Troubadour of the Hills, Jean Atkin was commissioned to write One uncertain history of the Malverns by Ledbury Poetry Festival and Malvern Hills AONB. Please feel free to add your own poem, using the form below, inspired by the Malvern Hills or your own hills. As Jean says, “We are looking forward to reading small mountains of new poems.”
One uncertain history of the Malverns
Wide horns and white
Heavy as August
the cattle linger
by a shrinking pool.
Bromesberrow oaked milky
I’m lit along the wood-edge.
Blond light off corn stubble,
a sky full of rain and light.
In one ear, press of hide on saplings,
the unseen deer retreat
Raggedstone steep sallow
A bellwether sheep
leads a long file past me,
roman nose to soiled tail.
They beat the cloven common
into the common
Hollybed pale trodden
Come out at the car park
red car, yellow car, sweet,
Rain runs down me,
down the hill, and down the hour
The Gullet fogged viridian
The hills are always here.
They wear away.
They stay, grip close
the patience of the igneous.
Their fossils sit me out
Midsummer Hill bedrock bowl-sky
Banked with shades and shadows,
winding up inside a slope
the deep lane remembers everything
I misremember everything, I know
Chase End Hill white cumulus concrete trig
Jean Atkin | Troubadour of the Hills
Launch Event 4th October 2018
This project was launched in an event at Ledbury Books and Maps on National Poetry Day, 4th October 2018.
Visit the podcast and listen to a recording of the event.
Submit your poems using the form here.
Work of the Malvern Hills AONB
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are like National Parks, but tend to be in areas where humans have had a more visible effect on the landscape.
Their primary aim is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the designation, and to do that the AONB partnership receives an income from central and local government.
We do a wide range of projects from landscape restoration – orchards and commons; community projects -setting up car clubs, helping with neighbourhood development plans; and helping people appreciate the landscape they’re in – mindfulness walking and the arts.
All are intended to cultivate a sense of landscape beauty, either on the ground or in the mind of the observer.
For more information see our website www.malvernhillsaonb.org.uk
by Sue Wallace-Shaddad
Wild raspberries line the route,
little pink rosebuds of taste,
simple woodland offerings
as we climb Kinnoull Hill
to reach its ancient folly
towering over the Tay.
Down below, the river embraces
the valley with its tidal arm.
The view from the summit
is matchless, mountains edge
the far horizon
like rumpled bedsheets.
Clouds balloon in the sky
waiting to burst.
We hurry homewards
down the trail. Raspberries
give way to blackberries
but we have eaten our fill.
by Patricia Leighton
the windward side for the view
a fall and sweep of fields
the dotted habitations
of the calmer slopes.
I choose windward a stiffer climb
wind buffeting the ear
it roars itself into silence
press on up a wide traverse skirt
hillocks and sheep runs
the sky an ever-changing
scud of sun and cloud
summit marker ahead I rest
catch the breath
eye up the ridge path
the run out of further hills
my boots could all but
walk themselves on
I chicken out
drop back to take
the tedious path down
divert – to temptation –
a narrow side path
offering a quicker return
a blunder into one-foot-at-a-time territory
tracks all which ways
ground-clouds of dead
muscles and breath tense
I think turned ankles,
slump in coarse grass
above last year’s brambles
map out defeatist bum slides
to get safely down
a last look at
hills skies fields
two larks rise in song
angel-hover in wind
my eyes track their ascent
into air once shared
on their way
with burnt-out kisses
by Alwyn Marriage
When we embarked
on the steep incline
earlier this morning,
it was encouraging to see
the brow quite clearly
but as we climbed
towards where it had first
appeared to be, our goal
receded, keeping nearly half
an upward mile further on
after an hour of trudging
into wind, the ground
started to descend,
but only for a few short
before it rose again:
our hard-won hill top
clearly just a milestone
on the way to
The Narrow Wind
by Ian Glass
The narrow wind blows waves
of brittle grass across the hillside.
Inscrutable rocks nod
an imperceptible greeting.
Clouds race in brief existence,
rolling with turbulent joy.
Balanced on an instant,
I fill my lungs with tight cold air,
then exhale. The moment is gone;
fixed in the stones;
while I race, wind-blown,
to a bright horizon.
by Ian Glass
It starts with a whisper,
closing from the West
ripples across stooped hills,
grows grumbling to a moan.
Light dips behind low clouds;
wind presses clothes to limbs,
then rain slants sideways
cold from the weighted sky.
We crouch by tall stones, curling
weakness behind their enduring bulk;
safe in the hollow moment, while
the day blows into tomorrow.
The Blue Hill
by Michael Coley-Smith
From where we stand the blue hill
has a presence
shaped by its steep sides,
its smooth summit hump.
Like all hills it begs to be climbed.
The final stretch to the top has us
snatching air, our hearts
We gaze in awe at the orange landscape
spread out before us.
Is this why we went to all the trouble,
two hours plodding upwards?
Up here on the blue hill we have
a sense of exhilaration.
The air is crisp and clean.
In the distance we see another hill.
You might say it’s predictable,
there is always another, beckoning.
This far hill is yellow,
it’s top faint against a white sky.
by Andrew Quine
Here amongst the rugged hills, the wind upon the slopes,
the landscape rolls beneath us and draws us further out
straining for the margins of an everlasting sea,
and puts into perspective, our limited control:
the hilltop is surrounded, with elongated rings
of excavated trenches and built-up earthen banks,
concentric layered defences – a hill fort for the wise.
“This is our security”, the ancient Britons cried.
When the times were dangerous, they’d add another ring.
The legionaries came then, with interlocking shields,
with siege machines and armour to cut through hilltop banks.
Whilst crying invocations to their capricious gods,
the druids called down curses upon invading men
who sliced through the defences, indifferently as one.
Our ancestors primeval – their worldview seems naïve
looking down our telescope towards the narrow end.
The brazen banks have faded, the cries lost in the wind,
mournful earthworks mellowing, and carpeted with grass,
successive rings just ripples that reach our farther shore…
…where in our greater wisdom, we’ve trusted too in banks
and protocols of checking, to ring-fence what is dear;
more laws and regulations, a fort that walls us in,
procedures to protect us, a mirage to pursue:
‘a world entirely harmless, if all the gaps are plugged’
– with checkers checking checkers, in propagating rings,
a priesthood of inspectors, those authorised to curse
and sacrifice our freedom to bureaucratic gods,
whose messengers are lawyers, with litigation threats,
deterministic worldviews to allocate the blame.
The cause, they claim, is justice, but look at the effect.
So on some sacred hilltop, perhaps one day we’ll find
a pile of unused sling stones, a rotting javelin shaft,
weathered old ballista bolts, decaying paperwork:
a health and safety manual, a legislation draft,
auditors’ assessments of the regulation team
that oversees the body that organises checks,
fear-full ideology, that’s flaking into rust.
But still …
the one thing that is missing, from up here we can see,
the one ring that is missing is someone we can trust.
by Justin Moriarty
He emitted theories; a Victorian gent,
Interplanetary, for example,
If searchlights bore on the snow-capped Malverns,
Then Moon-people would observe, respond;
But now the moonly magic’s gone,
First steps of squalor there –it’s just deep freeze,
With creeks of mute ice and rocks;
No dreamy cities
Where the sphinx presides.
The hills here also deceive,
Even under the fleecy lift
Of a Spring afternoon;
They should impart joy ,
Anticipation in the heart,
But they are steeped in sadness,
As I walk by, without the flesh and bones
That once clothed sympathetic souls,
Who shared the climbing paths with me.
Midsummer Hill 1956
by Miriam Obrey
Midsummer’s eve as all the clocks of Malvern
chimed the magic hour
no path on any map to search for little folk
among the bilberries and heathers
where peacock butterflies and skippers
glimmered in the scrub
becoming black notes in an orange sky
as boys and girls watched beetles’
hide and seek among the grass
ate cake and cherries
out of back-lit paper bags into which they blew
skrewed tightly at the neck
till each bag popped
releasing a shower of crumb and cherry stones.
by Tamsin Pearce
Low mists creep
Twilight sky scape
Midsummer on the Stiperstones
by Alison Nichol-Smith
We climbed together –
You forging ahead at first, then stopping,
Turning, looking behind, to see
Me stumbling and staggering among the tussocks,
Too old, it turns out, too unfit for this game.
At last you took my pack, along with your own.
I clumbered on four-footed, sweat-drenched, cursing,
Hauled in the end by your warm, down-reached hand
Till there we were.
We aimed to meet the sunset but
It was already darkening,
So hurriedly unpacked and launched our tent,
Wrestled with groundsheet, struts and pegs.
Put it up wrong first time, all inside out,
And had to start again.
Unscrewed at last the vacuum flask of coffee
Poured in a head-torch light.
We barely slept that night. Having failed to allow
For the chill, the tearing of winds
Over the stretched black spine of the Devil’s Chair.
Didn’t appreciate how fine the skin
Of soil, what hardness lay so close beneath,
Cold and ungiving as time.
Heads burrowed, noses snuffed in sleeping bags
We huddled, waiting out midsummer night,
Straining to reach the dawn.
Never again will we climb to share a tent.
You have your own life now, your own adventures,
And one to share them with.
And me, I’m past it.
That last trek, up to the Stiperstones,
Gave me the message. Quit while you’re ahead.
So I stay grounded, down on the valley floor.
And the pain of missing you
Weighs in my gut hard as a cold black rock
Prized from the Devil’s Chair.
The Lost Skylark
Red Hill Farm
by Peter Branson
There’s houses on Ten Fields these days, Red Hill
beyond a barren unmade grave till one
stray pilgrim flings its bubbling shadow high,
lost soul, a breviary to time and tide.
This lure, its line invisible, soon shrinks
to insect size. Lone seraphim, sweet grace
notes drowned, one blink through holy water eyes,
trace memory, rag rhyme, it’s gone for good.
The Crescent Guard
by Jason Conway
The crescent guards the serpents slumber, cursed to sleep so man can
It once lived free and fed on stars and hope was lost between its jaws.
Mankind obeyed its scaly wrath as light was lost above its path.
Till moons anger cast a sleeping spell and in a trance, the trickster fell.
The ages pass, new stars were born, glittering heavens where once were
We stare above and wonder why, snake tried to steal the joy from sky!
Lye Brook Falls, Vermont
by Hope Andersen
You have to walk a rocky path,
careful not to twist an ankle
or stumble and fall,
the stones tripping you up
like character flaws
reminding you to be patient,
Your legs will burn,
your thighs will be on fire
as your heart throbs inside your chest
like a grandfather clock,
every beat felt resonating
through your body
to your brain.
You will bump your head
on the low branches
and fallen trees that arch
over the path,
You will traverse streams
over slippery stones
telling yourself you’ll fall
you’ve got this
as your sneakers get soggy
and your toes are mush.
Your throat will be parched.
Your spirits will lag.
both beautiful and endless
will beckon you.
Sprays of feathered ferns
and soft emerald moss,
gurgling brooks and mushrooms
popping up from the
loamy forest floor –
trios of tiny mustard colored parasols,
shelves of honey caps lining rotting trunks,
filmy white pipes,
huge prehistoric platters
will catch your eye as you trudge,
still wondering why you came.
Then the air will grow thin.
You will push through blackberry bushes, excited
Suddenly, you are there.
A vertical river of white
pouring out of the sky.
Heaven slides down
through the trees
like a frothy bridal train.
The water thunders, whispers.
Don’t look for rainbows.
There are none.
Only the magnificent falls
dappled with sunlight
toppling through this
sea of green.
From here you see the soft swell of Bredon
where ploughboys and their belles once peeled and lay,
Trojan horses snorted boustrophedon,
and churches blest the sowing in the hay.
By Severn, Avon, Wye, Teme and Leadon,
bowing, whispering elders pine away,
dreaming of a slow, caressing Eden
when they ploughed the old Arcadian way.
This is a gilded long-remembranced land
of fecund soil, a golden book of hours
where Celtic sylph and new-age settler meet,
where sturdy, cross-bred, long-limbed saplings stand
and Shropshire lads go picking fresh spring flowers
and lay them down in the burgeoning wheat.
Mother picks over chalky earth
searching for pottery
We look askance at sheep
and hide in hedgerows.
We could never choose
which to climb first,
out of that strange duality
It was one of many pointless
battles of childhood.
We resolved it
In the lee of Bredon Hill
Thin grey clouds
silver brown fields;
stark hills against sun.
he drops in one
Your red hat ahead.
I follow, horizontal,
We reach the top
heel-rocking in streaming air.
Rain is coming in.
Castle on a Hill
In a flat place,
known for its low fields,
glistening mud, for crazy-paving
water edges, reed rooves,
painted houses, ancient churches,
the Romans found a hill.
Claudius built a temple,
overlooking fields and tracks,
the winding river down below.
He built walls and gates,
circling the hill top,
recycling grey stone and red brick.
The temple stood proud,
looking out, watching
for intruders. Later Normans
built a castle, wisely on that same
base. Years on, Cromwell’s
troops surrounded the town,
gathered in the hill’s skirts.
They looked up
the winding track,
the huddled housing
to the iconic castle,
lording its strength
over all marauders.
She still dominates,
stands proud, sings her
song of triumph, of
height and presence.
Around her, flowers,
fish pond, swings and slides.
She watches over tourists,
a dog and a tramp.
A small tree grows like a flag from one turret. (Colchester Castle)
Ice Horses on the Pentlands
Kelpies are sketched in snow
across the arc of the hills
that rise like a fin above the plains.
Frozen in mid gallop,
their backs curving like a bow,
heels a fling behind, necks
pointing into the winds
the herd moves between rivers
and lochs. For now, they are outlined
by cold but even when they thaw
into vapour of sweat and breath,
they won’t stand while nails
are hammered into their feet,
nor bend their heads to a bridle.
Raven at the Watershed
by Chris Kinsey
Nine years old – our first long car ride
over hills only seen close in family stories
an imagined geography of remote relatives
and rivers, this time: Teme, Mule & Ithon.
Now, at the watershed, this moorland
matches my craving for openness.
Clouds rustle sheep and wild ponies
sun sets them dozing on common land.
Down by Black Gate, a raven lands
on a leaning fence post. Persecuted
almost to mythology then, this bird
holds down the updraft and coraxes.
Silenced by wind and windscreen, I fancied
it said: You’ll live near here one day.
Pitching north over springs and ditches
it hitched me to the pass and aimed me
over the wide blue swoop of Severn
out to the summits of Aran & Cader.
by Myfanwy Fox
I trudge the last steep reach of Wearyall:
at my feet puddles double as a county,
a map I cannot fathom.
Still Levels rising, horizon rain-close
where eels feed in easy streets
and sticklebacks the size of whales
might lek on village cricket pitches.
by Bob Woodroofe
Sunlight filters through golden leaves
that still cling fast to the spreading oaks
by the stream that flows underneath
the wagtail chip-chips as she flits away
the old stile leads off into the field
striped green rows of winter wheat
march up the slope towards the hill
where bright pheasants strut and preen
the castle above is divided by slants of light
luminous green ramparts edged in dark ditches
from the treetops jackdaws chack as they
launch themselves to sport in the updraught
spider skylines waft lazily in the breeze
while the silk netted grass glistens below
a lone figure trudges slowly around the field
follows the pathway that winds on and up
past the castle and through the dark woods
labours on to the very top and the tower
to be rewarded on a day such as today
when the seven counties must surely be in view
Sometime after 5.17am
by Bob Woodroofe
we climb to greet month and day
follow their passage through the dew
soles imprinted in soft earth
in the wood crushed bells of blue
the garlic tang of Ramsons underfoot
they loom out of the semi darkness
startle the horses that roam the hilltop
gather and shiver in predawn coolness
huddle together under the old pines
the heat from their bodies rising
the golden orb breaks over Cotswold
reaches slowly across the vale
lights the glistening S of Severn
adds long shadows to the trees
stretches over and enters Wales
choose the tune to greet the dawn
and prance the merry month away
search north to Malvern beacon
cross the vale for panorama tower
where others dance to celebrate
trace the patterns weaved
worn in grass by stepping feet
pieces of bark ripped from sticks
a strip of colour loosed from a coat
by the energy of the dance
to crown it all stop and listen
to the first clear Cuckoo’s call
the elongated ‘oooooo’
lifts from the woods below
echoes in the still spring air
by Sue Johnson
We have come to pay homage to you
on your special day.
Many times we have seen you
from the motorway
added you to our list of places to visit.
As we enter the grove of pines on your summit
we notice a drop in temperature
as if the spirits of this place have gathered
for their own celebration.
We walk around outside of the circle of trees
notice ponies grazing
their rough coats a range of colours
from cream to caramel, chocolate and black.
A black and white foal follows its mother on shaky legs.
They ignore us as we walk past,
boots sinking into soft grass.
Overhead a buzzard mews as he patrols the thermals
between England and Wales, earth and heaven.
by Sue Johnson
I climb to where harebells dance
in late August sun
knowing you will never dance
on this earth again.
I feel sick with longing for you
but know the only way is forward
with my life.
As I look at the names
written in stones by the old fort
I feel an urge to create
a memorial for you.
I remember how Mum said
your beliefs were almost Celtic
a grove of trees was your cathedral
and God spoke to you
on the wind that stirs the grass.
I will look for you
in the still place between each breath
and know you are with me.
by Helen Kay
They are horse
noses over valleys
their bay coats
warmed by leafy
not just green, but
a hundred ways
of being green.
A lone crow is an
eyelash on the sky’s
The lough looks solid
as cement, holding
the hills in place.
Unafraid of tides,
the trees foam over
the water’s edge
soft as fur trim.
Stone farms are
sewn neatly into
the strong fabric
of this world,
firm as duffle togs.
by Jackie Biggs
We saw her first from the old stone cross
down in the dreamy valley –
you catch your breath as she imposes
sudden on your world,
she seems close, yet is far away.
Her strength is on the air.
She doesn’t assist the climb
over this shingle-slipping, stumbling land
yet she draws you to her as she sucks moisture
through rock to new springs;
and the sky above pulls
and sweeps out to the farthest space
beyond even her reach.
Folk at work on her slopes in ancient times
watched the distant seas
as strangers arrived,
their sails crowded with the west wind.
Is that where angels lived?
And where saints rested to gaze
and touch their wings?
Now, rough rocks, like pebbles to giants,
lie all over this place.
Icy currents stir around the summit;
there is a darkness in her swirling mists,
as her power reaches out.
My silence carves
by Catherine Baker
I am grey and grim. Fixed in my stones.
I was pushed and pressed to soar.
I’m barely covered during earthly seasons.
Winter whitens me.
Ice crystals drift and clot.
Life shudders, hidden and pale.
Summer glows me.
Yellow gorse glints, sweet islands.
Stone walls lurch the purple heather
and cotton grass bobs under my breath.
Sheep tracks curve my flanks darkly
like black blood spilling out.
Stunted, wind twisted oaks sting my skin
and always, water, beats and licks me,
I drip with it.
My silence carves up to the heights,
as flickering skylarks lead astray.
And far off, the sea, a sparkle,
a blue myopic eye glittering between bone.
Walking the Hills
by Kate Innes
“I distinctly recollect the desire I had of being able to know something
about every pebble in front of the hall door.”
On this illusion of solidity
continents have crunched their bones,
inner earth has spilt its heat.
The scar is this gravelled spine of hills,
sweetly covered in mossy, heathered coats.
The Lawley rises to a ridge,
that points to future sky.
Caradoc follows, glancing back.
From here we are travelling north
by a fingernail’s width each year,
the millennia trailing after us,
scattering rocks across the world.
The ground beneath our feet
has flowed and frozen and thawed
into lichen puffs and flowered grass.
We continue on our path,
finding the pebbles, gazing at their souls,
as if they were the events of our lives,
as if they were maps for us to follow.
They tell us deserts have turned to stone,
been built and fallen into ruin.
Bogs have squeezed and sucked to coal.
Rivers have redrawn the world
sending out their ribbons of mud,
their rippled sediment.
Everywhere trace prints
and carapace remain –
pressed in layered pages.
We walk this earth
from which we came,
every pebble known
we walk and return –
by Gary Longden
Thack Moor rests still,
No longer a hill,
In a moment something more.
By three quarters of an inch
It is, by a pinch,
Now a mountain.
Men, GPS besotted,
Have visited and re-plotted,
Stark Cumbrian thrust.
Its straining bleak peak,
Now exceeds two thousand feet,
Without pause, or hiatus,
Gaining rightful status
Neither moor, nor tor,
But established for sure-
As England’s mountain, two hundred and fifty four.
May Hill Firs
by Roger Hare
It takes distance to see them;
royal giants, sharing the sound of the sea
with each dawning breeze.
The shape of water hidden in cells
that reach to fly clouds like kites.
They stand against
rain, snow, sun and gale,
fortified by tales of the faraway
gleaned from the wind,
lips of strangers
and remembrance of
Masefield, Gurney, Finzi and Foley.
to cross the Vale,
dip roots in the silver Severn
and climb to savour the view
from the Cotswolds edge.
They’ve become legend
a celebration in paint, pixel
and notes on a stave.
by Morag Kiziewicz
sun tracks the curved brow
spotlights ash and willow
before shadow fall
the River Stour heaves and slurps
a weight of water coming
from seas and storms
pushes at boundaries
steals over the limits
creeps on to the floodplain
rises ever rises
breaks through bridges
erases roads built by Roman armies
rises and fills the valley
Hod Hill becomes an island
where people paint themselves with
shake their fists at a dark sky
by Rachel Burns
You and the kids take the steep incline
I choose the long way around.
Gorse heady and sweet glints
like fool’s gold in the April sun.
The hills are already packed with tourists
speaking different tongues
their feet grinding the red mountain into dust.
I make my way slowly, knees and ankles ache.
I watch a hawk soar then dart and swoop down to its prey.
The view over Holyrood and Edinburgh
Is vast and long. Georgian New Town
and Medieval Old, the Gothic
the Neo-Classical, the skyscrapers
the sea, the mountains beyond.
My son high up on the hill, waves down to me,
he seems so far away
the distance between us grows
as he nears the summit.
I watch you and the kids
slide out of view. A girl with red hair
declares her love in the shape of a heart
in small stones. I wonder what the stone
heart looks like from up high
from Arthur’s Seat, where her lover sits.
I wonder if their love will endure.