which involved immersion, not ingestion!) The resulting building boom used the local Malvern Stone, quarried from the hills. Malvern Stone is extremely hard and durable, reddish-brown, and with a natural sheen. This unique town boasts several mock-gothic palaces and many smaller houses and walls built entirely of this fine material, giving it a different look and feel from every other English town.
Portrait of a Lady. A poster in a bus shelter advertises coming attractions to Malvern Festival Theatre. The town is lucky to have an excellent Arts complex of theatre, concert hall, cinema and exhibition centre, based around the old Winter Gardens. Malvern's theatrical tradition goes back to the hey-day of the Spa. There are strong connections with George Bernard Shaw who was a frequent visitor. Many productions are of the highest standard, often premiered in Malvern before moving on to London's West End. My walk today didn't take me past the theatre, so you'll have to make do with the bus shelter!
Bellevue Terrace is the 'top road' in Great Malvern, running North/South along the East side of the hill. This year, the flower baskets are looking great, though I still prefer wild flowers in their natural habitat. We're looking down towards the Priory Church, one of England's finest. What you can see is 15th Century Perpendicular architecture, but deep in the heart of the Priory, the Nave is 11th Century Norman. Let's go and take a closer look...
The Churchyard is one of Malvern's special places, shaded by magnificent mature cedars, yews and elms. The newest grave I could find here is nearly two hundred years old, the 'business' having moved to the new town cemetery half a mile down the hill. There's something very peaceful about this old graveyard, with its time-weathered stones slowly returning to earth.
The tall hooded cross is matched by an identical one outside the graveyard in Bellevue Terrace Gardens. Some day, I'll try to discover its significance.
At this point, as we're about to enter the church, I should have switched off my mobile phone, but as it is also my camera, I compromised by switching it to silent instead, so I could take a few interior shots. I hope that's not a mortal sin on my soul!
I'm on holiday this week and far too lazy to research the Priory's history in detail, besides which it's eminently 'googlable'. Instead I'll just show you what appeals to me, starting with this shot of the North elevation. The proportions of the arches and the muted colours in the stonework lend a timeless serenity to this view.
The Vestibule (I think it's a vestibule!) has on the wall an interesting mount of the clappers of the previous peal of bells. The inscription reads:
Our duty done in belfry high
Now voiceless tongues at rest we lie
But they needn't worry - their replacements are doing a grand job!
The East Window is a thing of beauty. This picture doesn't do justice to the colours of the stained glass, but it does show the perfect proportions of the Gothic arches and tracework. In the foreground, the rather splendid eagle lectern is doing a pretty good job of concealing the choir stalls behind. The Priory is one of the lightest and brightest old churches I've ever seen, because of the high vaulted windows on every elevation, giving a most uplifting interior.
Behind me (no, of course you can't see!) is the Nave, where the 900 year-old massive Norman pillars and round arches have proved strong enough to support the double height 15th Century additions for the last 500 years. Be impressed!
St Anne's Chapel, dedicated to the mother of the Virgin, is reserved for quiet prayer. Its East window, featuring the crucified Christ, is flanked by modern statues of Mary and Anne. However, the South-facing stained glass is much older and tells the Old Testament story of the Patriarchs. Many of the scenes are damaged and repaired, but the original colours remain vibrant. When the sun shines, these colours are often projected onto the ancient flag stones. This corner of the church is furthest from any road, which also makes for peace and solemnity.
Sophia Thompson's statue surprises many visitors to the Priory. She is represented as in the moment of death, transfixed by an (invisible) apparition of Christ. This was a popular theme in 19th Century art and statuary, but it doesn't usually appear inside a Church. I think it's fair to assume that Robert Thompson, her bereaved husband, must have been a person of some local influence in the parish. Be that as it may, he certainly commissioned a wonderful memorial to his beloved, though, to my eyes, she seems in spectacularly good health!
Recently, to give Sophia something to gaze at, a simple wooden cross (without the figure of Christ) has been positioned in her eyeline.
The Abbey, Water & Music
Outside again, and now we're looking down at Malvern's top hotel, the Abbey. It is entirely covered, not with ivy, but with Virginia creeper. Green now, but in the autumn it is ablaze with red, rust and gold. The oddly shaped stones in the garden are staddle stones. They were once used to support barns. Rats, apparently, can't negotiate the overhang. And you thought they were just stone mushrooms...
Malvhina is the name of this modern fountain by Rose Kelleher. She is sourcing pure spring water, Malvern Water, from the hills behind her. Many people take home bottles of her water, which is as good as any you can buy. Unfortunately, Malvern Water is not plentiful enough to be routed around the town as tap water, so we can't bathe in it!
There are several natural springs on the hills and lots of Victorian public wells around the town, but many of these are now dry. The biggest commercial bottling of Malvern Water is by Cadbury Schweppes, but I prefer Malvhina's offering.
Sir Edward Elgar can bring this ramble to a close. Elgar is Malvern's most famous luminary (though some would hold out for William Langland, the poet who gave us Piers Plowman). Elgar has a claim to be England's greatest composer, with the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, the Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance March among his best known works.
Elgar's presence is everywhere in Malvern. Devotees come to see his house, his church, his grave, and to attend lectures and concerts in his honour. But Malvern's music isn't all in the past. Even as I write, Malvern's Nigel Kennedy, an internationally renowned violinist, is playing in the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.
OK - that's a long enough walk for today. Thanks for coming with me. I hope I've given you a flavour of this very special old town - my home.
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