An ancient spring has been rescued by a father-and-son venture, writes Richard McComb.
Manufacturers typically make grand claims for their products, extolling various stress-busting, cancer-fighting and life-enhancing properties.
Antioxidants in tea combat the menace of free radical, lypocene in tomatoes lower the risk of contracting prostate cancer and some chocolate bars help you “work, rest and play.”
By contrast, Holywell spring water’s marketing bumpf is modest in the extreme.
Admittedly, it has had all manner of healing claims made on its behalf since just after the publication of the Domesday Book.
But Rhys Humm, the current joint custodian of the spring, does a good job of stripping away the hyperbole.
“The water itself is famous for containing absolutely nothing,” says Rhys.
And this is from the man who is trying to sell nature’s own crystal-clear brew, once a favourite tipple of lepers.
Rhys, together with his father Mike, is banking on the public’s unslakeable thirst for the refreshing, invigorating qualities of traditional English spa water. Holywell is the oldest bottled water in the land, seeing off arrivistes such as Perrier by almost 300 years.
However, for the past 40 years, barring a rearguard action in 1980s, commercial production of Holywell has been a wash-out.
The original source of Schweppes’s celebrated Malvern Soda, the toast of the 1851 Great Exhibition, was left to trickle out of a spout into a font-like basin housed in a dilapidated Germanic-style bathing retreat up a wiggley, winding road at the foot of the Malvern Hills.
The occasional passing rambler would take refreshment using a cupped hand or two but most of the water was left to run away into a drain.
The illustrious name of Holywell water, revered for centuries and once in the gift of Elizabeth I, looked destined to be remembered in the history books alone until the intervention of the Humm family.
Rhys’s mother Marian, a local hotelier, was looking for a cottage as a second property for holiday lets.
She fell in love with the building at Holywell, built for £400 in 1843 to mimic the grandeur of a Baden-Baden bathing house.
There was just one catch: the property, in an idyllic wooded setting, happened to have the ancient well attached – and a legally-binding covenant stipulating that the water should always be available for the restoration of weary travellers.
The Humms duly bought the plot in 1999 – Rhys lives on site in a nearby cottage – and a huge renovation scheme was undertaken as part of the £1 million Malvern Heritage Project, backed with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The revamped site features a new visitors centre, where people can learn about the history of the spring, and a new bottling plant from where Malvern’s original pure water will be distributed to outlets in the catering trade as part of a new joint venture between Rhys and his father, Mike.
The building work had to be temporarily suspended following the discovery of a bat colony but the winged creatures have been successfully accommodated in specially built nests at Holywell. They also have a dedicated entrance to their spa bolthole.
The first bottles of Holywell spring water have just started running off the production line and Rhys, who is 29, says: “We feel we are bringing back an important part of national history as well as bringing a nice artisan produce to restaurants and hotels.”
He and Mike, who is 65, are hoping to exploit a niche market for the spring water – some of which will be carbonated – and production will be limited to just 1,200 75ml bottles a day, or about 6,000 per week.
“By industry standards, it is a drop in the ocean,” says Rhys.
“It is a relatively limited supply but the big thing is that we do have terrific provenance.”
In fact, Holywell has provenance by the bucketload. In the 10th century, it is claimed St Oswald, a Bishop of Worcester, revealed the healing powers of the well to a local hermit.
By the Middle Ages, the spa water had been “long used with great success, particularly in disorders of the eyes, scrofulous cases, old ulcers, leprosies and other diseases of the skin.”
When a drought gripped the nation at the turn of the 17th century, bottles of Holywell were widely distributed, sparking a song about the popularity of the Malvern’s spring water:
A thousand bottles here, were filled weekly,
And many costrils [flasks] rare, for stomachs sickly;
Some were to London sent, some of them into Kent,
Others on to Berwick went, O praise the Lord.
The notion of the Malvern water cure gathered pace and was widely popularised in the Victorian era.
Earlier, the diarist John Evelyn, a chronicler of 17th century life and contemporary of Samuel Pepys, recorded a visit to Holywell: “We set out towards Worcester and by the way we deviate to the holy Wells trickling out of a Vally, thro a steepe declivity towards the foote of Greate-Maubern hills.
They are said to heale many infirmities, as Kings-Evil, Leaprosie, and sore eyes.” Edward Popham attributed his recovery from gout to taking the waters at Holywell, an event he marked in 1747 by paying for a new bath – and a wooden building for poorer patients – at the site.
But it was a century later, in 1850, that the water hit the big time, Schweppes leasing the right to bottle it, first as Malvern Soda and then as Malvern Seltzer.
When Schweppes departed in 1892 for a newly-built factory in the town at Colwall, Holywell was taken over by Henry and John Cuff, who bottled here until the 1960s, mainly making soft drinks. From then on, it was a tale of gradual decline despite valiant efforts to preserve bottling. The intervention of the Humms – and the financial commitment of the Heritage Lottery Fund – looks set to have reversed the pattern.
The restoration of Holywell – and up to 20 historic water fountains – forms a key part of the Malvern Heritage Project, whose partners include the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Malvern Hills Conservators.
The Malvern Spa Association has taken a lead role in the restoration of the area’s springs, spouts, fountains and wells, which fall within the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Rhys says it is impossible to escape the bottling history of Holywell.
“I have found some very old bottles in my back garden. They must have been buried there years ago. I am forever finding glass,” he says.
Unlike his predecessors in Malvern, Rhys is reluctant to attribute any modern-day miracle cures to Holywell water, which slowly trickles down through fissures in the Precambrian rock that are renowned for their purity.
He concedes, though, that it tastes very good. “The water comes out of the hillside at a very cool temperatures. It is very crisp and clean. It oozes refreshment,” says Rhys.
He and his dad hope the new family enterprise will ensure the future of Holywell; and cure or no cure, some things will never change.