My association with the Malvern Hills began in the 1960s when studying for school exams in the historic Worcester City Library. Later, whilst browsing around the library, I saw an advertisement for an archaeological excavation due to take place in the summer holidays at Midsummer Hill.
Somehow I felt compelled to follow this up.
I did some research, made enquiries and thereafter for a few weeks over at least three summer holiday periods (possibly four), I joined other enthusiastic young people scraping away at the soil on one of the southern Malvern Hills on ‘digs’ managed by the University of Birmingham.
We were looking for any remnants of an Iron Age hill fort that originally had encompassed the summit of Midsummer Hill. We camped out on iron bedsteads in an old stable block at Bronsil Castle Farm, as the crow flies, just down the road from the hills. Each day after breakfast we would clamber into Army-style land rovers and make the journey up to Hollybush Quarry from where, – laden with picnic food, drinks and equipment – we would make our way up the steep path to the tented camp close to the Southern gate of the hill fort. I remember it as a very pleasant communal experience.
In my weeks of toil over the years I don’t recall finding much physical evidence of human occupation of the site apart from the remains of post holes. Were these dark marks in the soil from rotted wooden posts of structures or evidence that the fort had been burnt down at some point in its history? I learnt how to draw on graph paper signs of any residue, stones or rock within the different soil levels before its removal for the revelation of the next level of soil. I can also recall holding a rod on occasions while another person – who had a clearer grasp of the technicalities of surveying – looked through a device that would give a reading to be recorded for posterity.
On damp days, I must have thought: ‘What on earth am I doing here?’
There was a warm camaraderie amongst the diggers that once experienced was hard to let go. In each successive digging season it was almost like reconnecting with distant family members. Those of us who had been in previous years knew the ropes and so smoothly slotted into tasks. In between each ‘dig’ and in future years we kept loosely in touch. After the 1970 excavation season, I joined with 3 others on a cycling trip to Yugoslavia (present-day Croatia) and back. It was a significant life experience for me and an extension of the comradeship as we made our ways into the wider world.
My personal ‘Stone’ association to the Malvern Hills was hearing from one of the earnest band of Malvern Hills Conservators*, – a voluntary group campaigning to protect the hills – that the rock of which the hills are made is ‘Pre-Cambrian’, one of the oldest formations in the world. A few years later on a visit to the Outer Hebrides, I was intrigued with the name of much of the local geology, – ‘Lewisian Gneiss’ – which I learned was a similar age to Pre-Cambrian rock. Somehow, in what seem like more transitory times this strikes me as very reassuring!
The ‘Forts’ reference in the title includes the well-known British Camp midway down the Malvern Hills chain that apparently was used as a place of residence and fortification from 200BC to the mid-12th Century.
During each excavation season we young diggers would make several night-time walks going North past British Camp on our way to have the reward of liquid refreshment and the opportunity, at one pub, to play skittles. I can almost still feel the heavy thud of the wooden balls as they crashed past the skittles to hit the end of the shed!
After mealtime chores, I would find quiet by surreptiously wandering around the derelict remains of Bronsil Castle, dating from the 13th Century, which was next door to our group accommodation. The surroundings were dishevelled and quite mysterious to a young mind. One of the castle’s quirks is its double moat. The author and film maker Roger Deakin was an advocate of wild swimming, including in the moat at his Suffolk home, and wrote about it in his book Waterlog: a swimmer’s journey through Britain (2000), Vintage. In fact he records a visit to Malvern and its hills (Pgs. 98 – 100) ‘in search of springs and open-air pools’. He finds a number of the ‘over sixty springs and wells around the steep green hills’ (Pg. 99) but, sadly, only an indoor leisure swimming pool. I imagine if he had found the moats at Bronsil Castle he would have felt quite at home swimming there, with the added dimension of Midsummer Hill and all its long history close by .
[*Now the Malvern Hills Trust]