Travel: Britain/ Ridge over untroubled water: a walk in the Malvern Hills

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The Independent Travel
You don't need an anorak and climbing boots to enjoy the vast open spaces around the Malvern Hills. Much of the 3,000 acres of common land is grassy sward on the lower slopes of the nine-mile chain of hills, around which six settlements cling as if glued to the rock.

There are more than 100 miles of paths crisscrossing the Malvern hills. Though steep, the hills are small in area - a total of only about three square miles - which means they are compact, and highly distinctive in outline.

As you approach from the Severn vale, the scene is unforgettable: the buildings of Great Malvern, dominated by the magnificent llth-century priory church, hugging the side of the hill that rises steeply behind them.

The Malverns are not only composed of some of the oldest rock formations in Britain, but they produce some of the purest water in the country, which analysts have consistently found to be virtually mineral-free.

The Malvern Water, said Dr John Wall

Is famed for producing just nothing at all

So goes the rhyme about a local man who studied medicine at Oxford and who is credited with being the founder of the "water cure" that brought prosperity and people to the town between 1840 and 1880. In the 1860s, in particular, thousands flocked to Great Malvern on the newly completed railway to take the water cure and walk the hills.

They were not as enthusiastic as present-day walkers - who frequently walk the entire ridge in a day and return by bus or taxi - but as part of their cure they took early morning walks after their first treatment and before breakfast. They usually walked to a delightful little spot in the hills called St Ann's Well.

It is still very much in business as a place of refreshment. It lies at the top of a steep climb up a narrow road that is thankfully banned to motor vehicles and is a key point for those ascending the hills from the eastern (Great Malvern) side.

The well house adjoins St Ann's Well cafe. This is an odd-shaped little building of local stone with a pitch pine-lined interior. It manages to retain a distinctively Edwardian feel despite the wholefood menu (served between April and October) and Irish jig recordings which have replaced the German band that played for the water cure patients.

I parked my car in St Malvern and walked for 10 minutes up the steep St Ann's Road, immediately gaining nearly a third of the 900 feet I was going to have to climb to reach the Worcestershire Beacon, at 1395ft, the highest point in the Malvern chain.

Twenty minutes later, and after a quick coffee at St Ann's Well cafe, I was on the top. From this point it is said you can see 14 counties on a clear day. The steepness of the slopes, and comparative lack of deep side valleys, as well as the many well-maintained footpaths means that you can usually see exactly where you are heading for. Navigation is rarely a problem on the Malverns.

The lower slopes include the 170 acres of Malvern Common, with the Three Counties Showground beyond. They provide gentle, after-lunch strolling country for car-borne picnickers. If you are driving try to avoid the sheep, which is difficult at this time of year. They wander haphazardly over the open land - and the roads - and give the grass a new-mown look.

If meandering sheep drive you to distraction, head for town. Its genteel atmosphere must, I feel, owe much to the great and the good who came here in its heyday. Elgar, of course, was one of Great Malvern's most famous residents - but not the only musical one. The Victorian soprano Jennie Lind lived for seven years in the 1880s in a house facing the ramparts of The British Camp, the Iron Age encampment that surrounds the summit of the second highest summit in the chain, the Herefordshire Beacon. Other famous names to have stayed frequently in Malvern include Charles Darwin, who underwent the water cure several times, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (whose parents lived nearby), Evelyn Waugh and George Bernard Shaw.

The spa years seem a far cry from today. The nearest equivalent now is the constant flow of visitors who drive long distances to fill up with a week or two week's supply of free drinking water. On the day I visited, people from as far afield as Bromsgrove and Bristol were filling up large plastic containers at two of the springs.

You can see several of these springs gushing out of the hillside if you take the splendid panoramic 10-mile drive around the hills. If you do this, be sure to make the short diversion to see the Holy Well, situated in the road of the same name in Malvern Wells. The water there has been bottled since 1662 and Dr Wall erected the first Malvern bath house here in 1757.

If you feel like tea at the end of your drive call at Lady Foley's Tearooms. These are at Great Malvern railway station, splendidly restored after a fire in 1987. The establishment is named after the flamboyant and influential lady of the manor who in the 1850s and 60s was largely responsible for the transformation of the little village into a fashionable town.

Her life - she had her own furnished waiting room on the London-bound platform of the station - is well documented in the plethora of local history books on sale in the town. The fare at the modern-day tearooms may lack the opulence with which her ladyship was familiar but at least it stays open till 6pm seven days a week - a rare treat for tea lovers.

Malvern Tourist office: 01684 892289