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  • Julie Muller

MALVERNS - THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED - From Sheep to Snakes via Quarry and Fort

Updated: Jun 10, 2022


On a lovely sunny October day, Julie decided to lead us on a walk away from the crowds milling around the British Camp car park.

Bruno - red welsh sheep dog puppy walking at Shady Bank Common
Bruno at Shady Bank Common, Malvern

Instead of heading for the hills, she led us down a track towards the British Camp reservoir. Sweet chestnut trees on either side of the track, boasted golden brown leaves whilst the ground was littered with the pale green prickly balls containing the fruits. . Some of the seed cases had been squashed flat by passing cars and the chestnuts sat bronze and shiny on the ground and their flattened cases prickled our paws as we trotted over them.

The water in the reservoir was much lower than usual but it glistened in the afternoon sunshine. The track descended down to the woods and a small stream trickled its way beside the track for a while. I couldn’t resist having a wallow. It was deliciously cold.

We continued along the track through the wood which was now soft and damp under our paws . In places outcrops of bare Malvern granite broke through the vegetation. We heard the bleating of sheep and Julie put our leads back on in case we were tempted to herd them. We were heading for another of Malvern’s commons – Shady Bank Common.

Luckily the sheep were in the next field, but it is amazing how far their cry can be heard. In the springtime Shady Bank Common is always particularly noisy with so many anxious mums bleating for their errant offspring. The ewes today are already carrying next year’s lambs so we must be careful not to ‘worry’ them. Even just chasing a pregnant ewe can be very distressing for them and they could easily lose their lambs. When Zak was alive, he took a sheep safe course taught by Sue Harper, a local dog trainer. The course was brilliant for him, and it helped Julie to control his behaviour when walking in the countryside. Sadly, I didn’t find the course very easy, but I think Bruno will enjoy it very much when he is a bit older.

Our journey took us down a track towards Castlemorton Common. This is another Site of Special Scientific interest in its own right for a whole variety of reasons. In places the ground was wet and boggy under our paws. Our humans will really need their wellies in the winter!

Shep the Border Collie sitting on the path leading past Shady Bank Common, Malvern in Worcestershire
Shep at Shady Bank Common

Having trudged across the damp muddy common, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves walking beside a small expanse of water, backdropped by a steep but vegetated rockface, its rich autumnal colours reflected in the water below. This is Gullet Quarry, and it is a bitter reminder of Malvern’s comparatively recent mining heritage. Today, the Malvern Hills are quiet and tranquil, but in Victorian times, the Malvern air was rent with clanking and banging as the miners forcibly detached huge chunks of the hard Malvern stone from its rockface using dynamite!! Very few parts of the hills were left untouched by these operations causing considerable distress to locals and visitors alike. I am glad that I wasn’t around at that time. I don’t even like the sound of gunshot.

Eventually, the hills were saved from this awful destruction when the Malvern Hills Conservators (now the Malvern Hills Trust) compulsorily bought out the last remaining mining company in 1974. This was fifteen years after the establishment of the Malvern Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

Over the decades the lake water has collected at the site of the old quarry workings. Today, even though it was October, the water looked very inviting, and Bruno and I would have loved to have gone for a swim . It would be even more tempting to do so on a hot summer’s day, but the lake’s beauty belies its danger and several people have lost their lives attempting to swim in the icy cold water.

The cliffs behind the lake are of great geological importance too because they tell the story of when these rocks lay at a completely different geographical latitude and when warm tropical seas lapped at the shores. Layers of old hard igneous rock abut against soft limestones and shales whose fossils reveal the diversity of marine life that swam in the shallow tropical sea. The water was still and calm today and all of the myriad autumn colours were reflected in its deep dark depths.

Two sheep dogs seek directions on Swinyard Hill, Malvern
Bruno and Shep examining the direction marker at Swinyard Hill, Malvern

We left Gullet Quarry behind us, and Julie led us up a very steep hill and headed towards the summit of Midsummer Hill. The path was littered with leaves and fallen trees blocked the most direct route. However, having reached the top, the path dipped down and then up again as it tracked up and over the ramparts of Midsummer Hill’s Iron age fort. It was great fun racing through the leaves and jumping over the fallen trees. I don’t know how Bruno’s little legs kept up with me.

Soon we climbed to the top of the hill. The sun was shining brightly bathing the summit in a bright yellow light. The views from the top were amazing. Eastnor Castle looked like a fairy-tale castle nestled below the hills. There was a steady breeze which raked our coats the wrong way and gave us even more energy and we raced and chased, darted and dived but there was no one in sight to share our fun.

It was too nippy to stay long on the top, so we set off down the hill in the general direction of the obelisk on the Eastnor Estate. When we reached the metal track a large four-wheel pickup truck drove past, a dog barking from the inside. Sheep bleated in the valley and pheasants squawked . It was a gorgeous afternoon. At a junction of 4 paths, we trotted on into News Wood. The path was damp and soft to our paws but not muddy. On either side of it multiple stemmed hazel trees hung over us – a favourite habitat for the shy little dormouse. These little rodents eat flowers and pollen in the spring, fruit in the summer and nuts, particularly hazel nuts in the autumn and, all of this, supplemented with a variety of tasty insects. Luckily for the insects dormice sleep for at least seven months of the year.

Soon we found ourselves back up on the hills again although we had seen so few people. We looked down below us from Swinyard Hill – the cars in the car park below looked tiny. This part of the hill is a favourite home for certain snakes including the adder. The local reptile expert, Nigel Hand, has identified many individual adders and is able to recognise them by variations in the zig zag patterns on their backs. Each individual snake prefers to bask in a particular place and Nigel has been able to study them. It is fascinating that adders are the only snakes in UK to give birth to live young. We dogs need to be a bit careful especially on warm sunny days because if we surprise them, they could give us a nasty bite. Some dogs have been known to die.

Two sheep dogs enjoy their walk on the top of Swinyard Hill in Worcestershire
Shep and Bruno enjoy walking along the top of Swinyard Hill

From Swinyard hill, we started to make our way back to the car at British Camp car park. The hills were becoming busier with dogs and their humans - all of them enjoying the last rays of sunshine on a very lovely day.

Two tired sheep dogs trot down the steps at British Camp towards the car park. Beautiful afternoon light. View towards Black Hill
Nearly home - Bruno and Shep head back towards the car park at British Camp

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