Hereford & Worcester

Worcestershire Beacon Jubilee bonfire maintains tradition

Beacon on top of the Malvern Hills for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee
The beacon on top of the Malvern Hills for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee

"I don't think health and safety allows us to match Victoria's Diamond Jubilee beacon in 1897 which was pretty monstrous."

So says Rob Havard, the acting director of the Malvern Hills Conservators, the charity that looks after the area.

He may not be able to match his Victorian predecessors for scale, but the bonfire he has planned for the top of the Worcestershire Beacon will still be one of the most visible in the county.

If you stand at the top of the 425m (1,395 ft) Worcestershire Beacon and look east the next highest hills are the Urals in Russia.

For this reason the hill has been used for the beacons after which it is named since Norman times.

The 30ft (9m) Jubilee beacon will be made from pallet wood and scrub collected by the Conservators.

The Malvern Hills are now designated as an Area of Outstanding Beauty, and special permission had to be obtained from Natural England before the plans went ahead.

Mr Havard said they will take special precautions to ensure the hill is not damaged by the bonfire.

"We'll be putting down a barrier layer underneath and then we'll put a layer of sand on top of that, then another membrane and the fire goes on top," he said.

An officer from the Conservators will stay at the bonfire site throughout the night to ensure the fire doesn't spread to other parts of the hills.

The building of the bonfire will be take place from 08:00 BST on Jubilee day, to foil any would be arsonists.

Cold and wet

The beacon will be lit by 77-year-old Tony Cotgreave, who now lives in Alsager, Cheshire.

As a teenage Scout living in Malvern he lit the bonfire at the Worcestershire Beacon built to celebrate the Queen's coronation in 1953.

Mr Cotgreave also helped guard the bonfire as it was being built, sleeping out at the top of the hill.

"There used to be a café on top of the Malvern Hills which was derelict at the time, so a couple of scouts including myself slept up there for a couple of nights before the lighting of the fire to safeguard it," he said.

He remembers their stay at the top of the hill as anything but pleasant as the weather was "atrocious" and the derelict cafe had clearly been used by the sheep who roam the hills.

Mr Cotgreave said lighting the bonfire also proved eventful: "I climbed a short wooden ladder and set light to some brushwood that had been soaked in paraffin - it flared up and I got down the ladder a sight quicker than I got up it."

He said it was a "double honour" to be involved in the beacon lighting for a second time, especially as his granddaughter was coming from Sweden and his cousins from America for the event.

"I'm just hoping and praying for different weather from 1953," he added.

Approaching foes

The massive Victorian beacons were a spectacular site, according to a correspondent called Worcestershire Sauce, reported in the Malvern Advertiser in July 1887.

He described how "the leaping cracking flames and the close volume of breeze-blown smoke circling and spreading over the dark outlined hillside, the town lit lit by the powerful ruddy glow of the blazing hills, the dark masses of the people silhouetted against the glare, all made for a never to be forgotten sight".

Malvern Hills
The Malvern Hills are designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

He also watched as the gorse covering the Worcestershire Beacon was set ablaze as the fire spread.

The beacon can be clearly seen from a great distance. A letter writer in the same Malvern Advertiser watched the one lit for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee from the top of the grandstand on Worcester racecourse, 10 miles (16km) away.

He added that it was "a sight to be remembered" and showed the value of beacons "should people need to be appraised of approaching foes".

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

A call to arms sent by beacon would travel far faster than a messenger on horseback.

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.

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