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27 November 2014

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Beacon fire

A beacon fire

Malvern Hills - the warning beacons

Beacons have been lit on top of the Malverns since Norman times, and in the 19th century fires were regularly lit on the hills as the 'Beaconmania' took hold of the country.

Malvern Hills facts

  • If you stand on the top of the Malvern Hills and look east the next highest hills are the Urals in Russia
  • The Herefordshire Beacon is also known as British camp, and is an Iron Age Hill fort
  • Legend has it that the Ancient British chieftain Caractacus was captured at British Camp by the Romans
  • The distinctive dip in the middle of the hills is called The Wyche Cutting - possibly after the Anglo Saxon word for bottom!
  • The hills are made of two of the oldest and hardest rocks in Britain
  • Geologist travel from all across the world to see the rock strata at gullet quarry
  • There are two railway tunnels under the hills - one disused which is now the home to a colony of bats.
  • In WW2 torpedoes were stored in the tunnel under the hill.

Everyone knows the story of how when the Spanish Armada sailed up the English channel a network of beacons were lit across the country to warn of the threat of invasion.

The Worcestershire Beacon - the highest point on the Malverns - was an obvious place to have a warning beacon, as the fire would be seen on a clear night for scores of miles.

Lord Macaulay, the 19th century poet, gives the Malverns a central role in this warning chain of fires in his famous poem The Armada.

"And on, and on, without a pause, untired they bounded still
All night from tower to tower they sprang; they sprang from hill to hill
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." 
Lord Macaulay: The Armada

The claim that a beacon on top of the Malverns can be seen from 12 counties may be a bit ambitious!

Calling the militia

A system of organised warning beacons on high points across the country, including the Malverns, has been in place since Norman times.

A call to arms sent by beacon would travel far faster than a messenger struggling along difficult and dangerous tracks on horseback.

"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"

Lord Macaulay - The Armada

All counties were required to have a militia force that could be called into action at times of national emergency.

Worcestershire's army of labourers and farmworkers, often armed with nothing more than a scythe or an axe, was required to march all the way to Seaford if invasion threatened.

The system was not foolproof though: 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.


The 19th century was the golden age for beacon lighting, with the flimsiest excuse being used to light fires on top of the hills.

In 1856 a beacon was lit to settle a bet between two men about how far away it would be seen. Perhaps they'd read Macaulay's poem?

These fires were often very substantial, with tons of wood being manhandled up the hills.

Sometimes local construction companies were brought in to do the building of the beacon fire, and the more elaborate ones could be made with railway sleepers and incorporated a chimney up the centre to ensure a good blaze.

Royal birthdays, jubilees, anniversaries and military victories were all suitable reasons for lighting a fire and holding a party.

More recently beacons were lit on the Malverns to celebrate the millennium and the Queen's Golden Jubilee.

last updated: 18/03/2008 at 15:11
created: 26/07/2004

Have Your Say

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Mike Lewis
I live at Hope End, in the house that was built during the 18th century - before Edward Moulton Barrett bought the property, and built another house, subsequently demolished.

Phil, Hope End wasn't a Manor, isn't in the Malvern Hills and the Barretts had left by the mid 1800s, but apart from that you are on the right track!!

Phil Davis
Thanks for all the great info. I am doing some research on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Barretts live at Hope End manor in the mid 1800's in the Malvern Hills. Do you know if the house is still standing?

Thank you very much for this article-it has been very useful research for my geography coursework!

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