I’m standing halfway up a hill, on the edge of a woodland glade, drinking a very exclusive liquid bottled just metres away. It’s delicious, cooling and reviving, and tastes of absolutely nothing. But, that’s precisely the point. Because this is table water from the Holywell Spring Water company, which bottles some of England’s purest water straight from its source.
Water spurts out of holes all over the Malvern Hills, a 105-square-kilometre area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) that rises out of the Severn Vale in Herefordshire. Viewed on a map, it’s a lonely sight, a lumpy island set alone on the surrounding pastoral patchwork of the plain. But from its peak, the views across the surrounding countryside are astounding, with the Cotswolds, Welsh hills, Shropshire Hills and the Peak District all visible in the distance.
The Malverns (the name derives from the Welsh for ‘bare hills’) were created around 600 million years ago when a crack in the Earth’s crust allowed magma to surge up onto the surface, before cooling into the hills visible today, which reach up to 425 metres high. Later, the glacial power of successive ice ages ground down the surrounding landscape but had little effect on the Malvern Hills themselves.
And it’s this resistance to the elements that makes the area’s water so pure. Their underlying igneous and metamorphic rock is some of the oldest and hardest in England. So while rainwater travelling through other landscapes tends to acquire some of its characteristics – like the brown hue taken on by water soaking through Scottish peatlands – the water that seeps through the Malvern Hills hardly picks up any impurities at all.
THE WATER CURE
People have been travelling to the Malvern Hills area for centuries in the hope of being cleansed and purified by its water. The Holywell spring I’m standing beside hosts the oldest bottling plant in England – it’s believed to have been bottling water since 1622. Numerous other spring surrounds of different levels of grandeur, from a vast, five-storey clock tower with a well at the bottom to modest drinking troughs, are dotted around the hills – 17 of them having been restored recently by the AONB.
During the Victorian era, the ‘Malvern Water Cure’ attracted so many people to the area that the small village ballooned to the size of a town, with more than a quarter of its houses acting as guesthouses. ‘You have to remember that that was a time when cities were still afflicted by waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera,’ explains David Armitage, the AONB’s assistant manager. ‘The situation was so bad, people were drinking beer rather than water in an attempt to keep those diseases at bay.’
Malvern’s water soared in popularity and, after a doctor analysed it in the mid-18th century and discovered it had a very low mineral content, it even got its own tag line: ‘Malvern water, says Dr John Wall/Is famous for containing just nothing at all.’
Visitors flocked to the spa town, among them Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria. But the treatments they received were a far cry from the gentle cosseting with which modern spa-goers will be acquainted. Pictures on the wall of Holywell’s bottling plant depict the daily timetable, which included being woken at 5am to be stripped naked and wrapped in a cold, wet towel.
Many swore that it changed their lives, especially those suffering from the increasingly common affliction of ‘neurosis’, but others weren’t so sure. Alfred Tennyson, for example, claimed the treatment left him ‘half cured, half destroyed’. And for those suffering from infectious diseases, the treatment may have done more harm than good. When Darwin’s ten-year-old daughter Annie developed what’s now thought to have been tuberculosis, her father took her to Malvern to undergo treatment. She died shortly afterwards, and was buried in the grounds of Malvern Priory.
One hundred and fifty years later, visitors no longer flock to the hills to be wrapped in cold sheets, but the outdoors is still a big draw, enabling stately homes such as Eastnor, an early-19th-century faux castle, to continue to maintain its large estate. Its mud is used by Land Rover for off-road training, its deer park hosts the Big Chill Festival, and the ‘castle’ has hosted weddings for celebrities such as Davina McCall.
‘When the present owner, James Hervey-Bathurst, took over the castle about 15 years ago, we quickly realised that we had to start doing other things. If you ran a stately home, you used to be able to rely on footfall through the door on a Sunday, but you can’t any more,’ says Simon Foster, Eastnor’s general manager.
DOWN ON THE FRUIT FARM
The Malvern area was once cloaked in apple orchards, a fact local ecologist Tim Dixon and his wife noticed when they were cycling around their village of Colwall. They applied for a grant to assess what remained and were surprised at the results. ‘We couldn’t believe what we had – about 20 hectares of orchards dotted around the village,’ Dixon says. ‘It turns out that, alongside the farmstead farms, the current orchards were the remnants of a vast 19th-century fruit farm that had supplied fruit for companies such as Cadbury’s.’
The survey took some time. ‘The geography of the village had completely changed,’ Dixon explains. ‘When the apple industry crumbled at the end of the Second World War as cheap imports became available from New Zealand, the land became worth more for development than for growing fruit. So houses ended up being built on the old orchard frontages, which means that if you walk around the village today, you can’t always see the orchards from the road.’
Now, the positions of every tree have been plotted using GPS, including a number of rare species that ‘only still exist by the skin of their teeth’, Dixon says. ‘To begin with, it was an “emergency room” situation, but now we can begin making plans – for a community orchard and maybe even to begin processing the plants.’ And the knowledge they’ve gained is already in demand from other villages in the AONB who are concerned about their own abandoned orchards.
Now, the main reason people to come to the Malvern Hills (about 1.25 million of them annually) is for the views.
And to make sure they’re protected, the AONB team has commissioned some landscape architects to help them define what makes a view important. ‘The idea is to work out objectively, rather than subjectively, what makes a view important, so that the criteria can be applied in planning cases,’ explains AONB manager Paul Esrich.
‘It’s a fairly innovative piece of work but it has been carried out previously in places such as St Paul’s, London and Edinburgh to protect their skylines,’ he continues. ‘The plan is to get the value of views recognised so that we can make sure that we protect the extraordinary ones that we have here in Malvern, not just within the hills, but also in the surrounding landscape.’
Where to walk
‘Walking the Malvern Hill Ridge takes you on a journey from the high, more dramatic northern hills, which are often quite busy, to the partially wooded and more secluded southern ones. To complete the whole route takes about five or six hours.’
Paul Esrich, AONB manager
When to see the fruit trees blossom
‘It varies from year to year. They usually flower somewhere between the third week of April and the second week of May. If you cycle in the lanes around the village of Colwall, you’ll see the farmstead apple orchards and the perry-tree pears – they have these great big spires of blossoms and can grow to more than 18 metres high.’ Tim Dixon, Colwall Orchard Project
Where to sample Malvern’s spring waters
‘The Clock Tower or St Ann’s Well are both interesting buildings in interesting landscapes. You can drink the water there, and we have story boards in the buildings so you can learn about their history.’
David Armitage, AONB assistant manager
What to look out for at night
‘Malvern’s Victorian gas lamps, some of the few remaining gas-powered lamps in the UK. They inspired CS Lewis, who was at school in the area, and went on to include a gas lamp in his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’
For more information about the Malvern Hills AONB, visit www.malvernhillsaonb.org.uk.
First published July 2010