MALVERN Water is no longer classed as natural mineral water after it was downgraded because of impurities.

Malvern Water, which is popular with the royal family, has lost the premium status it has enjoyed since it was first classed as a natural mineral water by the European Union 20 years ago.

It is now classed as spring water', the next category down, along with Highland Spring, another brand that has been downgraded.

Because of the impurities, Malvern Water owners Coca-Cola had to bring in filtration equipment, which is banned by the EU in the classification of natural mineral water.

Martin Peer, technical officer in environmental health at Malvern Hills District Council, said the changes at the Schweppes plant would have no impact on the advice always given to people collecting water from local springs.

He said; "Water collected from the springs should be boiled before being consumed. There is a risk of bacteriological contamination otherwise."

Malvern Water has been drunk by royalty for centuries and by Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin.

The water is taken from Holy Well and was first bottled in 1622. It has enjoyed official EU status as a natural mineral water since 1987.

But in recent months, drought has dried out the granite rock of the Malvern Hills, which filters the water, meaning water has passed through it too quickly to be cleansed naturally by it.

Di Rayner, leader of Malvern Hills District Council, said: "I can say without contradiction that Malvern Water is sold all over the world and will continue to be famous, as Dr Wall said, for containing nothing at all'. I don't think we're in danger of losing our reputation for clear, pure water."

Ian Rowat, director of the Malvern Hills Conservators, said: "Over the Easter holiday, many walkers visiting the hills took advantage of the spouts to fill up their bottles.

"We would hope that they would find the water as refreshing as their walk on what was one of our hottest and busiest spring holidays."

The downgrading means the label has changed from "the original English mineral water" to "the original English water" and goes on to say "Bottled in the Malvern Hills".

A spokesman for Coca-Cola said the relabelling had become necessary due to classification requirements' and defended the decision not to drop the price, saying Malvern was a valued "niche brand".

It all started 600 years ago

* The Malvern hills are 600 million years old and consist of very hard rocks which have shattered and now act as a giant sponge, soaking up rain water, which then surfaces through the springs.

* Malvern Water is bottled at Colwall, by Schweppes, now part of Coca Cola.

* The flow rate averages about 60 litres a minute and the water has never been known to dry up.

* More than 12 million litres are bottled and sold annually.

* The water has enjoyed official EU status as a natural mineral water since 1987.

* Water from the springs has been bottled since the 17th century but only really became popular after 1842 when a water cure establishment was set up in Malvern's Belle Vue.

* Malvern Water has been drunk by royalty for centuries and a royal warrant was granted by Princess Mary Adelaide in 1895 and by King George V in 1911. The water is still supplied to the present Queen.

* Author Charles Dickens and scientist Charles Darwin visited the area for its water.

* The Malvern Spa Association was formed in September 1998 to conserve and restore the springs, spouts, fountains and wells of the Malvern Hills.

* Water can be taken for free from some of the 70 springs in the area, but official advice is that it should be boiled before it is drunk.

The Classifications

Natural Mineral Water Must come from an officially recognised underground spring. It must be bottled at source and cannot be treated or filtered to change its characteristics. Carbon dioxide can be added to make it sparkling.

Examples: Abbey Well, Buxton, Ty Nant, Evian, Perrier, Vittel, Volvic.

Spring Water Must also be bottled at source from a recognised underground spring. But it can be treated or filtered and can also come from more than one source. It does not have to specify its mineral content.

Examples: Springhill, Hall Manor, Hadham, Highland Spring, Malvern.

Bottled Drinking Water Can come from a variety of sources, including the public water supply. There are no restrictions on treatments as long as it is safe to drink. All three types must meet stringent guidelines on maximum levels of chemicals and must be free from pollution and harmful micro-organisms.

Examples: Dasani, Aquafina.