The art of getting a 2 1/2-year-old to walk a long distance is all in the snacking. Stop too often and it’s impossible to make any progress (and your child will end up being about 75%
biscuit carrot stick). Stop too rarely and they’ll run out of fuel, get grouchy, fall over and the day will generally be unpleasant for all.
Judging a snack strategy requires the same data-based analysis a Formula 1 team uses to decide on pit stops and tyres. Factor in the weather, the terrain, the gradient, the quantity and diversity of snacks available, whether there’ll be a picnic lunch at some stage, and how happy the child is with whatever stick they’ve found that day.
It’s also important to know how far you’re going and to not, hypothetically speaking, horrendously misjudge the distance from a car park to a county highpoint even though you are quite a good map reader. Herein also lies the advantage of real paper maps over their very zoomable online counterparts. Zooming messes with scale. If you know through experience what a couple of inches on a 1:25,000 map is like on the ground then you can plan accordingly. Zoom in to the online version to get a better view of those tightly packed contour lines and suddenly you’re all at sea.
Which is all by way of a lengthy preamble to the story of our walk up Worcestershire Beacon (see the short film above, and yes, of course the music is Elgar). This is the only county top that includes the name of the county and is a proper walk by anyone’s standard. The “tourist route” (as hiking types like to classify any route considered easy – see also Ben Nevis) is a short pull up the southern ridge. Being adventruous types, we came in from the other direction.
Parking beneath a nesting sparrowhawk (according to the local with binoculars parked next to us) and having already spotted a pair of peregrine falcons in flight (they nest at the local quarry), we set off on a very warm Sunday in May.
This route is a lovely green walk on a good path up the side of North Hill. You gain height quickly and the views across the flat plains of Worcestershire are impressive. It was already hazy, despite our early start, but we could still see for miles. “We’re high up!” asserted Zoë with a certain degree of pride and delight, as if her work here were done. Ha! We weren’t even half way.
We reached the top of the first and steepest part of the climb and emerged onto the flank of North Hill where the path starts to contour around. I had intended that we’d summit North Hill before tackling the Beacon, but that was clearly an idiotic idea in the circumstances, so we kept our eyes on the prize. And you can see the prize from some way away. After the utterly nondescript Ebrington Hill and the beautiful but hard-to-distinguish summit of Cleeve Common, this was a proper pointy-hill summit.
Worcestershire Beacon’s prominence led to it being part of the network of beacons used to alert citizens of attack back before, well, any form of modern communication frankly. Hence the name. When the Spanish Armada appeared off the English coast in 1588, beacons were lit across the country. As a bonfire burned on each hill, the other hills within sight would light their own and people would know to prepare for invasion. According to the BBC, Worcestershire’s labourers and farmworkers were supposed to march to Seaford if the beacons were lit. That’s Seaford near Eastbourne – about 170 miles away. The BBC also reports that the system had its flaws: “In 1545, rumours spread of a French landing on the coast, the beacons were lit, and the Worcestershire militia tramped all the way to Swindon before they were told it was a false alarm.”
I can’t find what Worcestershire Beacon was called before beacons became a thing – maybe it was South Hill to counter North Hill?
The path skirts North Hill to the midway blip of Sugar Loaf before gradually rising up to the Beacon. The Malvern Hills are open and myriad eroded footpaths flow like dried-up streams off and around the Beacon. It was a very warm day so stops were fairly frequent, but Zoë was doing very well. Toddlers do love to run at any opportunity, burning up energy at a terrifying rate, and on a short downhill stretch, Zoë sprinted off.
We had the conversation. Were we actually going to make it? Should I just pop up and do the summit while Nicky and Zoë waited? Hills always look more daunting from a distance, butI was confident we could all do it.
Once we were on the slopes of the Beacon itself, the paths were so wide that Zoë had more freedom to run about and choose her own route and with the promise of a snack stop just below the summit we made good progress.
The final little pull up turned out to be very short. The summit was just out of sight behind an outcrop of rock and in just a few minutes we were there amid the hordes, most of whom had of course come up the tourist route, which some seemed to have found quite arduous.
The summit offers 360-degree views – the chain of Malvern Hills stretching away to the north, and the counties of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire all visible. It’s even possible to pick out Birmingham some 45 miles away. It would take a clearer day to see the Shropshire Hills or the Bristol Channel.
Till the proud Peak unfurled the flag o’er Darwin’s rocky dales
Till like volcanoes flared to heaven the stormy hills of Wales,
Till twelve fair counties saw the blaze on Malvern’s lonely height,
Till streamed in crimson on the wind the Wrekin’s crest of light,
Till broad and fierce the star came forth on Ely’s stately fane,
And tower and hamlet rose in arms o’er all the boundless plain;
Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Macaulay, The Armada
There’s a panorama on a plinth at the summit – a toposcope. As the plinth states, it was installed in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The toposcope itself was stolen in 2000 though oddly found a year later in Walsall after a police tipoff. The local conservation group had already put in a replica, and then decided that the replica should stay while the rescued original would be kept safe.
At the time of the original theft, the then chairman of the Board of Conservators, Brian Wilcock, asked, “Is it the work of a trophy hunter with a secret gallery? Was it just a stupid jape that challenged someone’s warped sense of adventure? Will it eventually weigh upon the vandals’ conscience and be returned? Can we appeal to their better nature? Who knows? One can only think, “Is nothing sacred any more?”
This was only our third county top but it felt like a real achievement – the Beacon is almost 1,400 feet (425m) high and dominates its surroundings. Apparently, if you travel due east from the Beacon, the first time you hit higher ground is in the Ural mountains. This may be pedantically true, though the exact line of latitude does thread its way through Germany’s Harz mountains, which do have some slightly higher peaks.
We settled down to our picnic and watched as a crow (or raven? It was massive) stealthily stalked around us eyeing up the fully-wrapped flapjack someone had left behind. A swoosh of wings and the bird grabbed the packet and launched itself off the edge of the hill. A calorific treat for its afternoon tea no doubt.
There used to be a café on top of the Beacon for walkers to refuel, but it burned down in 1989 and the House of Lords no less refused permission to rebuild it. Given the erosion already evident on the summit of this popular walk, this was probably wise.
I made a cack-handed attemtpt to shoot a panorama from the top of this 600-million-year-old hill. I always feel a bit self-conscious doing anything other than taking a quick snap, which I really need to get over. Especially when I’ve lugged a proper tripod all the way up and then don’t use it (I also have an excellent mini-tripod, which I leave permanently attached to my camera).
And then it was back down. Zoë didn’t quite manage the whole thing. The downhill section she’d run along earlier was now the only uphill section on the return journey and she had to be carried for about a quarter of a mile. But then she merrily made her way back down the steep section and lured by the promise of an ice cream in Great Malvern.
Overall, Worcestershire Beacon is a good day out. The walk from the North Quarry car park is more interesting and less crowded than the shortest way up and there’s nothing too challenging about it. There are plenty of other routes if you want a longer walk too. Just make sure you’re carrying enough snacks.
Worcestershire. Done. West Lomond next – yes, UKH is going north!
What we liked: Views ¦ Birdlife ¦ Sunshine
What we didn’t like: Summit erosion ¦ Haze ¦ Not having a proper map