Sharing the name of a hill range and the spring water that bubbles from it, Malvern is a town and district near the Worcestershire-Herefordshire boundary.
The old spa resort of Great Malvern is the pick for holidaymakers, just as it was for Victorian travellers seeking water cures.
The hydrotherapy doctor James Manby Gully set up a successful clinic here in 1842, and counted Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin (namely his ailing daughter, Anne) as his clients.
You can “take the waters” at Ann’s Well high on the east slope of Worcestershire Beacon, a menacing 425-metre peak with views that have to be seen to be believed.
Also dazzling is Great Malvern Priory, which was able to keep hold of its rich Medieval fittings, like stained glass, 15th-century tiles, masonry and outlandish misericords.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Malvern:
1. Malvern Hills
Made up of some of the oldest rocks in England, the Malvern Hills is a pre-Cambrian range soaring over the west side of the Malvern district.
These peaks are within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and natural springs percolate through deep fissures in the 680-million-year-old igneous and metamorphic rock.
The two highest summits, Worcestershire Beacon and North Hill can be climbed from the centre of Great Malvern, while the town is the trailhead for the 31-mile Worcestershire Way, crossing the northern Malverns on the way to the adorable town of Bewdley in the Severn Valley.
To give an idea of just how commanding the Malverns are: If you head due east from Worcestershire Beacon the next highest point is on the western ridge of the Ural Mountains in Russia.
2. Great Malvern Priory
A Benedictine monastery for the first 500 years of its life, Great Malvern Priory was turned into a parish church when the townsfolk raised £20 to rescue it from demolition in 1541 following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
And we can be grateful to them for that, because the Great Malvern Priory is stacked with Medieval art.
First off it has the largest set of 15th-century stained windows in the UK. The best single example is the north transept window, portraying the Coronation of St Mary and donated by Henry VII. There are also more than 1,000 Medieval tiles lining the walls, all fired between 1453 and 1458. Amid the 15th-century Perpendicular Gothic architecture, the nave has Norman pillars and circular arches more than 950 years old.
Finally, make sure to take in the 22 15th-century misericords (along with 12 from the 19th century) in the choir.
These depict the Labours of the Months and a peculiar line-up of mythical beasts.
3. Worcestershire Beacon
The highest point of the Malvern Range is a dominating presence to the west of Great Malvern.
The Worcestershire Beacon is 425 metres high, and can be scaled on foot from the centre of Great Malvern.
The route begins with a paved path winding up from Rose Bank Gardens, leading to St Ann’s Well, which we’ll cover next.
The summit has a prominence of 337 metres and so offers an extraordinary panorama that reaches into 13 different English and Welsh counties.
You’ll see over Birmingham to the Cannock Chase, and across the Severn and Avon Valleys to the Cotswolds.
There’s a bit of history at the summit, in the shape of a granite toposcope, labelling the peaks visible on a clear day.
This was conceived by Troyte Griffith, a friend of Edward Elgar, and was placed here in 1897 to commemorate Victoria’s diamond, jubilee.
4. St Ann’s Well
On your ascent of Worcestershire Beacon you’ll realise just how many springs, wells and spouts there are beneath your feet.
The most prominent, and an idyllic stop on the way up the hill, is St Ann’s Well.
The spring is named for Christ’s maternal grandmother, St Anne, the patron saint of wells.
It can be found inside an elegant and newly restored brick building from 1813. Remember to bring a bottle to find out what all the fuss was about in the 19th century.
These waters were tasted by Elizabeth I, while Queen Victoria swore by them.
You can extend your break with tea or coffee at the neighbouring cafe before carrying on up the slope.
5. Abbey Gateway
Although there never was an abbey in Malvern, as the Great Malvern Priory was a daughter house of Westminster Abbey, the name “Abbey Gateway” was picked up around 200 years after the priory was suppressed.
Dating from around the 1430s, the priory’s gatehouse is now Grade II* listed and once served as the main route in and out of the monastic enclosure.
The gatehouse retains lots of its Medieval architecture: On the north side is masterful 15th-century blind tracery, and passing under the arch you can look up to find original stone blocks, hulking oak beams and a tiny window for the porter to see visitors.
The brick south side looks totally different as it dates from a 16th-century extension.
Go in for the Malvern Museum, which follows.
6. Malvern Museum
The museum inside the gatehouse is a showcase for the building’s Medieval architecture.
But it’s also the place to go if you need to get the inside track on Malvern, and get to know the resort’s big historical events and the famous figures that visited the region or called it home.
There are exhibits dedicated to Elgar, Florence Nightingale and the cure establishments founded by James Manby Gully and James Wilson in 1842. You can browse Medieval stonework from the priory, dioramas of Victorian scenes and dinosaur fossils, while families can solve a jigsaw, follow a QR code trail and build a model castle.
In 2018 a new touchscreen display was installed, digging into the history of Malvern institutions like the Morgan Motor Company, founded in 1910 and still going strong.
7. Malvern Hills Geocentre
The official information centre for the Malvern Hills is on the western slopes of the range.
The centre charts the Malverns’ geology and natural species, offers leaflets and maps for walking routes and has a small exhibition of fossils and rocks.
There are iPads answering any queries you might have about these hills, while the huge video wall reveals their full majesty.
That may already be clear, as the centre commands sublime vistas west over Herefordshire and into Wales.
There’s free Wi-Fi at the centre, and the H2O cafe prepares light meals from locally sourced ingredients to fuel your hike.
8. Priory Park
Landscaped in the 1870s, Priory Park is in the grounds of the Tudor Revival Priory Mansion, built in 1874 and now the Council House.
Priory Park is a cultured place to spend a sunny afternoon, with a bandstand, a pond traversed by ornamental bridges, neat lawns and lots of exotic mature trees planted nearly 150 years ago.
To the west are striking vistas of the Malvern range’s North Hill and Worcestershire Beacon, as well as the Malvern Theatres in the Winter Gardens.
From the 60s to the 90s the Winter Gardens was a fabled rock music venue, hosting artists like Yes, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy and the Buzzcocks.
The Sunday concerts at Priory Park’s bandstand are a bit more sedate these days.
9. Malvern Theatres
In Priory Park’s Winter Gardens complex you’ll find the cultured Malvern Theatres.
This venue opened as the Festival Theatre in 1885 and in the first decades of the 20th century became associated with the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.
Nineteen of Shaw’s plays were produced at the Festival Theatre and six premiered here.
A new complex was built around the theatre in the late-1990s, and together with the 850-seater Festival theatre there’s the smaller Forum Theatre and a 400-capacity cinema, all complemented by a bar and restaurant.
Come to watch West End plays by touring theatre companies, screenings from the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company, while you can bring children to all manner of workshops in the summer holidays.
The cinema shows classic films and critically acclaimed new releases.
10. North Hill
The second highest hill in the Malvern range stands to the west of Great Malvern and can be climbed on foot from the town centre.
North Hill, neighbouring the Worcestershire Beacon, crests at 398 metres and marks the northernmost point of the Malverns.
You can march straight for the peak from the Worcester Road if you’re feeling fresh, but there’s also a more forgiving circular walk around the summit.
This 2.5-mile trail has some tricky zigzagging sections early on, but gives you astonishing views of the Worcester Plain to the east, the Shropshire hills to the west and the Lickey and Clent Hills to the north.
11. Blue Plaque Trail
As a prominent spa resort, Great Malvern received a host of important personalities in the 19th and early-20th century.
You can download a map of all the blue plaques labelling buildings around the town where they stayed.
On a slightly sombre note, Charles Darwin came to Great Malvern in 1851 seeking Charles Manby Gully’s water cure for his daughter Anne who was suffering from scarlet fever.
She died in April that year and you can find her grave at the Great Malvern Priory.
There are plaques for authors C. S. Lewis and Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Evelyn Waugh, as well as Florence Nightingale, Haile Selassie I and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
12. Elgar Birthplace Museum
The Malverns are Edward Elgar Country: One of England’s most important composers was born in Broadheath six miles away in 1857 and moved to Great Malvern with his wife Alice in 1891, just before his reputation as a composer began to spread.
The Firs, Elgar’s birthplace, is a National Trust site.
This humble cottage was built at the start of the 19th century and has been returned to how it would have looked in Elgar’s early years . Elgar was the son of a piano tuner and a farmer’s daughter, who asked that they move from Worcester to rural Broadheath so she could raise her children in the countryside.
At the visitor centre you can discover Elgar’s creative inner sanctum, furnished with his personal desk, chair, gramophone and writing tools, and containing valuable original manuscripts of works like Land of Hope and Glory and Salut d’Amore.
13. Little Malvern Priory
When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s, the Benedictine priory in the village of Little Malvern was reduced to a parish church.
The chancel and crossing tower were kept, while the transepts and chapels were torn down and remain as ruins on the outer walls of the church today.
The priory, only a small brotherhood of 10-12 monks, was founded in 1171, but only small traces remain of that Romanesque building.
In 1480 the priory was in a state of disrepair, to the disgrace of its inhabitants, and was rebuilt.
During that time the monks were sent to Gloucester Abbey for “correction”. If there’s one thing you have to see it’s the 15th-century east window, depicting the family of Edward IV, including the future Edward V, who was one of the “princes in the tower” supposedly killed by Richard III.
14. Knapp and Papermill Nature Reserve
Five miles from Malvern there’s 63 acres of woodland, meadow, orchard and marshes in a winding valley on the Leigh Brook.
You can walk a trail weaving through the valley beside the brook, beginning in a bucolic orchard where you may see redwings and fieldfares pecking at fallen fruit in autumn.
A lot of the woodland is coppiced, keeping ancient trees alive and allowing space for bluebells and other wildflowers like stitchwort, yellow archangel and wild garlic to bloom from spring to summer.
Papermill meadow is a wildflower meadow in old pasture, growing cowslips and orchids, and used as a hunting ground by buzzards.
There are more details on the many species inhabiting the reserve at the information centre by the entrance, which has a picnic area beside it.
15. St Wulstan’s Catholic Parish Church
Staying in Little Malvern there’s another church worth your time.
St Wulstan’s is named for the 11th-century Bishop of Worcester who founded the Great Malvern Priory.
While pretty, this rather modest building would be a small detour if it wasn’t the burial place of Edward Elgar (d.1934) and his wife Alice (d.1920). The church is run by the Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey, and on Sundays at the 10:30 mass you may hear the choir singing Elgar’s church pieces like Ave Maris Stella, Ave Maria or Ave Verum Corpus.