Cotswold Towns: Getting steamed up at Great Malvern Station
PUBLISHED: 12:28 30 May 2017
Stephen Roberts enjoys a brief encounter with Great Malvern Station
Railway stations are romantic places. We meet, greet and say farewell. It is all very ‘Brief Encounter’, especially when those assignations are partly obscured by the trademark emissions of a steam train. We may not have the steam at Great Malvern today, but we have everything else.
Great Malvern is a stop on the Cotswolds and Malverns Line, albeit the former Hills have been left far behind and replaced by the latter, as a picturesque rail journey between Oxford and Hereford approaches its conclusion. First of all we need some history.
The Worcester & Hereford Railway’s part of the line, (which was constructed last), opened as far as Malvern Link, in July 1859, (the W&H would become part of the Great Western Railway, the GWR). It is the next stop at Great Malvern where we will alight though.
Great Malvern’s Grade II Listed local Rag stone French-Gothic romance of a station (1862) befits a place that was once a fashionable Victorian ‘prim and proper’ spa, this treasure replacing a temporary station of 1860, built when the mile from Malvern Link was completed in the May. As soon as you step on to the platform you feel you have been swept back in time to a more genteel age when top-hatted gents alighted from carriages, then held the gloved hand of a lady, as she stepped down demurely on to the platform in her finery. I must try that with Mrs Steve sometime.
Thankfully most of the original at Great Malvern remains, including ornate pillars, with varied horticultural capitals, supporting extensive, deep staggered canopies, held up by elaborate cast-iron girders. Here we admire the work of Scottish-born sculptor William Forsyth (c1833-1915). Then there is the ‘pièce de résistance’ of ‘Lady Foley’s Tea Room’, which commemorates the local worthy (Lady Emily Foley) who owned much of the land hereabouts and was therefore a crucial sponsor of the railway.
The tea room was originally her private waiting room; mixing with the ‘hoi polloi’ clearly a ‘no-no’. She would probably be appalled to see her inferiors ‘tucking in’, in what was once part of her personal fiefdom. As compensation though, she’d be able to pop into the florist on Platform 1 (possibly to acquire something scented to ward off any nasty-niffs from the ‘riff-raff’), and pick up something to read from the bookshop (Platform 2). I’m already in love with this place. Trains, a tea room and a bookshop; what’s not to like?
Looking from the southern end of Platform 1 in the Worcester direction, one can still see the massive edifice of the former ‘Imperial Hotel’ (now part of ‘Malvern St James’ school), with the bulk of the stationmaster’s house (‘Rowallan’) in front, which is now flats, plus a trio of bridges over the railway.
In spite of Great Malvern’s ‘stickability’ there have been some losses. There used to be a branch running from here to Upton-upon-Severn, Tewkesbury and Ashchurch (closed 1951), so there was a bay platform, along the eastern side of Platform 2, the site now used as car parking. There was also a goods bay at the southern end of Platform 1. Finally, there was a turntable, allowing goods vans, for example, coal trucks, to be backed up from trains arrived at Platform 2, straight into the basement of the ‘Imperial’, which had a large (yet discrete) wooden door for this purpose and presumably voracious boilers.
There was also a corrugated iron tunnel (the ‘Worm’) allowing First Class patrons to alight on Platform 2 and head straight into the hotel without getting wet. The Worm is also Grade II Listed and is believed to be the only structure of its kind in the country. The Friends of Malvern Stations have been instrumental in improving the ‘Worm’ and have also been busy doing gardening work at Malvern Link.
As I discovered, the outside of the station, which is a downhill hike from the town centre, is a delight too, a deliciously haphazard collection of gables and chimneys. It may be cars parked outside now rather than horse and carriage, but this is not too detrimental (I am not a great lover of cars). There are highly decorated, reinstated lighting columns around the ‘cab road’ which also serve to offset those intrusive motor vehicles. There is an interesting little trough on the main station entrance side (Platform 1), tastefully planted today, but also a reminder of Malvern’s spa pretensions. The MSPCA (Malvern Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) drinking fountain, a Malvern spring water spout (as was), is ‘well-dressed’ each year.
In the ticket office cum waiting room is a blue plaque recording that 150 years of continual operation at the station were achieved in May 2010, with the present station buildings opened a little later in 1862. The architect was EW (Edmund Wallace) Elmslie (c1818-1889). There is another plaque, which incongruously offers a different opening date of 1863, but also handily confirms that the station was restored over 1987-88. The people responsible would be pleased with how the place looks today.
Of course, no visit to the station would be complete without frequenting Lady Foley’s Tea Room on Platform 1, which opened in 1984. You can sit either inside, enjoying the ambience of a refreshment room of an earlier era (why, there are even pictures of ‘Brief Encounter’ to get you in the mood). I liked the ‘Great Malvern’ totem signs (old and new). One of them is original GWR, the other a special one commemorating ‘Great Malvern 150’.
There are also tables and chairs on the platform outside if you fancy observing trains and engaging in the traditional British pastime of ‘people watching’. If you forget your timepiece, there is a handy (and traditional) station clock adjacent to the entrance into Lady Foley’s. That clock also looks very ‘Brief Encounter’ for anyone who has seen the movie. It is also symbolic. When you’re waiting for a loved one to arrive, time drags. When you’re waiting to part from the same person, time flies.
Malvern Link was the preferred disgorging place for the ‘riff-raff’ in Malvern, Lady Foley doing everything in her considerable power to keep them away from Great Malvern, where she might have the misfortune to bump into them. This class segregation extended to works outings and indeed any outcasts hailing from ‘industrial’ areas. It even stretched to First Class passengers from Stratford-upon-Avon if they had the audacity to arrive on an ‘excursion’. I’m surprised the locals didn’t wear ‘nose-gays’ to ward off the stench.
There used to be a third Malvern station, ‘Malvern Wells’ (1860-1965), which was reached in May 1860, before the line vanished into the darkness of the Colwall Tunnel (and even a fourth station, on the branch, at Hanley Road).
The Colwall Tunnel, which burrows through the Malverns, has history. The original excavation (1,567 yards) was back-breaking, progress sometimes as slow as six inches per day. When finished, it was prone to rock falls, so was replaced by today’s tunnel in 1926 (1,586 yards). The abandoned tunnel assisted the war effort in WW2 when it became a torpedo and bomb store cum distribution centre. I remember walking these hills as a youth and thinking they would never end (the ridge is nine-miles and affords views of 13 counties on a clear day).
As if having a private waiting room at Great Malvern wasn’t enough, Lady Foley also had her own station at Stoke Edith (1861-1965), where the family seat was, which she used when travelling to Hereford. This station was handily the other side of the Colwall Tunnel, which meant Lady Foley, who had a morbid dislike of tunnels, could avoid the lengthy one at Colwall. Bless.
Great Malvern is probably one of the few stations in the country (Carnforth of ‘Brief Encounter’ fame being another), where many visitors don’t come to catch a train. There are plenty, like me, who arrive to take a look. There are trains of course, to Hereford in one direction and Worcester the other. Some Worcester-bound trains continue to Birmingham, others head the other way towards Oxford and London. There are also trains to Gloucester and Bristol, many of which continue all the way to Weymouth on the south coast, a lovely cross-country ramble uniting a provincial spa with a seaside resort.
As another train sidled to a halt in Platform 1 and carriage doors opened, I looked up from my coffee and witnessed a gentleman step forward from the rear of the platform and embrace a young lady who’d just emerged from one of said carriages. I permitted myself a smile and tried not to stare. See what I mean? Great Malvern, ‘Brief Encounter’, romance, arrivals and departures, farewells and estrangements, homecomings and reconciliations. It’s all here.
Great Western Railway – a history (A Roden, 2010)
Rails through the Hills – from ‘Old Worse & Worse’ to the Jewellery Line (J Boynton, 1995)
The Next Station Stop (P Caton, 2013)
British Railway Stations in Colour (N Jardine, 2002)
Eleven Minutes Late – a train journey to the soul of Britain (M Engel, 2009)
Britain by Train (P Goldring, 1982)
British Spas from 1815 to the Present: A Social History (PM Hembry / LW & EE Cowie, 1997)
Oxford – Hereford Line (G Body, 1985)
British Rail Passenger Network 1982-83 (map)
Malvern’s Lost Railway (www.malvernrailway.blogspot.co.uk)
Cotswold Line Promotion Group (www.clpg.org.uk)
Network Rail (www.networkrail.co.uk)