Saturday, 30 November 2013

Gordale Scar & Malham Cove

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Route: Malham, Pennine Way, Mire Barn, New Laithe, Janet's Foss, Gordale Bridge, Gordale Scar, New Close, Street Gate, Water Sinks, Pennine Way, Comb Hill, Watlowes, Malham Cove, Malham

Date: 30/11/2013
From: Malham

Parking: Roadside parking in Malham village / National Park Car Park
Start Point: Malham
Region: Yorkshire Dales

Route length: 7.0 miles (11.2 km)
Time taken: 02:54
Average speed: 2.4 mph
Ascent: 394m
Descent: 397m

Points of interest: Janet's Foss, Gordale Scar, Malham Tarn, Ing Scar, Watlowes,  Malham Cove

Few locations on our small island are as instantly recognisable as Malham Cove, a unique wall of rock that spans the valley of Malham Beck. Behind it lie some of the finest examples of limestone scenery to be found anywhere in the world. If that wasn't reason enough to visit, the striking Gordale Scar lies a short distance to the east making this circular route an absolute classic, perhaps one of the best in the Yorkshire Dales. Oh, and it was used as a film location for one of the Harry Potter films, so a good excuse to bring the kids as well.

The walk starts from Malham, a small village buried in the upper valley of the River Aire. It was originally referred to as Malgun in the Domesday book, a word that means "settlement by the gravelly places". Very apt. After leaving the car on the road (there is plenty of space available if you arrive early enough), we strolled into the village before heading over the river across a small footbridge to join the Pennine Way. The path actually leads south, away from the main attractions and I had to double check the map to make sure that we were going the right way. This misdirection is short lived though, as the the path quickly meets a well signposted track for Janet's Foss and we spent the next 20 minutes wandering through the glorious fields towards Janet's Foss and the Malham Estate.
Just in case you were unsure
The rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales
The path leading towards Janet's Foss
The weather was tailor made for a good days walking, not too cold but blindingly bright and clear. The brilliant sun was soon extinguished though as we entered Janet's Foss Wood. On a summer day, the wooded valley is filled with the smell of wild garlic, something suppressed by the autumnal weather this time round. One thing that hasn't changed though is a large felled log, close to the path, that has had several hundred coins pushed into it. A popular theory is that this is a 'wishing tree' and that people would push coins in to make their illnesses disappear. The practice is thought to have started in the 1700s so there could be many very old coins buried in this particular log. Keeping the tradition alive (although without any ailments to cure), we buried our own two pence piece, circa 2013. I'll keep an eye out for it next time we're passing by, hopefully it won't have lost its shine.
Some old farm machinery made to look a bit older with some photo trickery
Gordale Beck
Our contribution to the wishing tree
At the end of the wood is the first natural highlight of the day, Janet's Foss, a small waterfall cascading over a limestone outcrop into a stunning turquoise pool, traditionally used for sheep dipping. Janet (or sometimes Jennet) is thought to be a reference to a folk tale fairy queen that inhabited the cave at the back of the falls.

We continued on, climbing out of the valley onto Gordale Lane. Out on the tranquil lane, there is little evidence to suggest the spectacle of Gordale Scar, a mere few hundred metres away.
Janet's Foss waterfall
At Janet's Foss
The turquoise pool under the falls
Gordale Scar lies at the end of the track
Following the path adjacent to Gordale Beck, the valley sides slowly begin to close in, glowing in the low winter sunlight. It's not until you reach the very end of the path and round a corner does the full impact of Gordale Scar become apparent. The brilliant sunshine is replaced by dark foreboding shadows and towering walls that make any onwards route seem almost impassable.
The valley of Gordale Beck
Sara about to round the final bend
Gordale Scar
Gordale Scar is the result of the phenomenal power of water, carved out during the last Ice Age. The considerable overhang of the limestone walls also suggests that the ravine was once a cavern, like many others found across the area. Gordale Scar contains two waterfalls, one evident to all visitors at the end of the first valley and a second hidden away in the mid reaches. It is at this second waterfall that further evidence of the cavern roof can be seen.
Some equally intrepid walkers start their climb up Gordale Scar
Climbing Gordale Scar is much easier that it looks but does require a small head for heights. The trickiest part is the first climb up alongside the waterfall that tumbles over the tufa in the valley floor. Upon closer inspection, holes and knotts eroded by water of centuries past provide perfect hand and foot holds to haul yourself up into the mid part of the ravine. On busy days there can be quite a wait for your turn to climb but the look of interest and amazement on some peoples faces, those who have decided the climb isn't for them, is worth it as you clamber up and over the seemingly impassable obstacle.
Getting to the waterfall is the first challenge
Gordale Scar from the climb up the first section
Sara at the top of the first waterfall
Once up the first scramble, you will find yourself within the heart of Gordale Scar, with water tumbling past on all sides and the limestone walls still reaching ever skyward. There is also a fine view of the second waterfall, emanating through a large hole in the ravine wall. There is a stepped stone path some way up the middle section, on the left hand side so aim for that once you are ready to continue on your way. Avoiding wet feet or legs at this point is easier said than done as the slippery rocks and deep pools of water conspire against both you and your very best waterproof boots.
The heart of Gordale Scar
Crossing the beck can be a challenge
The second waterfall
Climbing the stone staircase brings you up and out of the valley as it continues to carve a swathe through the countryside for a further mile to the north. For the more intrepid explorers, a rocky spit extends back towards Gordale Scar and gives an impressive view down into the ravine. With the excitement of Gordale Scar behind us, we continued along the wide, flat path towards Malham Tarn.
Climbing out of Gordale Scar
Sara standing proud at the top
A peer down into the ravine
Pendle Hill
The path the Malham Tarn
Having completed this walk a few years ago, Malham Tarn held little in the way on interest and in an effort to get to Malham Cove around sunset, we continued along Mastiles Lane to the west, rather than heading up to the waters edge. For those that are interested, a trip to the tarn and back adds little more than half mile extension to the walk. Interestingly though, Malham Tarn is the highest lake in England at 377m, though the definition of lake needs to be determined as several tarns in the Lake District surpass this altitude. According to the venerable Wikipedia; "One definition of lake is a body of water of 2 hectares (5 acres) or more in area however, others have defined lakes as waterbodies of 5 hectares (12 acres) and above, or 8 hectares (20 acres) and above Charles Elton, one of the founders of ecology, regarded lakes as waterbodies of 40 hectares (99 acres) or more". Malham Tarn is also one of only eight upland alkaline lakes in Europe and thus has several special conservation designations.
Fountains Fell, Darnbrook and Great Close Scar stand over Malham Tarn
Away from Malham Tarn, heading south, the route joins the Pennine Way which leads into a deep incision in Comb Hill down to Watlowes. By now, the brilliant sunshine of the morning had been replaced by a typically British grey overcast sky. Watlowes is the ancient remnant of the river that was once powerful enough to shape Malham Cove as we see it today. The river that currently flows out of Malham Tarn, though probably the same, no longer possesses the energy for any serious erosion and, in fact, disappears down the imaginatively titled 'Water Sinks' before reappearing some distance downstream of Malham Cove as the source of the River Aire (according to dye testing this river and the one that emanates from the base of Malham Cove are not the same and do not mix in any way). At the end of the Watlowes dry valley stands the imperious Malham Cove.
The incision through Comb Hill
Ing Scar
The dry valley of Watlowes
The edge of the Malham Estate
Originally a colossal waterfall, some 80m high and 300m high, Malham Cove is a natural, curved limestone cliff at the head of valley of Malham Beck. It rises vertically from the valley floor like a medieval walled fortress and is a popular haunt for rock climbers, walkers and sightseers alike. The curved shape is thanks to the power of the water, eroding the lip at the centre at a greater rate than the edges. Nowadays, the limestone grikes and extensive cave systems are sufficient enough to prevent a waterfall forming anytime in the near future. On the subject of grikes, it might be pertinent to mention a bit about the limestones pavement above Malham Cove.

A natural formation, the result of glacial and water erosion, a limestone pavement is exactly that, a flat expanse of exposed limestone that resembles an artificial pavement. Cracks in the limestone are eroded by rainfall, limestone being slightly soluble, leading to the formation of a series of limestone blocks, isolated by a network fissures. These blocks (clints) and the fissures (the grikes) have the appearance of a manmade pavement, hence the name. The Yorkshire Dales has some of the most prominent examples of limestone pavement in the world, particularly above the walls of Malham Cove and around the eastern slopes of Ingleborough, near Clapham.
The valley of Malham Beck
Sara surveys the scenery
The view from Malham Cove
The clints and grikes of the limestone pavement
Pendle Hill
We arrived at the lip of Malham around half an hour before sunset, though the low clouds limited any spectacular colouring. We spent a few minutes wandering around the limestone pavement before hopping our way over the to path to the west that utilises a set of well placed steps to carry you down into the valley. Another few minutes were spent wandering around, looking an awe at the sheer size of the limestone rock face and searching in vain for a hidden geocache. In all, we spent a good 45 minutes at Malham before we set off back along the path towards the village and the waiting car.
The imposing face of Malham Cove
Malham Beck bubbles up from the base
The full splendour of Malham Cove
As a geographer, any walk is exciting but this one is right up there at the top. We're fortunate to have some of the foremost limestone scenery in the world and I'm lucky enough to be able to visit it almost at will. For such a short walk, this really does pack a punch and has something for everyone. A fantastic scramble up Gordale Scar, a amble around Malham Tarn and the jaw dropping Malham Cove. You could spend a day exploring each small section, they're that good, but join them up into a full circuit and you have one of the very best walks in the Dales.