by Sylvia Mercuriali
Lost in the Darkness
I arrive at Malvern at 9pm.
Beyond the lights of the station building I am surrounded by darkness.
It is cold and I need to find my way to the hotel. I Imagine that Malvern is small enough to walk around , so I set off on foot.
I ask somebody for directions and before I know it I am sitting in a warm car, with the heating on full and an expert driver at the wheel. Sue, has very generously offered to give me a lift.
She lives in exactly the opposite direction to where I am going, but in a very friendly spirit that I will learn is quite common around here, she goes out of her way to help me out.
Having dropped my bag at the Hotel, I set off to find a place to eat, soon finding my way to ‘The Flute’, a very good little Indian restaurant owned by a man who lives in Birmingham.
There is a big party of friends celebrating a birthday at the restaurant and as I eavesdrop on their strange conversation I start to feel that I am somewhere quite magical where dreams take on some surreal tones and one might encounter witches flying on their brooms in the moon light….but maybe it’s just me, the fresh air of Worcestershire and the delicious spicy food!
Manda, my secret agent here, has encouraged me to have a walk around at night as the town is really nicely lit.
In truth it feels like being in a Neapolitan nativity reconstruction where stone houses are lit in pools of dim sodium lights…and it being almost christmas…well it couldn’t be more perfect…apart from a weird shady figure in the main square standing still looking straight ahead with scarf and a hat on…
I wonder what they are doing…are they drunk? are they waiting for someone? are they so immersed in their thoughts that the cold of the night doesn’t bother them at all?
I leave ..off to bed.
The great wall of Malvern.
The morning after I awake very early to meet Manda and set off for a walk in the hills….
Manda used to work for the Council in the Arts department and is now a freelancer artist and amazing tour guide. She tells me about the feeling that Malvern hides behind its hill somehow [???]
The curse of being such beautiful place where people come to gather their thoughts as they enjoy long walks and imagine Tolkien’s like atmospheres, is that anything else happening here seems to be obscured.
Malvern sits amongst the famous hills: Great Malvern, Little Malvern, West Malvern and Malvern Link… (I might be making the names up a little)…so it is that wherever you are in Malvern you can always see a hill.
I discovered that the hills naturally would have lots of trees on top but by law it is conserved bald…..some rule set up during the victorian period to make sure they are left as much as possible in their beautified version of themselves.
I do love the hills.
I would like to make an audio piece to be listened to sitting on this bench looking at the horizon and imagining the surroundings as the backdrop for a story..maybe real maybe fictional, in which the listener feels immersed fully.
From here the horizon is so vast and peaceful. The wind is blowing hard and Manda and I are pushed along the path and must make sure not to get blown away. Nature is taking over today and my plan of recording our walk definitely encounters some obstacles. It’s a typically ‘sublime’ landscape and would make an ideal subject for a paintings and books and Music.
We talk about pagan rituals and hippies and teenage sleepovers on the hill. We talk about the old Spas that made Malvern so famous and affluent in the past until somebody got typhoid and all the Spas got closed down and turned into Boarding schools. We talk about The Malvern Gazelle….an independent satirical publication which doesn’t exists anymore… we talk about how, even though the place is very small and there are less opportunities then in the big city, there is the sense that people really want to make things happen in an independent, guerrilla style and are always backed by the community.
We visit the parish church, where the vicar is battling through an enormous pile of leaves to get in through the door, possibly wanting to admire the beautiful tiles that used to decorate the floor and that have now been moved onto the walls to preserve them.
We visit the Winter’s Garden with it’s lake and duck and the statue carved out of a fallen tree, a celebration of water and life that comes with it. The artist decided to carve some little houses at the top of the statue that look like they are being swept away by the current. This vision turned out to become reality a year later when a great flood swept away the houses around the hill.
Finally we visited the Theatre, built in 1885 and renovated in 1998 and comprised of three different spaces. The large modern theatre and foyer reflect more practical times and have a sheen of modernity, but the old theatre has been left untouched, as has the little cinema, the only space that remained open throughout the war. It is said that the ghost of Bernard Shaw still makes an appearance from time to time, in the back row, up in the gods or down by the old theatre bar, now just a store room that I have the fortune to visit.
Unfortunately I did not see the ghost, but I was slightly scared by the massive portrait picture of Burt Lancaster half hidden amongst the fake Narnia wardrobe’s doors for the next production.
Manda and I get in the car and drive all around the big hill. The landscape changes so much from one side of the hill to the other; a large expanse of flat land is in front of Great Malvern with most of the buildings concentrated there and spreading out at the feet of the hill. Over to the other side is hill after hill and little pockets of smaller inhabited areas. Bald hills and furry hills where the trees are growing strong and the colours change with the seasons.
Today the leaves are falling and the wind is blowing them around the country like kids on a funfair ride.
We drive past the installation that appeared all around the side of the hill towards West Malvern…or was it Little?…three stone cottages big enough for a small family of mice to live in beautifully built and cherished by the locals. A reminder that rules can be bent and that if something is worth having there is a way to make it happen.
I discover that in 1942 the anti-aircraft radar and searchlights were moved to Malvern. During the war the coastline was far too exposed and the scientific labs and research groups were moved here… and stayed, leaving Malvern with a high scientific population to this day. The new system to regenerate the old gas lamps in a more eco friendly way has been developed in Malvern and is now being adopted by London as well.
Off course I mustn’t forget to mention the beloved local hero Sir Edward William Elgar, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. It also turns out that the shady figure in the main square is not a drunken soul at all but a statue of Sir Elgar, which has been dressed up for the season with a woolly hat, a scarf and a cosy woolly moustache.
It is almost time to go for me but I can’t leave before having seen the famous WORM .. a tunnel built at the height of the Malvern’s fame as a Spa heaven to connect the station to the basement of a former hotel (now the Girls College) to allow passengers to access the miraculous waters directly, without the hassle of even seeing the roads.
This is very exciting! You can clearly see the tunnel from both station platforms. The old door is now shut and boarded up, but there is a bit of an opening through which I can peep. It is pretty dark in there, but there is some light coming in from the other side of the tunnel, as well as from some oval windows on one side. Yes it is just a long corridor….but you can almost see the tiles on the walls on one side.
Malvern is like…Moriana, a city of two sides…one one side is grand Victorian and Edwardian houses, lush former hotels and the beauty of nature…but you only have to walk in a semicircle to discover Malvern’s hidden face … radar dishes, guerrilla art installation, music and a little bit of witchery.