Distance: Around 10 miles
Difficulty of the Terrain: Hard
Get the route: via Ordnance Survey Maps
Walk from the eastern Herefordshire market town of Ledbury to Great Malvern via Eastnor Castle and along the Malvern Hill’s ridge taking in highlights of the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty including British Camp Hill Fort, the Worcestershire Beacon and Saint Anne’s Well.
The “National Park of the West Midlands”
Get the route: via Ordnance Survey Maps
With the exception of a tiny slither of the Peak District’s south western fringe the West Midlands region is entirely devoid of a national park. The upshot of this is that every weekend and holiday the region’s resident’s gravitate towards an array of green spaces scattered in the rural parts of the counties outside the main conurbation.
Chief amongst these are the Malvern Hills, an 8 mile long, undulating range of hills rising majestically out of the Severn Plain. At their highest point – the Worcestershire Beacon – they stand at 1,394 ft. (425m) above sea level. The hills are formed from some of the oldest rock in the country, including diorite, granite, gneiss, schist, pegmatite and dolerite and all manner of minerals laid down around 680million years ago.
The unusual and varied properties of the rocks gave rise to spa treatments from the 17th Century onwards, which became the mainstay of the local economy after the Dissolution of the Monasteries put pay to the previous eclesiastical focus of the area. Long after Malvern’s prominence as a spa faded away in the late 19th Century, bottled Malvern mineral water remained a mainstay of cafes, restaurants and corner shops across the land. That is until Coca-Cola declared the bottling plant unprofitable in 2010 and discontinued the brand.
Like many people from the West Midlands I have a long history with Malvern. Mostly being taken as a child on walks I didn’t especially want to go on around various parts of the hills. My parents rather liked Malvern, the town of around 30,000 people that stretches along the foot of the eastern side of the hills, and our family nearly moved there (something that happily never quite managed to happen), so as an infant and pre-adolescent I got to know the area immensely well.
So, in the way these things often happen, as I moved into being a teenager and then left home, visits to Malvern became more and more infrequent. Maybe every other year with family members and I once drove with a friend on a whim one cold Saturday in mid-winter to climb the Worcestershire Beacon.
Which meant it was a little bit of a surprise when on a slightly overcast but humid day in late summer I suddenly had the urge to go and walk the Malvern Hills. Consulting online maps I reckoned that walking the range of hills from Ledbury (the town nearest the southern end) and Great Malvern (technically not quite at the end of the range, but a lot nicer in my opinion than Malvern Link where the hills actually end) would be about 11 miles (18km) and take me roughly five hours.
Ledbury is actually about 3 miles (5km) away from the southern end of the Malverns. However, it has the advantage if you’re setting out to walk the Malverns of having a mainline train station with a pretty frequent service. Indeed Ledbury is one of those small places that is remarkably well connected. It took about an hour from me leaving the University train station in south Birmingham to be walking down Ledbury high street.
The town also has excellent connections elsewhere including to Paddington Station in London which is only two and a half hours away with trains five to six times a day. Along the way the train runs through Oxford and it must have been the route that brought J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on their frequent walking holidays in the Malvern Hills. Having grown up on what in the early 20th Century was Birmingham’s suburban fringe with Worcestershire J.R.R. Tolkien, like so many people from the West Midlands conurbation, knew the Malverns well from an early age. So, perhaps it is no surprise that decades later when he wrote his books the vista of a mountain range rising with stark majesty from a plain features prominently. There is also a reasonable aesthetic case for the Belfast born C.S. Lewis having been influenced by his sojourns in the Malverns… However, we’ll come to that right at the end of the walk.
Having arrived at Ledbury train station I turned left out of the station and walked down the main road through the town.
Ledbury is a very pleasant and interesting place in it’s own right and I’d have happily lingered for a bit. Perhaps aided by it’s status as a dormitory for affluent homeworkers, retirees and commuters from Birmingham and beyond, it has a busy high street with lots of independents and several chains making it easy to get food and drink if you haven’t brought your own with you.
Near the end of the high street you come upon a busy crossroads flanked by several large black and white timber buildings.
At this point take the road running off on your left hand sign-posted for Malvern, Worcester and the Elgar Trail. Heading this way you pass by a very impressive manorial looking complex on the right, and a surprisingly palatial police station on your left in an vaguely art deco style.
Walking a short way up this road on your right just after a cluster of bungalows on the edge of town near the entrance to a wood there is a footpath sign (it’s clear but at a slightly odd angle).
Cross over the road here and walk up the hill through the dense wood.
The way through the woods is marked by a series of handy little green signs bearing an ammonite logo which mark The Geopark Way, this route leads to the Malvern Hills range and more or less tracks the route that I walked.
At the top of the hill you leave the woods and cross a large clearing.
Walking through more trees on the far side you get your first glimpse of the Malverns through the trees.
After this the trees thin out and you walk along a clearly defined path across some pleasantly pastoral eastern Herefordshire countryside in the direction of the Malvern Hills which are now clear in the distance.
Relatively soon you see the small village of Eastnor in front of you.
Not much more than a hamlet, Eastnor has several houses, a couple of farms, a surprisingly large primary school and an ancient looking church surrounded by several centuries worth of gravestones.
Having crossed a playing field to reach the road through the village, turn left and walk down it, past the church to the tree lined village green, here turn left past the school and walk the short way until you see a car park.
The village is dominated by Eastnor Castle, an early example of gothic revival architecture built in the 1810s to the instructions of John Somers-Cocks the first Earl Somers. He was one of those hereditary wealthy individuals in the 18th and early 19th Centuries who bought themselves seats in parliament as a means to becoming even more wealthy. Today this house is a Grade 1 listed building, but the designer Charles Locke-Eastlake writing later in the 19th Century described it as:
“…a massive and gloomy-looking building, flanked by watch-towers, and enclosing a keep…The building in question might have made a tolerable fort before the invention of gunpowder, but as a residence it was a picturesque mistake.”
It remains in the possession of the Earl of Somers to this day, and like many latter day aristocrats, has turned areas of the estate into a kind of theme park. Attractions include an opportunity for Jaguar Land Rover customers to drive their vehicles off road and a showground of sorts where concerts, festivals and other gatherings take place.
In the car park which you reach having walked from the village green the Eastnor Castle Estate has erected a large chalet style shed which serves as a cafe. Having bought water and some lunch in Ledbury I didn’t stop there, but it looked like a reasonably nice place to have lunch or get a drink if you need one at this point in the walk.
Having crossed the car park head through the gate next to a cattle grid and walk along the tarmacked road in front of you.
Waymarks for The Geopark Way continue along here showing you that you are heading in the right direction.
After a short while walking along this road I turned off to the right and walked across a bridge onto the Eastnor Estate’s camping/showground and walked up the gently sloping grassy field towards the hill you have to climb to reach the Malverns, however, it is apparently possible to continue along the road for longer and cross the camping/showground further along.
There were numerous estate workers around setting up for some kind of festival as I walked through and they seemed quite happy for people to just walk through that part of the grounds, so where you walk in this section doesn’t seem to be cause for concern.
Having crossed the camping/showground walk along a road running along the bottom of the hill. The road presently forks, and you turn right onto a gravel lined track.
Looking back along this track towards where you’ve walked from provides quite a dramatic view of Eastnor Castle allowing you to decide for yourself how accurate Charles Locke-Eastlake’s assessment was.
Presently you come to a similar path heading, steeply straight up the hill past some trees towards the summit of a hill which serves as an outrider for the Malverns.
I walked up this path and found it somewhat hard going so decided to take a more winding but less steep route through the woods instead.
After a fairly long climb you reach the top of the hill.
From this point you can readily see the 90 foot tall Eastnor Obelisk nearby on your right.
This totem was erected in 1812, around the time that construction began on Eastnor Castle, and is a monument that the Somers-Cocks family erected to themselves.
Walking past the Obelisk, head gently leftwards towards the Malvern Hills which now loom very large in the distance.
In front of them sits an expanse of woodland called Gullet Wood, a 19th Century cottage, now holiday lets, standing by two gates which lead into them.
Once you reach these, take the one on the right hand side and walk through the woodland, on the far side you will find the path that leads up onto the Malvern ridge.
At this point, when I walked the route however, I came somewhat unstuck, as for about 3 or 4 metres the path onto the Worcestershire Way which would have led up onto the Malverns was so boggy when I walked there that I couldn’t traverse it in the trainers I was wearing. This meant I had to take a circumlocutious route through the words – frustratingly missing Swineyard’s Hill and the start of the ridge. It also meant that I had to trudge round some of the tracks where the Earl of Somer’s paying punters take their Landrovers. Absolutely massive ruts filled with brackish water created by years of 4x4s compacting them, which I had to skirt by walking gingerly along the embankment by the edge of the road, avoiding saplings, branches and the undergrowth around me.
This could have been fairly easily avoided if I’d had better footwear, but it wasn’t a disaster, as after around 45 minutes to an hour of frustrated trudging through the woods I found another pathway and was able to get up onto Hangman’s Hill the second peak along the ridge and make my way north from there.
After the woods, walking on the Malverns is relatively easy, though the path rises and falls steeply and in some places there are a lot of stones under foot. It is very hard to go wrong as you just follow the crest of the hill and the outlines of the summits ahead of you. The path on top of the hills is very wide and clear. For better or for worse the relatively short range of hill’s status amongst the public as akin to a national park, means that over the years a lot of incrediblely well worn paths across the hills have formed. Order is kept in a clear, efficient and sometimes slightly officious manner, by the Malvern Hills Conservators an organisation established in 1925 to manage and conserve the hills, halting the encroaching development of Malvern town and the large village of Colwall. They provide benches, bins and clear signage in a distinctive hard wearing style across the hills.
Walking along the ridge the first feature of interest I came to was the Giant’s Cave. This prominent burrow in the rock is more than large enough for a party of people to walk into and have a look around. Of course, geologists reckon that it is not in fact a giant’s cave, rather it was formed around 600million years ago, the result of a prehistoric underwater volcanic eruption.
Generally speaking on top of the Malvern ridge there is a choice of a semi-made up (or in some places completely tarmacked or paved) lower path which is relatively flat and even, and a harder scrambly route which is compacted earth, grass, bare rock and scree. At this point in the day I was keen to catch the views so was walking up the harder route, but if you are walking at a more leisurely pace or fancy less an easier walk it is possible to take the gentler path and arrive at the same destination.
The first major peak that you reach is known as British Camp or the Herefordshire Beacon. This hill was extensively landscaped between 700 and 200 BC by bronze aged communities who turned it into a hill fort and their ramparts and work to smooth sections of the hill so that they could build on it is still readily apparent today.
On the way up to the summit is is worth pausing briefly to look back towards Eastnor Obelisk and Eastnor Castle which are still visible behind you, and to look to your right towards the Cotswolds and to take in the small drinking water reservoir at the base of British Camp.
Heading down from British Camp, the paths are well made up and you can quickly descend to a carpark.
Here the hills are somewhat built up, and there is a little kiosk-like cafe where you can buy food, drink and souvenirs if you so desire. There’s also the Malvern Hill Hotel and Restaurant on the other side of the road from the carpark if you would like more substantial fare, alcoholic drinks or fancy breaking the walk overnight, not least because this is quite close to the halfway point.
Having crossed the carpark and the busy main road, you walk along Jubilee Drive, a road which runs across the western side of the central section of the hills. At this point you cross the county line from Herefordshire into Worcestershire.
After a short way along Jubilee Drive a footpath begins on the right hand side of the road, following this you can make your way back up onto the top of the ridge.
From this point if you look to your right you can look down onto Castlemorton Common, where in late May 1992 between 20,000-40,000 new age travellers and other ravers descended to hold the largest free parties held in the UK during the rave period. It was the largest example of a free festival seen in the UK since the Stonehenge Free Festival. This affront to middle English sensibilities was by all accounts a wonderful thing to be part of, but led to the arrest of 13 members of the Spiral Tribe sound system and proved a prime mover for the legislation that became the 1994 Criminal Justice Act which essentially outlawed unlicensed music events.
From this point the walk becomes a ramble up and down a series of undulating peaks and summits, including the aptly named Perseverance Hill. Ahead of you the Worcestershire Beacon looms increasingly large. The Beacon, one of the largest sumits in the entire West Midlands region is believed to have had a religious significance for the pre-Christian inhabitants of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Like the Malverns as a whole it continues to inspire fascination amongst artists and creatives of all kinds. From the mentions of the Malverns in Piers Ploughman, one of the earliest examples of secular English language fiction, and a meditation on class struggle in late 14th Century agrarian communities following the Black Death. Through to a more psychedelic kind of radicalism where the Malverns and the Beacon in particular features prominently in Ken Russell’s 1962 biopic of Edward Elgar, and 1974’s even triper and more overtly revolutionary Penda’s Fen, where key scenes take place on the hillside.
Approaching the Beacon you descend a fair way, crossing over one of the few roads over the hills and coming upon a long car park which you can follow up the hill. Near the entrance to the carpark can be found a public toilet block, as well as the Malvern Hills GeoCentre which has an exhibition and information about the hills. If you follow the road round through a gap cut in the hills then you come to Wyche Inn which serves drinks, food and has a few rooms which can be rented overnight.
Continuing up towards the Beacon the carpark gives way to a tarmacked road, which turns into a semi-made path in time. Keep climbing up the hill you are eventually presented with several routes up the hill, one which is moderately steep, potholed but tarmacked, another is semi-made and winds up gently, whilst the third is a scramble up rocks.
Having walked for over four hours largely up and down hill I opted for the first (paved) route and soon reached the Beacon’s summit.
From here after admiring the view, how far I’d come and how high I’d climbed, I began my descent down the steep slope from the top of the hill.
There’s quite a few routes down, with a heavily used semi-made path marking the centre of the ridge. In front of me the Sugarloaf Hill loomed almost as large as the Beacon, but I’d more or less reached my final destination, Great Malvern where I intended to have a bit more food to supplement the sandwich I’d bought in Ledbury and a drink before I headed back to Birmingham from Great Malvern Station.
In my haste, rather than following the well-made path round to a junction at the foot of the Sugarloaf I instead chose a steep descent that was more than my shoes could cope with. This meant that I couldn’t easily stop myself and at one point actually slid down part of the hill. I didn’t go over and someone better attired would have been fine, but it’s always best to be careful, even on hills as well trod as the Malverns.
Presently I did make it to a proper path which I followed down the hillside.
I began my descent through the trees. Whilst the tops of the Malverns are quite windswept and rugged, further down the hills are ringed by quite thick woodland. Walking down a well-made but steep path I passed a sturdy Malvern Hills Conservators signpost to the Beacon and some of their seating before coming across the St. Anne’s Well Cafe.
Alongside the hotels and a few other buildings in the town like the theatre, this building is a survivor from Malvern’s spa town heyday. Built in 1813 the current St. Anne’s Well building is open as a cafe Thursday – Sunday each week, probably the most interesting place to get food and drink on the walk, and it has a great terraced seating area. Inside when the cafe is open you can see (and drink if you fancy it…) water from the St. Anne’s well.
Inside when the cafe is open you can see (and drink if you fancy it…) water from the St. Anne’s well. People have drawn water from the spring on the site since at least St. Werstan in Anglo-Saxon times, evidence of a medieval chapel including ecclesiastical drawings, an undercroft and human bones were discovered in the 1820s when an old cottage was pulled down near the site of the well. And of course, the Christian place of worship was only the most recent devotional presence on the site; it’s believed that the well was dedicated to St. Anne because the Britonic inhabitants of Malvern had already named the spring Anu in honour of one of their water goddesses.
Leaving St. Anne’s well you come to the Narnia part of the walk. That is to say a very steep, wooded, and rocky valley illuminated by gas lamps. Reputedly C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were trudging back to their accommodation near here one snowy night in the depth of winter, having spent the evening in the pub, which led C.S. Lewis to remark “this scene would make a fine opening for a book”. Which in the environs feels apt, but I feel it may be too good to be true.
At the bottom of the path you come to a set of 99 steps, these lead down to a small hillside park which stands on the edge of Great Malvern Town Centre. Having walked down these and paused (or not) to read the information boards which explain the C.S. Lewis and Narnia connection in the park, you are in the bustling centre of Malvern and have finished the walk.
There are numerous good cafes, restaurants and pubs including a Wetherspoon’s which also has accommodation if you need refreshments or rest, and there’s several nice parks and a historic abbey to see in Malvern as well the spa town atmosphere.
Alternatively if you’d like to head home Great Malvern Station is a 10 minute walk down the hill from where the walk ends and there are buses to Worcester and other surrounding towns nearby as well.
Trains heading north to Worcester and Birmingham are roughly hourly for much of the day.