Britain's best views: The British Camp, Malvern Hills

Iron Age earthworks carved by ancient Britons have added a manmade beauty to this natural viewpoint, that has inspired poets from John Drinkwater to WH Auden

The British Camp - also known as the Herefordshire Beacon - that buttresses one end of the beautiful Malvern Hills is one of those happy places where humanity's work has actually managed to improve on Mother Nature's.

There is no need to feel guilty here about the enormous disruption our ancestors caused, even to such Arcadian surroundings, when they set about fortifying the second-highest summit of the range some time in the second century BC.

The Herefordshire Beacon is just a mountain - it stands only 15ft over the traditional 1,000ft (304m)  qualification – and it would have been beautiful as a natural, grassy pyramid, but its sinuous earthworks make it sublime. Andy Goldsworthy would die for the sort of budget or – to be accurate – the years of graft by simple people who depended on hand tools – which allowed the sculpture of the entire hill.

The camp itself is part of a British Best View which also takes in the great division of the English Marches: tame but sweetly lovely on the English side; grand and rugged on the Welsh. The first is full of lights at night, the second mysteriously dark.

These are the hills where William Langland gave Piers Plowman his dream of "Fair fields full of folk" and everywhere is defined by poetry. At the bottom of the steep but clear and well-cared-for path that leads from the ample car park to the summit, the great 17th-century diarist John Evelyn bears out the Guardian's choice for Britain's Best View, number four. A stone plaque records his promise to walkers that they would be rewarded at the top by "One of England's goodliest vistas". Perhaps we should rename this series Goodliest Vistas.

At the top, look east and there is Bredon Hill and schoolboy memories of reciting John Drinkwater:

God laughed when he made Grafton
That's under Bredon Hill
A jewel in a jewelled plain
The seasons work their will
On golden thatch and crumbling stone…

And then you can turn west and segue into Lord Macaulay's The Armada:

Twelve fair counties saw the blaze on Malvern's lonely height
'Til stream in crimson on the wind, the Wrekin's crest of light.

You can see, and count them: Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Monmouthshire, Brecknock, Radnor, Montgomery, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Somerset and Oxfordshire. Actually, we could have a bit of an argument about Oxfordshire, but I think it's there.

On our way to the British Camp, Chris Thomond and I walked through bluebells and milkmaid or lady's smock (don't believe anyone who tells you that British wild flowers have gone), brushed aside orange-tip and green-veined white butterflies, watched a buzzard and a sparrowhawk and avoided an adder.

This is a specially magic side to the Malvern Hills for me, for as a seven-year-old sent off from Leeds to a Quaker boarding school in Colwall, I learned to catch butterflies. One of them, on the brackeny foothills of the British Camp, was a high brown fritillary, which now features in the Malvern Hills Conservators' excellent leaflet of rare and interesting species. Oh dear.

But I use a camera now, not a net, and anyway I am grateful for the knowledge and love of wildlife which I acquired through the hunt. And also for the sense of history imparted by these earthworks, both the Iron Age ones and their Norman successors, which include the crest of the Camp and the Red Earl's Dyke which runs along the whole spine of the range.

It is worth pondering the fact that the Red Earl (of Gloucester, who was keeping out deer hunters sent by St Thomas de Canteloup, Bishop of Hereford) was nearer in time to us than he was to the Ancient Brits. I was told that by Dr Tim Carter, chief medical adviser to the Coastguard Agency, who was one of the many interesting walkers we met on the Camp.

And then it was time for a final burst of verse, the moving A Summer's Night, which WH Auden wrote when he taught at my school, where he was still remembered in my time:

Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working place
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The pleasant drives through a land of farms,
Are good to a newcomer.  

I felt that way again, revisiting after five decades. I think you will, too, if you go and climb the British Camp.

• Visiting the Malvern Hills:,



Martin Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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