Page last updated at 09:20 GMT, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 10:20 UK
Malvern Hills - warning beacons
Macauley claimed a beacon on the hills could be seen from 12 counties

There have been warning beacons lit on top of the Malvern Hills since Norman times.

The way they dominate the surrounding landscape means that any fire lit on them can be seen for a considerable distance.

Fires were lit there to warn of the approach of the Spanish armada.

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

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."

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

Armada ships
The armada brought to life by Battlefield Britain

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.

More recently, beacons were lit on the Malverns to celebrate the the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 1977 and the millennium.

Explosives and life sheep farming
20 Oct 09 |  Nature & Outdoors
Bishop in charity crawl up hill
25 May 09 |  Hereford/Worcs
Armada silver shines at auction
15 Oct 09 |  Devon


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific