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Little Malvern’s Fault

It’s Our Fault

Professor Stewart highlighted the willingness of mankind to build major towns and cities in close proximity to active fault zones, despite the risk of devastating earthquakes ( eg San Francisco 1906 &1984, Canterbury NZ 2011, Mexico City 1985 & 2017 etc). He concludes that it is because such fault zones are frequently associated mineral wealth, water resources or other benefits. This led me to consider whether the idea could be applied to Malvern. Now Malvern is hardly a major conurbation and the fault which has thrust up the ancient crystalline rocks of the Hills through the soft sedimentary rocks of the Severn Plain is not so far as we know still active. Nevertheless, the development of our town seems to fit this model.

The so-called Eastern Boundary Fault runs approximately north-south through the town parallel to and generally just on the uphill side of the A449. It is responsible for the two unique features which define the town. The first is the spectacular topographic backdrop to the town, which might have earned the name “Little Switzerland” had that not already been appropriated by Church Stretton — the nearby spa town in Shropshire. Second, and perhaps more significant, are the mineral water springs (variously called wells, fountains or spouts) which proliferate on the eastern side of the Hills. They are concentrated along the fault line where groundwater draining through the fissured crystalline rocks of the Hills meets the relatively impervious Triassic marls of the Severn Plain where it becomes forced to the surface. The springs are of course the very reason for the development of Malvern as a spa town in the mid-19th Century. The fault line can be traced for practical purposes by joining up the locations of the springs. Tracing from north to south these include:- Beauchamp Fountain (Cowleigh Rd), Enigma Fountain (BelleVue Terr.), Ellerslie Fountain (Abbey Rd/Wells Rd junction), Morris Well (Old Wyche Rd) and Jubilee Fountain (Malvern Wells). We can be reasonably confident therefore in concluding that the boundary fault was the primary factor in the location and development of Malvern as a spa town. But what about the Parish of Little Malvern and its Priory?

The boundary fault, which so far described lies just west of the A449, enters the Parish almost exactly on the junction of that road with the A4104 Upton Road where it descends towards Little Malvern Priory. It passes about 100-150m to the west of the Priory and continues parallel to the bridle way past Underhills Farm and on to Hollybush and beyond. It is the first few hundred metres of this route which is of particular interest here. If one looks at the 1:10,000 OS map of the parish boundary in LMP’s porch a symbol marking an ancient site as Ditchford’s Well is shown almost exactly on the line of the fault. Following the fault south a number of seepages can be found, the most substantial of which flows under the bridle way to feed the lowermost nature pond at the south end of the Court’s garden. The ornamental ponds closer to the court and LMP are similarly spring-fed. This raises an intriguing question as to why LMP is here rather than elsewhere. In the absence of further research it can be no more than speculation, but I suggest that there are two watery strands to this.

First, some years ago the (late) Professor Mick Aston, lead archaeologist on “The Time Team”, visited LMP. He expressed the view that, despite the above ground remains being entirely of Norman or later origin its location suggested it was possible that the Priory had been sited on or close to an earlier Christian or even pagan sacred site. Celtic Christians had a propensity for regarding wells and springs as sacred and quite often “subsumed” earlier pagan holy wells into the fabric of Christianity. One local example of this is St Ann(e)’s Well apparently dedicated to the maternal grandmother of Christ but which some think was originally dedicated to the pagan water goddess Anu. We might therefore speculate that despite its remote, isolated and somewhat desolate location the founding monks, who pre-date the previously supposed founders (Jocelyn and Eldred) by half a century, selected this site for its already established spiritual character based on sacred springs or wells.

The second strand is more practical than spiritual. The Benedictine Order required its abbeys and priories to be largely self-sufficient. The Rule required monks to live by the labour of their own hands. This would have been a difficult task at Little Malvern with the land to the west steep, rocky and unsuitable for tilling, and the land to the east a densely wooded royal hunting forest, making it unavailable for agriculture. With a prohibition on eating meat on Fridays, and also Wednesdays during Lent, fish was an important part of all monastic diet, but perhaps particularly so at Little Malvern. Here the Lord’s abundant gift of pure spring water, delivered by the boundary fault, was ideally suited to the creation of fish ponds (aka “stew ponds”). These ponds now serve a more ornamental purpose in the gardens of Little Malvern Court

Of these two strands I think the first is the more important. If the requirement for water was the sole reason for selecting the Priory’s location why not found it beside the Severn, like its mother church at Worcester or other Benedictine riverside foundations at Pershore and Evesham? The pre-existence of a sacred spring or well would appear to be the key factor. If this speculation on the role of the boundary fault in providing LMP’s raison d’etre is correct, I think we should be happy to acknowledge that It’s Our Fault.

John Chatten.

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