United Kingdom

back to map >


In Tune with Elgar
Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh returns to the hills she wandered as a child and is moved by the views that inspired Britainís greatest composer.

Music fills my head as I plod up the steep slopes of the Worcestershire Beacon. I scarcely notice the punishing gradient, nor the chilly wind whipping my hair against my cheek. At the top I swig from my bottle of sparkling Malvern water, while Elgarís Nimrod blasts out over the immense Severn Vale towards the distant, green-grey Cotswold hills. The harmonies embrace the genteel town of Great Malvern just below the Beacon, and float over the village of Broadheath, where Elgar was born, and on to the city of Worcester. I turn and look west, and now the notes capture the rural beauty of Herefordshire, its rolling hills, tiny fields and untidy hedgerows unchanged since Elgarís time. At my feet, gorse, bracken and comfrey quiver in time to the music. When I look up, even the grey clouds are dancing. Elgar fills the universe.

I have never worn headphones out of doors before, and I have chosen a perfect day to borrow my sonís iPod, for I am listening to the very music Sir Edward Elgar heard as he walked along this dramatic escarpment. Elgar liked to compose in the open air. He would stride for hours in the Malvern hills, forming compositions in his head, and returning home at night to write them down. ďThis music is what I hear all day,Ē he told a friend. ďThe trees are singing my music - or have I sung theirs?ď

Walking along the undulating nine-mile ridge of the Malvern hills is like striding along the back of a whale, its rugged shanks falling almost vertically to the towns, villages, patchwork fields and light industrial sprawl of the Severn plain on one side, and to the less populated hills of Herefordshire on the other. At the southern end of the ridge, ancient entrenchments and fortifications surround the square-topped Herefordshire Beacon. I lie in a sheltered dip of coarse, rabbit-cropped grass, and listen to Elgarís Caractacus cantata, which was inspired by this prehistoric British Camp.

Well-worn, sandy tracks lead back along the edge of the escarpment to an ancient spring - the Holy Well - from which water has been bottled since 1662. Tasting strong and medicinal, this water once attracted high society to Malvern. The imposing building below, now part of Malvern Girlsí College, was a grand spa hotel, with a private tunnel linking it to the railway station.

I stride down to Wyche Cutting, where a road slices through the rocky crest, and up again to the Pinnacle and Perseverance Peaks, my steps keeping time with the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Finally, I reach the Worcestershire Beacon, the highest point of the Malvern hills. The city of Worcester comes into view - its square cathedral tower marking a focal point in Elgarís life, and, indeed, in mine.

I was born in Worcester, almost 100 years after Elgarís birth. My father, the cathedral organist, taught singing at Malvern, and my mother and the four children would sometimes accompany him in the Hillman, for a picnic on the Beacon while he was teaching. I havenít been to the Beacon since I was five, but it hasnít changed at all - the short, scratchy turf, the sandy paths and grey shingle, the bright, prickly gorse, the vertical drop to tiny roofs and chimneypots below. My most vivid and dramatic memory involves a circular tin of homemade jellies, in round paper cases. As my mother opened the tin, it flew out of her hands, and tin, lid and jellies all rolled away down a precipice, never to be seen again. As the Enigma Variations play in my ears, I think about that summer afternoon half a century ago, and then I picture Elgar himself, moustachioed and besuited, standing at this very spot just twenty-five or thirty years earlier.

Elgar and his wife Alice spent much of their married life near the Malvern Hills and it was here, in a series of rented houses, that Elgar composed many of his major works. After Aliceís death in 1920, Elgar returned here permanently. Several houses can claim a connection with Englandís best known composer, and the hotel where I am staying is one. The Cottage in the Wood, run by the friendly Pattin family, consists of a Georgian dower-house and several cottages, perched on the Malvern hillside, overlooking 30-mile views of the Severn vale, where the river glistens beneath huge skies. In the first-floor study of a neighbouring house, Elgar looked out on this same inspirational vista, and here, between 1899 and 1904, he composed The Dream of Gerontius, Cockaigne, The Apostles, Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1 and 2, The Coronation Ode, and In the South. He also taught music to young ladies at Wells House School in a now-derelict building at the bottom of the hotel drive. My room is in a new annexe, built on the site of a coach house which was used, 100 years ago, as a recital room - and where Elgar performed on the violin.

The hotel has a video library, and that evening I watch the dramatised biography of Elgar by Ken Russell, (who once stayed at this hotel). Though the film is now over 40 years old, it has worn well. Elgarís music accompanies black and white vignettes, with the Malvern hills as a recurring backdrop. At the end, vintage cine film shows Elgar shortly before his death in 1934, emerging from Worcester cathedral, sitting in his garden, and playing with his dogs.

Next morning I listen to The Dream of Gerontius, as I drive a mile south from the hotel to St Wulstanís church, nestling on the hillside below the village of Little Malvern. Here, in a tranquil corner of the churchyard surrounded by fields and meadows, are the graves of Elgar, his wife and their daughter, Carice.

I motor on along the well-signed Elgar Route, past houses that he and his wife rented, and schools where he taught music, past the homes of friends who were portrayed in his Enigma Variations, through the elegant Georgian streets of Great Malvern to the commons, meadows and lanes where he loved to bicycle.

Elgar was born in 1857, in a modest red-brick house at Lower Broadheath. When he was two, the family moved to Worcester, three miles away, but Elgar remained attached to this rural cottage with its views of the Malvern hills, and on being created a baronet, chose the title of Sir Edward Elgar of Broadheath. The cottage still backs on to fields, but, today, with a new building next door, it houses the official Elgar Birthplace Museum. I don headphones again to listen to the audio-guide, which weaves excerpts of Elgarís music between stories of how, as a child, he taught himself to play the instruments in his fatherís music shop, and how, as an adult, he struggled for recognition. As I buy a video of Ken Russellís film, Elgarís face looks out from my twenty-pound note, with Worcester cathedral beside him.

On my way home, I stop the car and get out. Across the dead-flat countryside, the Malvern hills tower like a giant wall along the horizon - a massive ridge rising almost vertically out of the plain, with a sprinkle of whitewashed houses along its lower slopes. Dark clouds scud overhead, making the wooded hillsides and bald peaks glow and then blacken. As Elgarís poignant and beautiful Salut díAmour plays from the car, the clouds move and the Beacon is once again resplendent in golden sunshine.

First published by the Telegraph
©SarahShuckburgh

    back to map >