The most significant change to my life since being dumped from The Sunday Times by a man with a name synonymous with lavatory cleaning is no longer automatically being shown the best room in the hotel. Nowadays I must dig my heels in to be guaranteed anything comfortable and convenient enough in which to swing a couple of very large cats.
Such was the case in Malvern a few days ago when Kim and Asta and I were directed to a double room in what felt like an entire time zone distant from the reception, along ever narrower corridors towards the back of the Abbey Hotel. In the centre of town, adjacent to the estimable museum and in the shadow of The Malvern Hills, the hotel is a grey-stone marvel of crenellations and mullion windows draped in Virginia creeper, with a magnificent carved central staircase of the kind you imagine Bette Davis gliding down.
Our room in the modern wing was quite adequate, with all the necessities for a brief stay, yet not good enough if the three of us were to spend a lot of time there. Thus I called reception to request something larger in the old building and closer to the entrance. Bingo. For a modest supplement we switched to a room with a bay window below the hotel sign. Ceilings in the clouds, a window seat bigger than most sofas, a dressing room, a decent size bathroom, and chairs and an occasional table where the three of us could enjoy breakfast croissants.
I have become rather partial to Malvern in the past 18 months, just inside Worcestershire and very nearly within Herefordshire and Shropshire too: A vast sway of grey green and tawny landscape stretching from the Shropshire Hills to the Brecon Beacons and Gloucester. The town clings to the dawn side of the Malvern Hills from the tops of which the aforementioned are visible in breathtaking clarity. Our first glimpses approaching junction eight on the M5, passing through boaty Upton Upon Severn, loomed larger and more wondrous by the mile. They are what Edward Elgar marvelled at growing up on the outskirts of Worcester moving to Malvern Link where between walking the hills and cycling steep wooded lanes he composed many of his greatest works, among them the Enigma Variations one of only a small handful of classical discs in my collection.
To get our bearings, and see if Asta has a taste for vertginous open terrain, we took the advice of some dog walkers (always reliable sources of information) and followed the A449 a couple of miles south along the eastern fringe of the hills to British Camp Hill Fort an Iron Age site close to the village of Colwall. The car park charge £4.30 for a full day and across the road a popular cafe called Sally’s Place serves date flapjacks and sloe gin and lime and coconut liqueur ice creams. Around back the public loos boast some of the best views in the region.
Faced with two paths to the top Kim chose the steepest, a flight of steps that soon had me feeling my age. Happily it doesn’t take long to get above the tree line to be met with a panorama to rival those we’d found in the Sierra Nevadas. Miles of landscape beneath a shifting mackerel sky blown alternatively grey and azure by a chilly northern wind. We were around 300 metres above sea level, practically alone except for a handful of photographers and some sheep behind an electrified fence. Below us the more popular and less arduous path we were to follow back to the car.
Strolling around the precipitous Great Malvern, Malvern’s opulent heart with shops, a theatre, museums and railway station, I was struck first by the sheer scale and number of manicured palatial buildings, some commercial premises but many more grandiose homes towering over peaceful verdant avenues. In a range of architectural styles from Victorian Gothic to Edwardian and Regency. Ornate glazed towers and orangeries, elaborate porticoes shaded by cedars of Lebanon and towering sequoia. Indeed this is a town of trees. I am no botanist but among them copper beeches, hornbeam, oaks, field elms and varieties of spruce planted by health conscious Victorians who flocked to the town for the efficacious qualities of the natural spring waters. In the first half of the 19th century the town’s water was considered curative for eye disorders, ulcers, digestive problems and blood circulation. There is a Malvina Spring drinking fountain half way up the steps to Bellevue Terrace. A number of people were having a sup but Asta wasn’t sure.
Another pooch walking tip directed us to Malvern Common a huge tract of gently undulating openland to the south sandwiched betwen the mainline railway and A449. On one side miore fabulous homes and on the other the ground works for a more affordable estate of homes. Cutting through the grounds of Malvern College the common extends to Worcestershire Golf Club and The Three Counties Showground.
I don’t think Malvernites will object to me describing them as a bit posh. Women in knee high leather and fabric ‘country boots’, leggings and bum freezer quilted jackets and the men nearly all beneath flat caps. As if further proof of Malvern’s exaulted status is required there is a Waitrose supermarket although I was informed by one suspicious local that some aspirational shoppers stock up at Lidl before transferring their items into Waitrose carrier bags for their journeys home. Imagine?
The second thing that struck us about Malvern was how slim and trim its residents are, perhaps a result of the steepness of the high street and the walks nearby. The simple fact is you cannot get anywhere in this town without working those glutes.
A young estate agent called Sam suggested that for lunch with Asta in tow we might enjoy Faun, a deli/cafe at the top of Great Malvern with views over Worcestershire. Good call. It’s run by a woman from London who told us many city folk are moving to the town for the quality of life, the prices of properties and the road and rail transport links: London in two and a half hours by rail, or Bristol on the M5 in 40 minutes.
One of the waitresses provided Asta with biscuits and water while I enjoyed the best eggs on toast of my life. Made with rich yolky cacklebean eggs (from Stow-On-The-Wold), hazelnut dukkah bread, with seeds and other garnishes. Kim opted for the caramelised onion and cheddar tart with winter leaves and apple and golden beetroot slaw. Best of all were the made on the premises eccles cakes, which as the few readers of this site will attest I have a weakness for. Three inches in diameter and an inch and a half high, crunchy and golden on the outside and packed with fruit and a hint of cinnamon within. I took two home with us.
If the town has a downside – it is its dark side. Situated on the eastern side of very sheer and tall hills the sun disappears quite early depending on the time of year. It’s why West Malvern, where sunsets last long into the night and the distance is considered the fashionable spot with the cool crowd. It’s where the principal road follows the contours of the hills passing splendid 19th century homes built by well watered and well heeled incomers.
We’d planned our last night meal at The Red Lion pub a steep five minute walk from our hotel. The night before there we’d had halloumi fries, and burgers that were so good we three complimented the chef who I think was the first person we’d spoken to with anything resembling a midlands accent. “Get that dog out of here,” was the abrupt end to our return visit. Thence our final dinner a Chinese takeaway in our upgraded suite, the magnificent Malvern Hills looming large in the darkness.