Looking westward from Worcester Beacon, the highest point of the Malvern Hills, the parish of Mathon is spread below. The two tree-crowned hills, Rowburrow and Bagburrow overlook a land of quiet fields and deep narrow twisting lanes between ancient hedges, well-wooded country where sheep graze the steep hillside fields. From early times Mathon was the only Worcestershire parish west of the hills, until in 1897 the old parish was divided, part of it becoming West Malvern, and the larger portion now known as Mathon Rural, becoming part of the County of Herefordshire.
Mathon is not one compact village, but rather a collection of dispersed hamlets, which grew up round the important farms, in what were clearings in the dense woodland. Settlers felled trees, burnt undergrowth, and broke the soil to increase the area available for crops, and all this was done unaided by any kind of mechanical power. Groups of dwellings grew up at Moorend Cross where the cultivated land ended and the moor began, at Southend, South Hide, Lane End and Ham Green. In all they contain as many houses as the village itself, and there may have been a tendency at times to regard themselves as a separate community.
The oldest building is the parish church, originally dedicated to St. Margaret and dating from the 11th Century. In this building the people of Mathon have celebrated the Christian festivals for nearly a thousand years, and it still plays an active part in village life. Opposite, to the south, is Church Farm, which was a demesne farm, an ancient site which may be older than the church, in the past having a moat, which as well as having some defensive value against thieves and vagrants, also served as a fish pond to supplement the monotonous winter diet of medieval times. Church Farm is referred to in old documents as Parsonage Farm, and was one of the houses used by Vicars of Mathon.
A few yards north-west of the church is the fish pond which belonged to the Lord of the Manor. It is now much over-grown, but in the past, when kept clean and well-stocked, must have provided a useful adjunct to the moat. Adjacent to the church is the school, now used as a private dwelling. It opened in 1861, and closed in 1948 when the child population fell.
Behind the school lies Pigeon House Meadow, in which at one time must have stood the building which housed the lord’s flock of pigeons which provided a supply of eggs and fresh meat in winter, when there were few alternatives to salted meat. Since these flocks could number hundreds of birds, they were unpopular with the villagers, as they devastated their crops. It is likely that a favourite illicit meal was one of these birds.
Opposite the school leading from the church car park, is the hollow way or green lane known in the village as the “Roman Road”. A few yards on the right up this track, the map shows where a saw pit was located, and where the top sawyer and his mate in the pit below laboriously cut the hard home-grown tree trunks into boards by hand.
In the village street are the timber-framed houses, mostly built in the 17th Century in that prosperous period between 1570 and 1640. Many of these houses, which were originally thatched, have been extended and improved, and sometimes two or three dwellings made into one. Only about half the village houses have been built in the last two hundred years for the population has grown slowly except for a period in the 19th Century when improvement in medical practice ensured the survival of more children.
On the right is the Old Vicarage, built in the time of Canon Douglas. The 1861 Census shows that he was living here with his wife Octavia, their four children aged 3 to 6, Isabella Douglas, a visitor, Hannah Daniel, a cook, Martha Walker, a nurse, Amelia Webb, a housemaid, Harriet Archer, a servant, and a 14 year old groom named Eli J. Butler. The Old Vicarage, now Mathon House, is privately owned, and the Vicar lives in a new house in Cradley, having responsibility of both parishes, and Storridge.
Nearby stands the “Cliffe Arms”, named after the family which flourished in Mathon between the end of the 17th and middle of the 19th Centuries. For many years the inn must have been a convivial meeting place for the Mathon people. It was here in 1826, at the end of their year of office, that the twelve paymasters1 of the village recorded their luncheon on Easter Monday, “the expenses not to exceed £3”. It was here that the bell ringers came on the 5th of November each year, after ringing a special peal, for their ale, provided by the parish, costing 6 shillings. Perhaps we should hope that it was not this inn that Luke Staunton kept, when he appeared at Worcester Quarter Sessions in 1634, for “suffering the parishioners of Mathon to be continually drinking at all seasons, whole nights and days together”.
Though much remains from the past, change has inevitably taken place in Mathon. Two inns and two shops have closed, and there are few successors to the many tradesmen who worked here in the 19th Century. At that time, there were in the village, blacksmiths, bakers, shoemakers, glovers, joiners, tailors, wheelwrights, as well as grooms , ploughmen, and general agricultural workers - an almost completely self-supporting community. Now, most of the skilled men have to go outside the village to work, and there is no shop of any kind in the parish.
Most of the Mathon farms practise mixed farming. The “Mathon White”, the hop named after the parish is no longer grown here. Similarly the acres of fruit trees, producing the gallons of cider and perry, which the County historian, Nash2, describes, have been uprooted. Within living memory, and confirmed by large scale Ordnance Survey maps of the time, orchards stretched from the church to Lane End, a magnificent sight in Spring. What is the reason for their disappearance - a change of climate, the vagaries of international trade, or a change in customers’ tastes? The cider stones which ground hundreds of tons of apples serve as seats or as homes for Alpine plants in Mathon gardens, and the hop kilns remain decorative, but idle, awaiting conversion to country homes.
The name Mathon is believed by Professor Ekwall3 to be derived from the Old English word meaning “treasure, or gift”. Laird4 says “it has long been a superstitious opinion with the people of the neighbourhood that great quantities of treasure have been deposited in times past in this range of hills”. He goes on to say that a quantity of silver coins had been found in Mathon, but that the location and quantity had been concealed for fear of losing them. However, perhaps it is more likely that the name may derive from a gift of land in such a fertile district.
Whatever else was buried at Mathon, it is certain that in 1910, Mr. Hodges found in the sand pit, on his land at Southend Farm, what proved to be a Bronze Age cemetery. Fifteen interments were found, fragments of cinerary urns, two bronze lance heads, and a 5 inch bronze disc, possibly the central boss of a shield. Twenty or more interments had been removed before the experts arrived. Brian Smith5 suggests that the site was used for an exceptionally long period, probably a thousand years. Unfortunately, this archaeological discovery was not professionally excavated, or valuable information might have been obtained about these inhabitants of the district over 3000 years ago. The 1904 Ordnance Survey map shows a small group of “stones” by the stream below Warner’s Farm. One of these remains in the undergrowth near the brook. The others have disappeared, probably removed to avoid hampering farming operations. It is grey and about the size of a milestone. It may or may not be significant that the stones lay in a straight line between the Bronze Age cemetery and the church.
The parish has footpaths in plenty, between hamlets and farms, but there is no main road, no canal, and a railway which was planned in the 19th Century, between Worcester and Hereford, passing through Netherley, was never built. The River Rundle or Cradley Brook is fed by several springs and streams, and the plentiful supply of pure water, and the fertility of the soil no doubt had much to do with the choice of site of the village many years ago.
- Paymasters were village officials, churchwardens, surveyors of the roads, constable, overseers of the poor, haywarden.
- Nash, History of Worcestershire 1782.
- Ekwall, Oxford Dictionary of Place Names 1966.
- Laird, A Topographical and Historical Description of the County of Worcestershire, Undated, In Worcester Record Office County Hall
- Brian Smith, History of Malvern 1978
‘The Cliffe Arms’, a social centre for many years. ‘Also it is agreed that it shall be a dinner provided at Thomas Ravenhill at the Cliffe Arms Inn on Easter Monday next (1826) for the 12 paymasters of the parish, the expenses not to exceed £3’.
You will pay a little more now.