I first spotted Malvern, or rather the Malvern Hills, out of the window on the train between Worcester and Hereford. Wow, I thought, I must come back and explore this place properly. So in April I bought an advance rail ticket, picking a day I hoped would be warm and sunny, and yesterday I came back wrapped in winter coat and waterproofs. It was still Wow, though.[7 photos]
Great Malvern is one of England's spa towns, a fairly insignificant village raised to national acclaim by entrepreneurial doctors praising the efficacy of its waters. The whole place is thus seriously Victorian, blessed with numerous lofty Gothic villas spaced along leafy avenues. The town's spread across a steepish slope at the foot of a much steeper slope, which makes getting about something of a physical challenge, but most of the major roads run parallel to the contours to give residents a fighting chance. Take an alleyway or public footpath and you can suddenly find yourself climbing fifty steps, so although the whole town screams "retire here!" only the fittest likely do. I have never seen so many over-50s carrying yoga mats.
The town's geographical focus is Belle Vue Island, an elevated pedestrianised sliver at the junction of the two main roads. Here can be found a statue of Edward Elgar (who lived in and around Malvern for most of his life) and a thrusting memorial 'Enigma Fountain' (which alas wasn't switched on). Many of the finer buildings up here look like they were once banks, including the Post Office (now mostly a gift shop), Barclays (closed Thursdays) and the former Tourist Information Centre. The latter was vacated a couple of months ago, and staff now work out of much smaller premises behind a cafe, which is fit for purpose so long as no more than two people need to check out the leaflet racks at the same time.
Malvern Museum can be found inside the former Abbey Gatehouse, so isn't big, but provides a model lesson in how much interesting stuff can be crammed inside a few rooms. The building was left standing after the dissolution of the monasteries, and its arch was closed to traffic in the 1970s after an ice cream van became lodged underneath causing considerable damage. Today the museum is staffed by cheery volunteers who'll take your two quid (a bargain, two quid), dispense audio guides (definitely take the audio guide) and offer friendly advice about the state of the great outdoors ("Have you come for the walking? Oh that's a shame. Yes, we're hoping the rain stops soon too.").
The obvious starting point is a showcase of Malvern's unique geology, then upstairs you jump ahead era by era room by room. The area spent several centuries as a royal forest before James I sold off his rights to a large chunk because he needed the money, but Malvern's story only really kickstarts around 1800 when folk started arriving to take the waters. Queen Victoria came when she was a princess, and Charleses Darwin and Dickens, and Mr Schweppes saw the commercial sense in bottling the Holywell Spring in 1843. WH Smiths in the town centre alas has no such sense of local history and is currently offering a half-price bottle of Buxton Water with every purchase.
Edward Elgar and George Bernard Shaw get their look-in, the dream team who founded the Malvern Festival in the 1920s as a focus for the arts. Malvern's Theatre has since been extended and still punches well above its regional weight, be that orchestrally or dramatically, and I suspect many folk move here for the richness of the cultural offering. The museum's final nook celebrates the town's legacy as a hub for radar research, from the secret arrival of hundreds of government scientists in 1942 to the current spunoff privatised Qinetiq site close by. The technology that powers the touchscreen on your mobile phone can be traced back to very early research right here (the Malvern Radar and Technology History Society can tell you more).
The loftiest building in town is Great Malvern Priory, a former Benedictine Abbey, now the heart of local worship. Feel free to wander inside and admire the richness of the interior, notably the ceiling, misericords and medieval stained glass, plus whatever else might be going on. As I walked down the aisle one of the two ladies seated in the chancel suddenly burst into song, quite beautifully, while the other accompanied her on the lute. The eastern window is the largest in any parish church in England, and at its foot is a wardrobe-like exit which might (emphasise might) have helped inspire CS Lewis's most famous book. Also, I noted that the shop sells 99th and 101st birthday cards, as well as the more normal 100th, should that ever be useful.
Malvern's parks and gardens are lovely (unsurprisingly in a spa town where visitors needed to have somewhere to perambulate for the rest of the day, aided by the landscaping opportunities a change in contours can bring. The highest is Rose Bank Gardens (which replaced the former home of CW Dyson Perrins, the Worcestershire sauce entrepreneur), affording impressive views across the town. It also features a striking Diamond Jubilee Sculpture of Two Buzzards, a rare modern nod, whereas Priory Park lower down relies on its tried and tested bandstand and Swan Pool. Also, a nice bit of gaslighting rarely goes amiss.
Wandering the outskirts I found Malvern College, the famous co-ed private school, spread across an enormous Gothic/suburban campus. In the town centre I found second hand bookshops and the obligatory Waitrose, as well as shops that exist solely to dress retired gentlemen conservatively and/or to provide their wives with something flowing and floral. Hostelries varied from Tudor pubs to converted hotels, plus enough cafes to safely shield everyone should rain set in for the day. I'd best also mention the station, which has amazing ironwork columns emblazoned with brightly painted mouldings of flowers and foliage - possibly Britain's best-decorated drainpipes.
To see most of what I've mentioned, follow the Route To The Hills from the station. It's ably signposted. This downloadable guide explains what you'll see on the way. And of course the Hills are why everyone's really here...