Friday, 13 May 2011

In praise of the British Camp

There is something strangely majestic about the Malvern Hills, which belie their diminutive stature in purely geographical terms. These hills seem to possess more than the simple sum of their parts. Perhaps it is their sheer and unexpected rise from the Severn Valley on the eastern flank, or maybe it is the ridged linear straight-edge of peaks, which contrasts with one’s expectations of a rolling and gentle English countryside.

The rocks which make up the Malvern’s ‘bones’ are among the oldest known on Earth and it seems that you can almost smell the history as you walk along them, but as you wearily approach the summit of the Herefordshire Beacon, you are faced with one of the most arresting sights in Britain. We have all seen a mountain top, and Iron Age forts are not so uncommon that most people are unaware of them, but here the 2 combine in what is sadly one of the rarest of feats: mans' endeavour has managed to enhance natural splendour, rather than obliterating it.

In its natural state, the Herefordshire Beacon must have been an unusual sight, a steep sided pinnacle which brings to mind a malformed Egyptian pyramid, covered in bracken, verdant green grasses, and rare wildflowers being serviced by even rarer butterflies, birds of prey and even the odd snake. The Herefordshire Beacon achieves its mountain status by a measly 15 feet – 1000ft being the traditional measure of these things - and it is the second highest peak of the Malvern Hills.

Built around 2,200 years ago, the British Camp was sculpted from the hillside for what was originally believed to be a defensive refuge in times of peril, but archaeological excavations now suggest it was the permanent home to about 4000 inhabitants who lived there for some 500 years. What life must have been like for these distant ancestors is hard for a twenty first century sophisticate to imagine. It must certainly have been a hard and rugged existence, but with such a magnificent view, almost any hardship seems worth the enduring.

Local legend tells of Caractacus, the last chieftain of the British Camp who made his final stand at the fort against the conquering Roman Empire. The legend speaks of a savage battle in which the Ancient Britains fought ferociously, but were eventually defeated, albeit with their honour left intact. Caractacus was captured and sent to Rome as a trophy, but he impressed the Emperor Claudius so much, that he was made a Roman Citizen and comfortably ended his days there.

Sadly, as is so often the way with local legends, this tale contradicts virtually all the archaeological and historical evidence. It seems much more likely that Caractacus’s last stand happened elsewhere, and far from ending his days in Rome, it probably came at the blunt end of a Roman sword, in or shortly after the battle.

However legends die hard, especially such a good one, and it inspired Edward Elgar to compose a cantina entitled Caractacus to honour the ancient Chieftain. Elgar’s association with the Malvern Hills is well documented, he is buried near to the British Camp at St Wulstan churchyard in Little Malvern, but it is less known is that this inspirational scenery has inspired many of England’s great artists over the years.

This a landscape which is linked to works of such figures as the 14th century author William Langland, the 17th century diarist John Evelyn, the 19th century poet Lord Macaulay – who pays tribute to Malvern’s role during the Armada,  the poet and dramatist John Drinkwater and perhaps most famously the poet WH Auden.

There is one last surprise for visitors to the Herefordshire Beacon; there are signs in the rocks around the British Camp which can inform the initiated of an earlier history which makes the Ancient Britains seem almost modern. By the entrance to Giant’s Cave, once used as a medieval hermit’s retreat, there are distinctive rock formations known to geologists as pillow lavas, caused when molten lava is released under water. These rocks were formed in a time before the continents had formed and the Earth was a global ocean; it was these volcanic processes which are viewed today as being so destructive, which gradually coalesced into the land on which we rely.

So remarkably, when visiting the British Camp, we can see evidence of the birth of the continents and the death of an Ancient British culture in the same place. If that does not inspire the imagination, it would still be worthwhile making the climb to the summit to bathe in a view which takes in twelve counties, the Severn Valley, the Welsh Marches, the Black Mountains, the Brecon Beacons, the Cotswolds and, of course, the Malvern’s.

Failing all that, there is a wonderful pub next to the car park.

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