Walk Four - Little Malvern, Shadybank Common
The image at the top of the page shows The Elgar family graves at St Wulstan's, Little Malvern.
Caractacus and the Elgar graves
Walking up from Wynds Point beneath the Herefordshire Beacon, or “British Camp”, and back to Little Malvern brings us serenely into the arena of England’s greatest composer.
Edward Elgar’s Malvern years spanned the period from 1891 to 1904 - and he loved the Malvern Hills. In response to a commission from the Leeds Festival, and inspired by the hills he could see from the study in his window, he composed Caractacus, the tale of a British warrior chief driven westwards by the Romans; the choice was also prompted by a suggestion from his mother that he write something about British Camp in the Malverns.
The cantata was completed in the peace of “Birchwood”, a country cottage some 4 miles from the centre of Malvern that Elgar had rented. Succumbing to his enemy in the musical version at British Camp, Caractacus was taken to Rome for trial but gained a pardon from Emperor Claudius. The spectacular Iron Age hill fort, just above our route, may well have housed Caractacus at some point - with a settlement of two thousand altogether. From here there are sensational views across the undulations of Herefordshire one way and the Severn plain the other. Birchwood is tucked away on that Hereford side by Storridge; Elgar must have found the atmosphere conducive to his work because he stayed on even after the family moved in 1899 to a house in Malvern Wells; it was called “Craeg Lea” - typical of Elgar’s love of word play as it comprises an anagram of Elgar and the initial letter of his wife Alice, daughter Carice and Edward himself. Fittingly it was here that the composer’s most famous work, the Enigma Variations, was composed and Craeg Lea, on the other side of British Camp, is not a mile away from his final resting place visited near the end of our walk.
Elgar was happy cycling the country lanes around Malvern, discussing literature and flying kites from the top the Malverns. His long term companion was architect Troyte Griffith - “pictured within” the eighth Enigma Variation. Elgar even rode his Sunbeam bicycle from Malvern to Wolverhampton on a regular basis where he was a familiar face supporting Wolves at Molineux. It is not widely known that Elgar wrote what is probably the first ever football chant: lacking the pomp of his major works or quite the same libretto perhaps: “He banged the leather for goal” was a celebration of the goalscoring exploits of his hero Billy Malpass, after a match against Stoke in 1898.
Apart from Caractacus, legend has it that the fugitive Prince of Wales, Owain Glyndwr hid away up just a little south of British Camp in Clutter’s Cave, beyond Point 2 on our walk.
After passing the area of Little Malvern Priory, whose one time errant monk placed a curse on Raggedstone Hill at the south end of the Malverns, we come to St Wulstan’s Church. Here lie Lady Alice Elgar, buried in 1920, Sir Edward in the same grave in 1934, and daughter Carice Elgar Blake, buried close to them in 1970.
Finally, a stiff climb up to Black Hill visits the environs of the “Swedish Nightingale”, Jenny Lind. The opera singer was a close friend of Felix Mendelssohn, Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Anderson. She lived here for four years in the 1880s, when Elgar was organist at St George’s in Worcester and just setting out as a composer. Below her old home is a memorial plaque to Sir Barry Jackson, founder of Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Malvern Festival. Centred on the Winter Gardens in Malvern from 1929, the Festival was made famous by Elgar and George Bernard Shaw, and after a break during World War II, there followed several years of an Elgar Festival.