Cathedral city gem on the river

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Worcester, on the banks of the Severn, under the majestic cathedral, is one of England's finest shire towns. It’s the birthplace of England’s most illustrious composer, Sir Edward Elgar, the site of the first and last battles in the Civil War, and boasts one of the prettiest cricket grounds. The compact city centre is crammed with glorious historic buildings, alongside small scale shopping malls and specialist stores. Gareth Huw Davies takes a day trip to a choice Heart of England city. Photo: Worcester Cathedral, by the writer.

Assets gripping

Worcester has two permanent prize assets. The C15th cathedral dominates its heart by day and (floodlit) by night. The river Severn curves pleasingly around the city to complete the chocolate box ensemble. It’s halfway on its way from a trickle on a Snowdonia hillside to the end point where it enters the Bristol Channel. The river is a grand place for promenades, and boat trips. A pedestrian bridge crosses to one of our loveliest cricket grounds, New Road. For me the very name oozes promise of a summer to come. By tradition touring cricket teams would play the first match of the season there. Close by is one of Britain''s oldest racecourses. They’ve been racing here since 1718. (National Hunt meetings: May to October.)

Fine tuning

He may not look like a musical superstar, but the statue of an old man in heavy overcoat, trilby and droopy antique moustache at the mouth of the High Street, the shopping thoroughfare, inspires us to hum some immortal music. Sir Edward Elgar, surely England''s greatest composer, helped out in his father’s music shop near this spot. Just opposite is the cathedral, where he played the organ. His memory sings through the city – I heard the Enigma Variations playing in the Art Gallery and Museum tea rooms. Elgar was born a short step from Worcester, on the edge of the village of Broadheath three miles west. His preserved home, open to the public, is alongside the Elgar Centre, which showcases his life and work - through his gramophone, music scores on his desk just as his wife Alice prepared it, family photographs and mementoes, cycling maps, golf clubs and microscope.

Peace for the wicked

King John lies easy In Worcester Cathedral. Before he died, in Newark in 1216 our most unpopular monarch asked to be buried here. He chose well. The place grew grand around him. It came to represent every style of English architecture, from Norman (the famous crypt), through the 39 misericords (1379) to Perpendicular Gothic. Our finest Victorian architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott carried out extensive restoration in the mid-1800s. There are many eye-catching memorials. One ornate funeral statue celebrates a local commander shot down while leading his troops at the climax of the Battle of Waterloo. There’s a moving wood memorial carved on the battlefield in Burma by local soldiers. In August 2011 the annual Three Choirs Festival is held here - the international classical music festival is in Hereford and Gloucester the other two years.

Top tour

There is a parade of fine old buildings in the city centre, dating to the C12th, all easily reached and visited in half a day. I started in the elegant ecclesiastical cordon around the cathedral. The Guildhall, built on High Street in 1721 in the Queen Anne style and restored in 1878 under the direction of Sir George Gilbert Scott, is well worth a look for the grand Italianate Assembly Room. I’d go to the Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum for the great sturgeons caught in the city’s river alone. And for the 20th chemist shop, moved here lock stock and phial. St Swithun is an elegant, perfectly preserved early Georgian gem of a city centre church, with box pews and a carved three-decker pulpit, topped by a gilded pelican feeding her young. Greyfriars is a beautiful timber-framed merchant''s house from 1481, spared demolition in the 1940s.

Shop central

Too many towns and cities site mega-shopping malls on their fringes, siphoning out the life. Worcester’s planners made the city''s shopping central and small-scale. There a mix of familiar retail names on the High Street, with new arcades such as CrownGate threading around the historic centre with not a single one dominating. There are lots of disinctive, one-off shops, alongside the familiar big retail names. In the Shambles we found Pratley''s, a riot of piled high china and crockery in an old fashioned emporium with bags of character. There’s a very good case for taking the train. The canny Worcester Victorian city fathers were a sensible team who saw that the main railway station, Foregate Street, was built, literally, over the main street. Junction 3 on the M5 is only three miles away.

Head for the hills

Elgar''s birthplace faces the sumptuous curves of the Malvern Hills. six miles west. Great Malvern is an easy side trip from Worcester. A good surface path into the hills leads to where the most joyous sequence in British documentaries was shot. in Ken Russell''s Elgar the cycling composer, In the exuberance of youth, freewheels down a long decline along the spine of the hills to the theme from his Introduction and Allegro for Strings. It’s not so different today from how it was when the real Sir Edward lived in Malvern, choosing his addresses for their views of the hills. There’s hardly an intrusive detailed in sight. These are hills of the highest pedigree: the oldest rocks in England (16.5 million years) sitting on the purest of spa waters, with some of the best views in the south. Great Malvern has lots of sensible shops, with big bow windows and acres of glass. I followed a little stepped alleyway cutting down to one of the finest middle-ranking churches in England. “The mediaeval glass is generally rated second only to York Minster,'' notes the board outside.

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