The Malverns truly inspired Edward Elgar. He was in love with the trees, the undulating countryside and steep-sided hills. The composer lived within sight of the hills, and cycled through the country for 55 of his 76 years, before coming home to madly compose. The son of a piano tuner, he had a peripatetic lifestyle and lived in as many as 25 houses in his lifetime, but the Worcestershire landscape was his constant passion and stimulation.
I visited his birthplace for Countryfile last summer – a ridiculously pretty cottage
in Lower Broadheath the size of a fruit loaf. A lovely lady called Wendy told me all about Elgar’s musical and married life.
In marriage terms, Elgar punched above his social standing. His wife, Caroline Alice Roberts, was the daughter of a British Army officer, who was horrified that his offspring was set to marry an unknown musician.
Despite her family’s disapproval and subsequently being disinherited, Caroline supported Elgar throughout his career (which was late flourishing) and has been quoted as saying: “The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman.”
By the 1920s, Elgar had composed the soundtrack of early 20th-century Britain. His orchestral pieces, such as the Enigma Variations and First Symphony, were the hit tunes of their day. Choral works such as The Dream of Gerontius were considered works of genius and, of course, a section of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches became the Land Of Hope and Glory anthem – played at the coronation of Edward VII.
Elgar wasn’t the only one to be inspired by such a picturesque area of the country – the landscape features as a backdrop to Radio 4’s series The Archers, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this month (see page 20 for more on Archers’ country).
Poet WH Auden wrote some of his finest early love poems here and CS Lewis introduced JRR Tolkien to the area – excerpts from The Hobbit and The Lord
of the Rings were apparently recorded in Malvern.
Today, the hills inspire countless walkers, mountain bikers and kite flyers – and, who knows, possibly a few budding writers and composers, too.
The British camp
At the south-west edge of the Malvern Hills sits the British Camp, an Iron Age hillfort with 2,000-year-old ramparts that you can still walk around today. The structure was once thought to be purely defensive, but historians now think that up to 4,000 people lived here. It was here that Elgar got inspiration for his Caractacus, moved by the story of a legendary ancient British chieftain who made a last stand against the Romans on this very spot.
When I trotted up to the British Camp, which dominates the Herefordshire Beacon in the Malvern Hills, I stood on the summit and took in 360° views of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and 10 other counties. The views reach far out into clear blue sky and it made me think of some of Elgar’s final words.
In 1934, during his final illness, he apparently told a friend: “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune [his cello concerto] on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.” If you listen carefully, you may still here them today.
HOW TO GET THERE
Great Malvern is 40 miles southwest of Birmingham on the M5 then A4440 and A449.
FIND OUT MORE
9 Church Street, Great Malvern
Elgar used to visit this quirky tearoom, with its uneven floors, lace-trimmed tablecloths and delicious cakes.
Old Country House B&B
Mathon WR13 5PS
01886 880 867
A beautifully beamed 600-year-old home surrounded by a 220-acre farm.