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Malvern Water: Bottled Up

Ian Bradley on the precarious past of a pure Worcestershire water.

Coca-Cola’s sudden decision to cease bottling Malvern water has been taken as marking the end of an era and representing a tragedy for the town that could well claim the title of Britain’s ‘watery’ capital.

In fact, the history of bottling water from the Worcestershire hills and of Malvern’s position as a pioneer spa and centre for hydrotherapy have long been marked by both setbacks and revivals.

Local legend has it that the health-giving properties of the water percolating through the pre-Cambrian rock of the Malvern Hills and emerging in over 60 springs were well known in medieval times. There are stories of St Oswald revealing to a hermit the medicinal powers of what became known as the Holy Well on the hillside above the modern village of Malvern Wells and of monks in the Benedictine Priory, built in 1085, using water from another local well to cure people.

The truth is, however, that the discovery of the therapeutic benefits of  Malvern water was a post-Reformation phenomenon. The first mention of the Holy Well, the most significant of the area’s healing springs, is in a grant of land in 1558. Another much visited well, reached by ascending 99 steps and a steep track above the priory in Great Malvern, did not apparently receive its dedication to St Ann until the mid-18th century.

The earliest written reference to both the medicinal value and the bottling of Malvern water is in a poem attributed to the Reverend Edmund Rea, who became Vicar of Great Malvern in 1612. It records:

A thousand bottles here, were filled weekly,
And many costrils rare, for stomachs sickly;
Some were to London sent,
Some of them into Kent,
Others on to Berwick went,
O praise the Lord.

Another poem of 1622 mentions those with sore eyes being cured by ‘a new found well’.

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