The Malvern Hills are extraordinary, a narrow granite ridge running eight miles north/south along the border of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Its rocks are amongst the oldest in England, and strongly resistant to erosion, so stand out above the neighbouring plain like sawteeth. Views from the ridgetop are spectacular, as is the wildlife haven this elevation affords, but what's truly amazing is the disconnect between down there and up here. [12 photos]
For example, the hills nudge so close to Great Malvern that the highest summit is barely half a mile from the nearest pizza restaurant and Lloyds Bank. The town's high street is as high as it can practically get, beyond which only a single steep lane continues to a narrow residential terrace at a gradient mobility scooters wouldn't countenance. Alternative access is by provided a stone staircase known locally as the 99 Steps, although I only counted 95. The lane somehow continues up a constitutional-sapping zigzag, lit by the anachronistic gaslamps Malvern rejoices in retaining...
...and nestled in the last fold is St Ann's Well. This is one of the springs which gave the area its medicinal reputation, and for an unusual reason. Normally spa towns thrive because their waters are loaded with bespoke mineral content, but Malvern's water is almost mineral-free because the granite in the hills is unusually free from impurities. You can bottle your own from the Sicilian-style basin, although a sign alongside recommends boiling before consumption just in case. Safer to pop into the cafe alongside, which has been here over 200 years but probably didn't start out serving vegetarian specials and cake.
We're still nowhere near the top. The path continues round the back, then climbs steeply into the trees tracing a myriad of routes, take your pick. One route's ideal for bikes, heading off round the edge of the plateau along an approximate contour, and also seems to be favoured by robust dogwalkers and regular joggers. I instead bore off up the hillside between gorse bushes and rabbit droppings making for the col between three of the summits, my boots rejoicing that they were being asked to do some proper walking for once.
The highest point is Worcestershire Beacon, also the highest point in the county, so is where the obligatory trig point is located. On a good day they say you can see thirteen counties and three cathedrals, but I'd arrived in the aftermath of a downpour with thick grey cloud brushing almost overhead, so netted rather fewer. That said the skyline was dramatic, and I was up here with absolutely no company other than a couple of sheep who'd slipped through an electric fence. The land dropped away sharply to both sides, with Great Malvern a tiny toytown down below and a patchwork of irregular fields stretching off towards Wales. Magic.
And also oddly accessible. Once you're up on the ridge the changes in height are less severe, and a firm asphalt path weaves along the spine making walking a breeze. I followed it to the south, nipping up the intermediate summit of Summer Hill just because it was there, eventually breaking out at a car park and main road. This is the Wyche Pass, for centuries the easiest way to nip across the range, and now home to the Malvern Hills GeoCentre. I had high hopes, but it was basically just a (decent) cafe with a case of rocks and several interactive iPads. Continuing I'd have reached the Iron Age fort of British Camp atop Herefordshire Beacon, but I had no time for that so headed back the way I came.
The weather was better now, and the hilltops correspondingly busier. A retired couple made their way slowly on sticks. A younger pair snogged on a bench oblivious to the view they hadn't come up here to see. The same jogger passed me twice, followed by two lively golden retrievers. Almost every slope was enlivened with bright pink foxgloves, revelling in the acidic peaty soil. And even though it was now well past three o'clock the trig point was now surrounded by an entire school party, who then trooped off politely on a quest to tick off Sugarloaf Hill before descending.
For my hilltop denouement I made tracks to the second highest peak, North Hill, a bare hump directly overlooking the town and its immediate suburbs. Rabbits scattered. A lone bird of prey, I think a kestrel, hovered overhead scanning for food. The sun burst through the clouds briefly shining a spotlight on distant Worcester. Tiny clumps of heather deflected beneath my feet. The wind blew, but thankfully didn't whip. And a pub in Great Malvern beckoned, in another world somehow over a thousand feet below, but I was in absolutely no rush to descend.