National Character Area 103

Malvern Hills - Description

The Malvern Hills today

At the core of the area’s character, and providing a dominant and unifying feature, is the north-south ridge formed of igneous and metamorphic rocks of Precambrian and Cambrian age. Steep slopes plunge abruptly to the farmlands of the Severn Vale to the east and blend more subtly with the plateau landscape to the west. Beyond the central ridge, to the north, southwest and south, there are more varied landscapes. In the north, wooded hills rise abruptly above the Teme Valley in a steep scarp. There is a strong pattern of parallel ridges in the Suckley Hills in the north. Shallow valleys with abundant orchards, woodlands, pastures and some arable land lie between the hills. The valleys vary greatly in character: they are often strikingly deep-sided and sinuous, but becoming gentler in form in the south. To the south-west of the main ridge the landscape is varied, with gentler, broader and more sweeping slopes. There are complex minor ridges with varied alignments, although a general north-north-east trend is apparent.

The north-south alignment of the hills is mirrored in the Cambrian and Silurian rocks. Here Cambrian grits and Silurian shales and limestones form a series of wooded limestone ridges and pastoral vales, from Ridgeway Wood across to Coneygree and Frith Woods near Ledbury, and extending north of the main hill’s mass as the Suckley Hills. Further west, the Old Red Sandstone rocks include mudstones and sandstones, which grade subtly into the more gently rounded hills, with more fertile soil conditions in the Herefordshire Lowlands. Shallow soils on the ridgetops support mosaics of open, unimproved grassland and heathland, grading into scrub and bracken on lower slopes. These areas are grazed by sheep and cattle.

In the Colwall area is a significant watershed from which the stream systems drain the lower slopes, one flowing north and the other south. In the north of the area, the Leigh Brook flows west to east, while other small streams flow from the spring lines along the hills. Malvern water emerges in the springs around the base of the main ridge.

Parts of the NCA are heavily wooded, with a high proportion of semi-natural woodland (for example Halesend and Crews Hill Woods), some of which is famed for its spectacular springtime display of bluebells. There is also a pattern of wooded ridgetops, such as that near Ledbury. In the south, clusters of conifers, limes, oaks and other parkland trees are a notable feature. They are, however, fragmentary compared with Eastnor Castle (in the upper catchment of the Glynch Brook), from which an estate character spreads to the surrounding woodlands and farmland. Around Whiteleaved Oak there is a mosaic of commons, woodland and small pasture fields. Old oak trees stand on knolls of intruded igneous rock as relics of an ancient wood/pasture landscape. Acid grassland and mire habitats can be found on Castlemorton and Hollybed Commons. Orchards producing fruit for making juices, perry and cider survive and they provide a rich habitat featuring deadwood (this NCA is considered significantly important for rare deadwood invertebrates and fungi), nest holes and semi-improved grassland. Abundant mistletoe is a strong feature of these orchards, and they support rare species such as the noble chafer (beetle) and mistletoe tortrix (moth). There are important populations of wild daffodil, greenwinged orchid, adder’s tongue and many other infrequent plant species in the meadows and woods to the south and west of the area.

Around the modest-sized settlements of Colwall Stone and Colwall Green, modern housing has spread between clusters of older cottages and terraced housing, all within a strong pattern of specimen conifers and woodland. Also in this area small to medium sized irregular fields bounded by hedges can be found. Victorian and Edwardian housing, constructed of Malvern stone, lightcoloured stucco and red brick, dominates the town of Great Malvern sits on glacial terraces on the flanks of the hill ridge.

The Malvern Hills ridge is among the most popular of England’s inland countryside visitor destinations. This is a key part of the AONB, accessed via 279 km of public rights of way, and an extensive area of open access land. The Worcestershire Way runs through the area as far as the town of Great Malvern (its southern point), and the Geopark Trail links many features of geological interest within the area.

The landscape through time

The main Malvern Hills ridge is made up of Precambrian rocks formed deep inside the earth by melting of the bedrock and intrusion of granites and other igneous rocks. A massive fault forms the steep eastern face of the hills, which are extensively faulted and fractured. Major transverse faults offset the ridgeline, creating prominent passes between the main hills. On Herefordshire Beacon and Broad Down, these faults have exposed the pillow lavas and other volcanic rocks, creating more friable, base-rich soils, which support wildlife-rich vegetation. This complex mix of metamorphic, igneous and volcanic rocks, exposed in outcrops and quarries, is of national scientific interest and is particularly important in understanding the geological history of south-west England. The fractures and faults also control water flow within the hills: the area is noted for the many springs and spouts arising on fault lines and at junctions between different rock types. These were an important influence on settlement patterns – from the establishment of iron-age hill forts to Edwardian and Victorian spa town developments. In the north and west of the area, alternating layers of Silurian limestones, shales and sandstone outcrop. In places (such as Crews Hill Wood and the Suckley Hills), highly inclined limestones form conspicuous steep, wooded hills and ridges.

Finds from the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic eras indicate that the Malvern Hills NCA has been a focus of human activity from the earliest times. Ritual significance is evident from the round barrows on the high ridge and from the standing stone at Colwall. There was certainly a settlement at Mathon by the middle Bronze Age. The Shire Ditch, an ancient earthwork boundary, possibly dating from the Bronze Age, runs along the spine of the Malvern Hills. It seems likely that the hills were an upland grazing area for the surrounding settlements during prehistoric times, and by the Iron Age there were major hill forts – including those at British Camp and Midsummer Hill – established at strategic locations. There was also a substantial pottery industry, which continued into the Roman period.

In the post-Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, the Malvern Hills were probably a boundary between different small kingdoms before all were subsumed in Mercia. However, after the Normanconquest, the area was part of a royal forest, with chases to the east and west. The western chase belonged to the bishops of Hereford, and the park at Eastnor is a residue of this estate. Monastic houses at Great and Little Malvern and Colwall were conspicuous medieval features. Strip lynchets, and strips of ridge and furrow in small closes, are witness to pre-14th-century levels of arable production in areas of higher ground now more suited to grass.

From the 16th century, the eastern chase was gradually reduced as land was granted away and, finally, in 1632 the remainder was divided between the commoners and the Crown. The more acidic soils of the area are best suited to a pastoral economy, and orchards developed to an intense scale of production from the late 17th century onwards. Hops were intensively cultivated from the 18th century, particularly on the northern valley sides.

Once extensive, some orchards still survive, particularly at Leigh and Alfrick. Enclosure proceeded in a piecemeal fashion throughout the period and into the 18th century but, with the growth of settlement and the development of Malvern as a spa, the management of the commons was eventually formalised by the Malvern Hills Act 1884, which has been significant in preserving the natural beauty and areas of open land in this NCA.

The spring waters have attracted visitors since medieval times, with scattered shrines linked to springs. There were monastic houses at Great and Little Malvern and Colwall. Tourism, founded on spa waters, drove the expansion of Great Malvern in the 19th century. Victorian and Edwardian villas, set among mixed ornamental woodland, are a prominent characteristic of the eastern slopes. On the western side of the hills around Colwall, some late 19th-century and mostly 20th-century houses, set within conifers and woodland, give the area a suburban character. Another sign of this development is the proportion of traditional farmsteads remaining in agricultural use: this is the lowest of any in the West Midlands (at 21 per cent), with three farmsteads out of four being converted to residential use, which is also associated with high participation in substantial business activity.

Quarrying became a significant industry, with limestone being quarried for agriculture, local buildings and flux for the iron industry. Sand was also quarried. Gullet Quarry, which finally closed in 1977, supplied road stone for the building of the M5. One of the campaigners against quarrying was George Bernard Shaw. He is just one of many writers, artists and musicians strongly associated with the Malvern Hills: others include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W H Auden and John Masefield. The hills have been the subject of the work of many painters, not least Benjamin Leader and Paul Nash, as well as countless amateurs. But the area’s best known association is perhaps with Edward Elgar’s music.

Recent decades witnessed a significant reduction in sheep and cattle grazing on the high hills and the common lands. However since c.2000 there has been a re-introduction of stock in these areas, leading to the clearance of significant amounts of scrub. There is little restocking or regeneration of hedgerow trees to replace the predominantly mature trees that have been lost. Hops have also been lost, bush orchards increased, traditional orchards decreased, barns converted, and large gardens built upon and there has been significant use of local woodlands for shooting, especially those in estate ownership.