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Great Malvern, Worcestershire. Set in the 9 mile range of the Malvern Hills, Great Malvern has a Continental flavour, partly because of the way it is terraced on its hillside site. Its history as a settlement probably begins in the 11th century with the foundation of the Benedictine priory. Its modern history possibly owes its beginnings to a treatise by Dr Wall published in 1756 extolling the medicinal virtues of the waters of the Malvern Wells, which had in fact been discovered 100 years earlier. Within 30 years of Dr Wall's death, a pump room, baths, and residential terraces of houses and hotels were built on ground above the priory. One of these early hotels, the Foley Arms, has survived with its splendid cast-iron verandas intact and much of its original furnishings. From the time of Princess Victoria's visit here eight years before she became Queen to Princess Mary of Teck's visit with members of the German court in 1891, the town expanded continually. Malvern College for boys was founded in 1862 and Gothic Revival churches sprang up everywhere. Malvern could compete with Bath, Buxton and Cheltenham and like them attracted the same element of retired colonial administrators and army officers. Few spas can match the beauty of its surroundings. Today, the spa no longer exerts its importance as such, it has become much more a popular resort and even a dormitory town for Worcester and Birmingham.

The Norman Priory Church of SS. Mary and Michael is still Malvern's most dominant feature and its most cherished possession. Built less than 20 years after the Conquest, it became almost immediately a dependency of Westminster Abbey. Originally a great cruciform building with a central tower, considerable additions were made in the 13th and 14th centuries including a Lady Chapel in Decorated style which was destroyed after the Dissolution. It was mainly in the 15th century that a tremendous reconstruction of the Norman church was undertaken. The piers and arches of the early building were enclosed in-the new style of architecture then prevailing. A lofty clerestory and roof were added filled with jewelled lights. A new tower rose on the foundations of the old. Its massive lines were decorated in the same manner as the tower of Gloucester Cathedral, which it resembles. It seems likely that the same masons worked on both. Everything east of the tower was rebuilt at the same time. The famous tiles were all handmade in the monastery, mostly between 1453 and 1456. About 1,000 were used in the decoration of the church, and over 100 different designs. Some can be seen in the outer wall of the apse. Occasionally it took four tiles to complete a small design. At the time of the reconstruction 40 vast windows were filled with stained glass, in colour and design rivalling even that at York Minster. The east window is filled with jewelled fragments, some almost pictorially complete. The later clerestory glass should be seen from the aisles of the choir. During the First World War, all the medieval glass was removed and stored in a place of safety. The releading and restoration after the war left the glass probably in better condition than it had been over two centuries. The other remarkable furnishings which have survived the years since the Dissolution are the two rows of original dark oak monastic choir stalls with finely carved misericords. They date mostly from the 15th century, though some may be earlier. The carvings portray the seasons with vividness and often humour. St Anne's Chapel in the south choir aisle, much restored, has a stairway to the tower and belfry which has a bell dating from the 14th century. Two of the early priors are buried here. In 1860 the whole church underwent a restoration by Sir Gilbert Scott. Thirty-four years later the northwest porch was rebuilt and a year after this the tower was repaired and strengthened. Of the monastery, only the gatehouse survives.

The town owns Priory Park with its fine trees and abundant flowers and, in keeping with Malvern's importance as an inland resort, an open-air heated swimming-pool. The fish pond, with huge golden carp, is the same pool used by the Benedictines more than 400 years ago. There is good walking to be had on the hills behind the town; the ascent of the Worcestershire Beacon, where William Langland is supposed to have composed Piers Plowman, is recommended.

Little Malvern, the smallest of the Malverns, has a wooded setting against a rising hill and St Giles's, a gem of a church which is all that remains of another great priory, founded in 1171. The tower and chancel survive from this period. Bishop Alcock of Worcester rebuilt the rest in the late 15th century. He inserted a fine west window, now fragmented, that portrays Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, his queen. There is a l4th-century altar tomb with four figures carved in the panels. The floor has encaustic tiles from the priory kiln at Great Malvern. Almost adjoining is Little Malvern Court which incorporates part of the priory buildings. It is mostly 15th-century, but the round tower is probably part of the original l2th-century edifice, it has been in the possession of the Roman Catholic Berrington family since the 17th century and can claim that through all the religious struggles the Mass has been said here during the last 800 years. Through a window in the roof can still be seen the priests' hiding hole used in the days of persecution. One treasured possession is a travelling trunk and a quilt owned by Catherine of Aragon. Two miles north east is the moated Madresfield Court, owned by the Earls of Beauchamp since 1260. It is set in a magnificent park, with a mile-long avenue of trees making a majestic approach. Five miles south east, in fine pastureland sheltered by the Malverns, is a timbered grange called Birtsmorton Court. It is still completely encircled by a watered moat. One of the bridges leads to a l4th-century embattled stone gateway with two round bastions. Four wings surround the courtyard built between the 13th and 20th centuries. The earliest south wing contains the great hall. Here is a secret hiding place where Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard leader, sheltered after his first escape from the Tower of London. Here, too, during the Wars of the Roses, Queen Margaret of Anjou fled with her son Edward, Prince of Wales. The chamber in which they hid is still there. Thomas Wolsey, who was to become cardinal under Henry VIII, was once a simple house chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, who probably introduced him to the Court. The Queen Anne plaster ceiling in the great hall is most handsome and the earlier Elizabethan panelling is perfectly preserved. Originally built by the Birt family, it was bought back by one of their descendants in this century but has now passed out of the family again. It is open to the public at advertised times, particularly in the summer season; it can be reached most easily from the A438, midway between Tewkesbury and Ledbury. The little l4th-century church has a good marble tomb of Sir Richard Nanfan, who died in 1504.

Nearby cities: Worcester

Nearby towns: Bromyard, Ledbury, Upton upon Severn, Pershore, Tewkesbury

Nearby villages: Callow End, Golden Valley, Hanley Swan, Kempsey, Stony Cross, Welland

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