The village of Malham is hidden away at the head of Airdale. No travellers casually pass through this village, for it is not on a through road to anywhere. Instead they make a definite effort to visit it, and visit it they do – more than 500,000 a year. This fact calls forth an important piece of advice: pick a quiet time. They do exist, away from weekends and the long summer holidays; and if you are blessed with clear weather as well as peace than you will see Malham at its best.
The village itself is pretty enough with its old stone cottages and farmhouses. It has a large village green and an attractive stream, complete with attendant families of ducks and ducklings. Like most tourist hot spots, Malham has its regulation craft shops and other tourist traps. In this it is on a par with many similarly blessed villages, which can be found scattered throughout the Yorkshire dales and Moors. What makes Malham different is the quality of the landscape that surrounds it.
The first impression of Malham’s countryside is of white rock on green grass, for this is limestone country where dry stone walls and rock outcrops stand out against short grass cropped close by numerous sheep. The whole area is a geologist’s delight and, as countless crocodiles of schoolchildren will testify, most of the main features of limestone geology can be found within easy walking distance of the village. This has made the area a natural centre for outdoor education, but it is not necessary to be engaged in formal study to appreciate the landscape of Malham. All its geological features are things of beauty.
The best known feature is Malham Cove which is best approached on foot along a narrow road from the village. A solidly constructed footpath leads to the base of the cliff, but the cove appears in sight long before the path is reached, and its solid walls of fluted white limestone dominate the head of the valley. It is an impressive sight, the best-known landmark on a geological feature known as the Mid-Craven Fault. Here a prehistoric land-slip has left a high plateau above a large lowland plain of Bowland shale. Time and weather have sculptured the fault line in many ways and its route can be traced to include Giggleswick Scar and the cliffs above Austwick. But it is here at Malham Cove that the fault line assumes its most imposing form.
The sculpting agent was water. In years long past, the waterfall that carved it fell from the lip of the cove to the valley below, a drop higher than that of Niagara Falls. But the last recorded fall of water over the cliff was in the eighteenth century.
At the foot of the cove a resurgent stream flows from a letterbox opening at the base of the cliff. This stream has an interesting story. Its name is Malham Beck and for years it was assumed to be the reappearance of the same river that formerly fell from the top of the cliff. A glance at the map supports this view. The river from Malham Tarn disappears underground about one mile above the cove and beyond what it now a dry valley. It was thought that the water took the same straight course underground as it formerly did on the surface. Underground rivers, however, are seldom so simple. Experiments with dye have revealed that the water from Malham Tarn reappears not at the cove but at Aire Heads half a mile south of Malham village. The resurgent stream at the cove has its origin in a water sink on the moors three-quarters of a mile west of the tarn. Somewhere underground the two streams must connect for, in times of heavy flood, the same dye appears in both places.
Having inspected the resurgent stream and wandered around the grassy tracks at the base of the cove, the visitor can now tackle the long flight of rough steps that lead to the summit. Some will find it a long and arduous climb but the reward is equal to the effort not only for the view over Airedale but also for the surprise awaiting the walker above the cliff. Here the steps give way, not to grass, but to a wide expanse of broken rocks. This is one of the best-known limestone pavements in the country. It is an interesting feature in its own right and will repay long, careful exploration.
At first glance the pavement has the appearance of a rocky desert. Look closer. The deep, dark crevices (known as grikes) between the rocky clints are home to a variety of plant life.
Exploring a limestone pavement is a bit like beachcombing – the same way of hopping from rock to rock and the same constant search for the unexpected. Like rock pools the limestone grikes keep their secrets until the observer is close enough to look directly into them. Most of the plants are of a woodland variety, liking cool, damp and gloomy places. They include plants such as herb Robert, hart’s tongue fern and wild garlic.
To the north of this pavement lies the entrance to the Dry Valley, which is well worth the short detour. Its strangely desolate landscape is dominated by bare rock and scree. The valley narrows and steepens towards its north end where it ends in a steep scramble.
Visitors wishing to extend their walk can continue to head north along a track, which will bring them to Malham tarn. This, the second largest lake in Yorkshire, is rather a surprise feature in a limestone area. It owes its existence to a layer of surface slate large enough to hold water over a one-hundred and fifty acre site. The tarn can be visited by car but the best way is undoubtedly on foot. If possible carry a good pair of binoculars for, in spring, the tarn is home to large numbers of nesting waterfowl. Using narrow roads and footpaths the lake can be circumnavigated in two hours. For the nature lover it is two hours well spent, but the explorer should keep to the tracks, as the house on the estate is now a field study centre and the surrounding woods and fields are its laboratory as well as a nature reserve.
One of the most famous features around malham, and one rivalling the cove in its attraction, is Gordale Scar. It lies one and a half miles east of the village and, like the cove, is best visited on foot. It makes a splendid walk from Malham, through the fields and along the river banks. The path leads first to a smaller gorge known as Little Goredale. This is a designated nature reserve with an official plaque to tell of its attractions, which include a famous waterfall, known as Janet’s Foss in honour of a legendary fairy who is said to live in the cave behind it. The fall itself is interesting for the thick layer of tufa which it has deposited over the rock. This waterfall, instead of wearing away the rocks, is actively engaged in building them up.
The sharp-eyed walker will notice an unusual phenomenon: the beck grows bigger as one follows it upstream to Goredale Scar. The reason is easy to see – the water can be seen disappearing through small regular sink holes in the limestone.
The first glimpse of Goredale is across a wide grass field with gentle cliffs on each side. Tents are often in evidence and the scene is one of gentle tranquillity. Not until the bend is reached and the cliffs converge is Goredale revealed in all its splendour. It is an impressive place, dark and gloomy, its towering cliffs dripping with water. Water is indeed one of the main impressions of Goredale, for the beck we have followed descends the scar in a series of steep drops before fanning out across the stones at the bottom, forcing walkers to hop from rock to rock in an effort to avoid wet feet.
The cliffs are a haunt of house martins and jackdaws who find nesting places amongst the rocks. It is also the haunt of climbers although such strenuous activities are for the few. Most visitors to Malham are content to view the scenery from firm ground and are well pleased to find themselves in what is one of the finest places in the north.
This article first appeared in The Lady