At the weekend, I went for a rather wet walk in the Malvern Hills with my small son. To him, this was an adventure, because we can see the Malverns from the top of our house, on a clear day, so to walk in them was exciting. I didn’t realise, however, what a literary history the Malverns had. I knew that Piers Plowman, William Langland’s fourteenth-century tale of the visions and spiritual quest of an Everyman, was set in the Malvern Hills – it is here that Piers had his dream.
Ac on a May morwenynge
On Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly,
Of fairye me thoghte.
I was wery forwandred
And wente me to reste
Under a brood bank
By a bournes syde;
And as I lay and lenede,
And loked on the watres,
I slombred into a slepyng,
It sweyed so murye.
This constitutes the earliest literary reference to the Malverns, and
it is speculated that the mysterious Langland was educated at Malvern Priory, writing
as he does in a local dialect. And the rolling hills seem to me quite conducive to such exalted
visions (though there are too many walkers these days to dream undisturbed!) It’s thrilling to think one might walk the same way as Langland did, over 700 years ago.
These are also A E Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’, recalled from his Shropshire childhood, overshadowing his life as the ‘land of lost content’. Less famously, perhaps, W H Auden, who taught for a while in nearby Colwall, wrote The Malverns, a long poem which also features a dreamer, though a rather different dream; but one which sketches in the views and atmosphere of the hills. C S Lewis also spent time in Malvern, being a pupil at Malvern College, and later visiting a friend; apparently local legend is that he was inspired by the local gaslamps to include one in Narnia. He als
o brought his friend, J R R Tolkien, to visit. The BBC website tells me that
The story goes that, after drinking in a Malvern pub one winter evening, they were walking home when it started to snow.
They saw a lamp post shining out through the snow, and Lewis turned to his friends and said ‘that would make a very nice opening line to a book’.
We began our day with cake at St Ann’s Well Cafe. This is a fascinating place which, luckily, also serves great cake. The building is early 19th century, though the well itself has a history dating back much further. The well was associated with the fashion for the Victorian water cure, from which Florence Nightingale, among others, benefited (or not, as the case may be), as did Charles Darwin, whose daughter died whilst staying in Malvern. It seems probable to me that the cafe at the well was also the inspiration for Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story ‘Malvern Hills’ in Nocturnes; it fits the location which Ishiguro carefully describes in the book, and, though smaller than the story suggests, has something of the same atmosphere. Nocturnes is literature which explores music; no doubt Ishiguro had the musical history of the Malverns in mind, including Elgar, who walked and cycled endlessly around Malvern and its hills, and whose statue now appears above the high street – looking away from the hills behind him, sadly.
We have much more exploring to do – years of it! – but I think we made a start this weekend.