Attend any commencement or graduation ceremony and a corner-stone of the ritual, dressing up, and collegial festivities, is a haunting piece of music that, despite innumerable repetitions, still is breathtakingly beautiful. Commonly known as “Land of Hope and Glory,” the official title of Sir Edward Elgar’s most famous composition is “Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1.”
Elgar lived the major por-tion of his life in Malvern, Worcestershire and claimed that much of his music genius was inspired by the ring of majestic hills that provide Malvern with its spectacular backdrop. Elgar is buried in Little Malvern cemetery and you can visit Elgar today, his statue that is. standing in the town centre.
Penny’s grand-aunt Patricia, who lives in Malvern, was having a 90th, birthday party hosted by her youngest son Jonathan. It seemed a wonderful excuse for us to hop across the Atlantic in late August. On our several walking excursions through, and around the town, Penny delighted in remembering nooks and crannies, and meandering paths, that she had explored in her teenage years when she holidayed in Malvern.
Malvern began its life in the eleventh century when Benedictine monks established a priory in 1085 at the base of the Malvern Hills. The remains of this building now make up the Great Malvern Priory. It has the feel of an English cathedral with a soaring, towering roof and a series of elegant medieval stain glass win-dows. We visited, watched and listened to Shean Bowers- a frequent performer with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra-who, literally, pulled out all the stops on the Priory’s famous John Nicholson built organ.
He played and showed us- the staging of the recital had a camera looking side on at Bowers so you could appreciate his manual artistry and delicate footwork, his interpretations of Handel, Albinoni, Bach, and Tchaikovsky. His finale was a blasting rendition of Vierne that rinsed out ear-drums and raised heart-rates. A nice bonus for us, the concert charged no admission!
After Elgar, Malvern’s greatest claim to fame is, arguably, a literary one. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were frequent visitors to Malvern. In 1952 Tolkien did several BBC readings of his “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.” They were so successful that they were packaged into a long-playing gramophone record that sold well.
George Bernard Shaw launched several of his plays at the Malvern Theatres and just as England enjoys a deserved reputation for excellent provincial theatre, the Malvern Theatres are no exception. On a year-round basis there is a rich variety of drama, poetry, storytelling, opera and cinema. We went to see a newly released Josh Wheldon black and white film of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” set in the 21st century. It was a provocative retelling of the Bard’s work.
This fall any, and all, PBS fans could visit and see the towering presence of actor Peter Bowles who played across from Penelope Keith, in “The Good Life.” And then there is Felicity Kendall and Simon Callow in the comedy “Chin-Chin.” Who can forget Callow’s rambunctious and feisty presence in the classic movie directed by Richard Curtis, “Four Weddings And A Funeral?”
In the 19th century Malvern became a spa town buoyed up by visitors who saw invigorative qualities in Malvern water, and the restful attractions of the beautiful countryside. Hydrotherapy clinics were set up and by 1855 there were nearly 100 spa hotels and boarding houses. Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Flor-ence Nightingale, Lord Tennyson and Samuel Wilberforce all visited for health reasons, and “took the waters.”
By the end of the 19th century spa treatments were no longer in vogue. Health seeking visitors declined to be replaced by a new economic driving force. Single gender private schools. As of 1885 there were no less than 25 of them.
Penny and I hiked up to St. Ann’s Well which was a one time spa visiting spot. But our dip into wellness became the embrace of an English afternoon snack of Earl Grey tea, to wash down a fat scone gilded in butter, and topped with a strawberry, and clotted cream.
Malvern has some intriguing links with America. Franklin D. Roosevelt con-valesced in Malvern at the age of seven. And, up until 2010, a Malvern water plant, owned by Coca Cola, but using the Schweppes brand label, bottled millions of litres of water. It is said that Queen Victoria refused to travel without bottled Malvern water in her baggage!
Only minutes from Malvern is the home of the Morgan Motor Company. England has a history of producing memorable automobiles. However, today such brands as Aston Martin, Jaguar, Bentley and Land Rover are no longer British owned. They are global entities. Not with Morgan. They are the only solely British owned, and managed, sports car company. You can visit the Morgan Museum and factory and watch craftsmen shape bespoke classic vehicles. You could rent a 4/4 sport 1.6 for $1200 for a week. Better still write a check for $45,000- there is, of course, a waiting list and buy one outright.
For the second portion of our visit we stayed at the Abbey Hotel, Malvern next door to the Priory. Its claim to fame is that Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, stayed there, in exile, from 1936-1941. Such happenings are seen to be sufficiently important to warrant being emblazoned on a door mounting as you enter the Abbey Hotel.
For the start of our Malvern journey Penny unearthed Holdfast Cottage on the internet. If you want the quintessential British bed and breakfast this has to be it. An arbor- cosy and locked away into the English countryside, with contented sheep on one side, and lowing cattle on the other.
Steven Thompson and his wife Julie were cheerful hosts helped in a most superior fashion by their 7-year-old flat coat retriever called “Jim Bob” (named after the Walton’s TV program so… a third Malvern link with the USA!) Although originally from Essex, the Thompsons sharpened their tourist/visitor skills with an 18-year stint in the Yorkshire Dales, setting up self-catering farmhouse chalets.
Holdfast has snug rooms named after surrounding Malvern beauty spots- Ragged Stones, Hangmans, Midsummer, Hollybrush and Chase End. We were delighted to be placed in Chase End because we have a second grand-son called Chase.
There is no point in shouting the praises of the “bed” if you avoid talking about the “breakfast.” Andy Evans, a 27- year-old University of Worchester graduate, is the Thompson’s chef. Let me tell you his English breakfast including eggs, rashers of bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes and fried bread-was the most robust and reassuring start to the day that I have ever enjoyed.
Each evening Steven poured Penny an inviting glass of Pinot Grigio and I tried for the first time, not the last!, an engaging pint of Westons cider brewed close by in Much Marcle (should be spelt Miracle!), Herefordshire. Our hospitable inn-keeper sang the praises of a newly created English white wine called “Three Choirs Estate” prepared in Gloucestershire. He said that experts avowed it was as good as the best of New Zealand, South African, French and Californian whites.
Testimonials need to be tried and tested. Do not take my word for it. Throw caution to the winds and set sail for Holdfast Cottage. If you can get accommodation ask for the Chase End room. Check out the teddy bear on the window. His name is “Ollie.” But that is another story.
Want go go?
1. Champaign to Chicago: American Eagle.
2. Chicago to Heathrow, London: American Airlines
3. Heathrow to Paddington: Heathrow Express Train.
4. Paddington to Malvern. Great Western (train). You’ll recognize their trains with the words Great Western and by their lively coloring. Navy blue car-riages and fuchsia doors.
5. Elgar Birthplace Museum www.elgarmuseum.org
6. Malvern Theatres. Contact Sophie McLellan, Head of Entertainment at email@example.com
7. Morgan Motor Co.- www.morgan-motor.co.uk
8. Holdfast Cottage- www.holdfast-cottage.co.uk
9. Westons cider. You can visit and sample. — www.westons-cider.co.uk
Scott A.G.M. Crawford is a professor emeritus of Eastern Illinois University and a free lance journalist who lives in Charleston.