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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Malham Cove

Malham Beck, Yorkshire village, Malham, Malhamdale

If you went to school in Britain, and paid attention during geography lessons, you probably know all about Malham.  Amongst other things, it is famed for its limestone topography.  My failure at geography was spectacular, but even I remember pouring over Ordnance Survey maps trying to pick out the characteristic features that the erudite, kindly and hirsute Mr McFadden was urging his distracted pupil to identify.  I know many of you will find it hard to comprehend what a pimply teenage lad could possibly find more engaging than the geomorphology of the British Isles, particularly on a sunny day with a netball match going on outside the window, but there it is.

The tiny village of Malham, a little to the east of Settle in the Yorkshire Dales, is a bit of a honeypot for walkers, outdoor-types in general and casual tourists.  And geographers, of course; did I mention geography?  Serious hikers trek through it along the Pennine Way; others do a circuit from the National Park Centre, taking in Malham Cove, Malham Tarn, Gordale Scar and Janet’s Foss.  Some folk come just because it’s pretty, popping into the village blacksmith to admire the handiwork and finding somewhere for a coffee and a sticky bun.  The Old Barn CafĂ© does a roaring trade in mugs of tea and bacon butties; back-packs and big boots mingle with handbags and trainers.  The two pubs, the Lister Arms and the Buck Inn, look inviting.  Few of Malham’s visitors leave, though, without walking up the road to Malham Cove, a short distance to the north.

Limestone, clapper bridge, Malham Beck, Malham Cove

Malham Cove is a concave limestone cliff face some 260 feet (80 metres) high.  It is often described as a natural amphitheatre – inaccurately, in my view, but it is no less dramatic for that.  Once upon a time, some 10 or 12,000 years ago, a torrential waterfall of glacial meltwater cascaded over the cliff as ice retreated at the end of the last Ice Age.  The descendent of this is Malham Beck, which now trickles and bubbles its way out of the base of the cliff, down on into the village.  For as every good geographer and geologist knows, water likes to disappear underground in limestone regions, forming massive and complex subterranean cave systems.  The caves are created, some believe, to be explored; but you wouldn’t get me down there without a substantial bribe.  The water that feeds Malham Beck probably largely comes from Malham Tarn about a mile and a quarter to the north.  On the map, near the foot of the tarn, is marked ‘water sinks’, where the outflow from the tarn vanishes beneath the moorland.  ‘Area of shake holes’, it says on the map; “Typical of upland limestone areas”, said Mr McFadden.

Malham Cove, glacial valley, Dales National Park

I’m intrigued by, and a little nervous of, shake holes – (also known as ‘sink holes’, or ‘swallow holes’) lest the ground beneath my feet suddenly disappears in an avalanche of mud, rock, water and aspiring writer.  Best stick to the paths when you can, not giving a second thought to the hundreds of miles of water-carved caves and tunnels below ground wherever you tread.

Yorkshire Dales, limestone country, drystone walls, medieval strip farming

As you meander your way through the typical Dales landscape of drystone walls toward Malham Cove, spare a thought for those that went before you.  The area has been farmed since at least the Iron Age, is dotted with the sites of ancient settlements and you might spot medieval field systems over to the north east.  You might also fall over earnest and generally friendly people with tripods and obscenely large camera lenses, trying to get shots of the peregrine falcons that nest in the vicinity.  As if that’s not enough, tiny coloured specks moving slowly across the cliff face turn out, on closer inspection, to be climbers.  To someone who gets dizzy changing a light bulb, the prospect of being suspended more than 3 feet above the ground is just as terrifying as the idea of exploring water-filled caverns underneath it.  Fortunately, the Dales caters equally well for the bold clinically insane as it does for the well-balanced physical coward.

Malham Beck, cliff face, Malham Cove.

So, trying to ignore the crazy climbers swinging carelessly to your right, shielding your eyes against impending falcon attack from above, mildly mindful of ghostly medieval farmers all around and oblivious to the antics of lunatic subterranean cavers, press on up a steep footpath to the west of Malham Cove.  It is customary to nod politely at passers-by, uttering banalities such as, “Almost there,” and “Fine day for it” between wheezes.

Walkers, limestone pavement, Malham Cove.

At the top, you’ll be rewarded by simply one of the best examples of a limestone pavement that you’ll find in any geographer’s field book.  You can see why it’s called a pavement, because that’s exactly what it looks like.  The enormous glaciers that lay over this part of the world scoured the limestone, removing the soil and creating fractures along the weaker lines of the rock.  Over the centuries, rain water has further eroded the fractures, washing any deposits left by the retreating ice and wind-blown soil down into them.  New soil does not accumulate on the exposed surfaces, or slabs, which are known as ‘clints’.  The fractures, or fissures, which are typically at 90 degrees to the top of the clints, are known as ‘grykes’.  The grykes provide a sheltered, shady and relatively humid environment for vegetation, including rare species and plants more usually found in woodland areas.  The smaller hollows formed by rain on the tops of clints are known as ‘pits’ and ‘pans’.

Limestone pavement, clints, grykes, pits, pans.

There was a time when I’d skip fearlessly across a limestone pavement.  Perhaps younger men are more courageous, or lacking in imagination; these days, I tread more gingerly, conscious that this is leg-breaking territory.  Grykes typically range in depth from a few inches to a few feet, but can apparently be as deep as 20 feet; it would be very easy to drop your walking stick down one.

Malham, limestone pavement, Harry Potter.

It can be pretty windy on top of Malham’s limestone pavement and, to be honest, when it’s like that it’s not somewhere I’d choose to linger in.  On a good day, it’s a fine place for a picnic and the views can be spectacular.  Still, I was surprised to see it was chosen for a scene in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ when Harry and Hermione were seeking horcruxes whilst simultaneously trying to avoid You-Know-Who; tough place to pitch a tent, even for a wizard.


While I’m busy name-dropping, Bill Bryson, the American writer, used to live down the road at Kirkby Malham. 

How's that, Mr McFadden?

40 comments:

  1. Another entertaining and colorful post. I've had the very same thoughts about those crazy climbers. That "pavement" reminded me of the area surrounding the coliseum in Rome. I remember spending my time carefully watching every step I took lest I fall into one of the crevices and ruin my whole trip.

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  2. You seem to have made admirable progress without the guidance of Mr McFadden. Did you have any success with the netball players?

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  3. I will go, interesting spots. I really like this kind of places.
    Greetings.

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  4. So far, I've never managed to include a visit to Malham Cove with my annual Yorkshire holiday. Who knows, this year might be the year!

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  5. wow, that's cool! i was totally enamored by the rock walls for fencing!

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  6. A very interesting and beautiful place!! I am glad that you didn't spot he who must not be named!!

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  7. I'm sure Mr. McFadden is speechless. You would love to visit the Guadalupe Peak area southwest of the famous Carlsbad Caverns. The peak, at almost 9k feet, was once an ancient reef, (a mountain of ancient coral!) when the oceans were much higher. The terrain near abouts is amazing. Looking south, you can imagine the ocean bed receding. Amazing place. You should google-image Guadalupe Peak. I think you would enjoy yourself for quite a while :O)

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  8. What an astonishingly beautiful area! The rock face is calling out to the climber in me!

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  9. Oh my gosh, a picnic lunch indeed, because it does look to be a most lovely workout for those who care to cover every inch of it. Camera at the ready! Of course not knowing a thing about this place until now, I feel excited to add another must see to my list! I wonder what that sweet dog is thinking about while taking a break? Bravo on your beautiful captures to share with us.

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  10. Exceedingly interesting reading - I loved the top section and the limestone/rock like protrusions, giving
    a maze like look!
    Geography and Modern History were my favourite subjects at college. Never overly keen on the topography that cropped up, but it was a bloody necessity - limestone or no limestone.
    I think I would have enjoyed the lessons of Mr. McFadden.
    Cheers and thank you for an educational post
    Colin
    Brisbane. Australia

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  11. The little town/village is very pretty and the fields with the stone walls are interesting as is the limestone cliff. Very interesting to read about this place and I would enjoy a visit there with my camera and perhaps a walking stick.

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  12. Another informative post. Might even get to see this area myself as I will be in Kirkby Malham next month.

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  13. What a fascinating place. The rock formations are keenly reminiscent of the Texas Hill Country here in America. I looked up where Yorkshire is exactly (especially since my fav show Downton Abbey is supposedly based there). Anyway, that was quite enjoyable. I felt like I was there too. Thank you for sharing the journey with us. ~:)

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  14. Challenging terrain but well worth the effort to get there! It's a beautiful part of the country to be sure.

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  15. I think I've seen a TV show about that area - one of those "How Britain Was Formed" or something like it that they show on PBS. Your shots are fabulous. I wouldn't be down in the caves or on the rock face either!

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  16. Can't believe you failed geography! If so, you've made up for it since. Nothing quite dramatic as Malham, but just down the road here are some of the most interesting sinkholes in Ontario. I find them fascinating.

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  17. The first few pictures show what many of us envision when we think of the English countryside. Some of those rock formations look like stone sheep.

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  18. I would definitely walking along there and have fun with my camera too!

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  19. For a guy who disliked geography, you have made up for it wonderfully! This place is really fascinating. I love the picture of the water coming out from beneath the cliff face - quite amazing. I have been in a few limestone caves, but have never seen anything like that limestone pavement. Well, this one goes on the list for 'next time'. Great post.

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  20. You wouldn't catch me climbing up a cliff either (although I DID once go pot holing ...) - lovely photos as always and a really interesting and informative post - you make me want to explore this beautiful country more every time I read your blog.

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  21. I'm sure that Mr. McFadden would be equally surprised and pleased. What amazing terrain. Looks like a good place to break an ankle. I think I hauled my carry-on suitcase over terrain like that in London - or maybe it just seemed that way. I can't get over how many interesting sites there are in your area. I knew the name sounded familiar, and ah yes, I recognized the connection to Bill Bryson.

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  22. I first encountered Malham Cove in a painting by Turner, little realising I would marry a chap who lived just down the road. I love the limestone pavement in spring and summer when rare alpine flowers bloom in the crevices.

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  23. I spent a delightful weekend in Malham but the weather was not conducive to walking to the cove... So I have enjoyed your photos of the place I missed ;-)

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  24. This afternoon I have a throbbing headache yet again, getting fed up with them, but moving on since my head hurts I am not doing a lot of blog reading today, more like blog looking at photos and skimming over the text so this post with lots of bloody awesome photos was great I liked all the photos didn't read much of the text but still I came saw left a comment and now I leave

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  25. I'm sure Mr. McFadden is very proud of you!

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  26. Excellent images! I would love to visit this area...on the surface ;) For me, exploring limestone (or nearly any other) caves would take not only a substantial bribe but also a stout rope firmly fastened topside. And no amount of money could get me rockclimbing. I love opportunities to be "way up looking way down" but not while hanging on with my fingernails.

    Which reminds me of standing on the cliffs of Inis Mor. Walking up over the limestone pavement meant having to watch every single step, but that was fine because there was something to see in every step...tiny flowering plants, fossils in the stone, etc. And it also meant having to stop and stand still to look about, which was another bonus for a photographer who spends a lot of time standing still under any circumstances. Hmmm. Limestone topography may have a lot of particular value for those folks who are trying to learn to slow down and enjoy the moment!

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  27. You're driving me crazy with all of these fabulous places to visit!! The combination of the glowing golden limestone and brilliantly green grass makes me yearn to be sitting on a clint taking in the view! Your words paint a picture almost as glorious as the real thing!

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  28. Looks like an interesting and beautiful place Mike. Another one on my wish list. With all the special places you show us I need two lifetimes!

    Have a good weekend!

    Madelief

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  29. oh my word thank you for a wonderful trip down memory lane. Many years ago when I was younger and fitter I belonged to an adventure group made up of walkers, hill trekkers and serious mountain climbers, I dipped in and out of the first two categories. We used to have weekends away once a month, usually staying in youth hostels and Malham was one of my favourite areas. Mr McFadden would be very proud of you.

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  30. Beautiful! And SO much green....but you're right! Not a single colorful bird to be seen!

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  31. What a fabulously interesting area. Great geography lesson too. Mr McFadden would be proud of you.

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  32. I've always wanted to go. My kids do too now. I wondered if you'd mention Harry Potter. In homage to the Harry Potter films (and because they're where we happen to be), we've seen the viaduct behind the Glenfinnan Monument & the Seven Sisters coast in Sussex.

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  33. The landscape is truly stunning, but I am with you on the climbers (I shuddered when I read about them), I just can't do that! As to the pavement, that would be a very bumpy sleep in a tent wouldn't it. If all Geography lessons were like your blog, there would be a lot more interest in the subject during those difficult school years!

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  34. I've always been more of a historian rather than a geographer, so I found this post full of new information. I've never been to the Dales, but now have a peaked interest in seeing Malham Cove and its surrounding area. Not usually a hiker either, but this landscape might have just turned me into one!
    Bronwyn www.queenbcreativeme.blogspot.com

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  35. I find it absolutely amazing that wide open places like that still exist in the British Isles after all of the people living there over the ages.

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  36. P.S.: I should be back in the normal swing of things this coming Wednesday.

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  37. I haven't been at the computer much Mike so I am now catching up on your posts. I must have been last at Malham Cove a long time ago because I don't remember the slightest apprehension about the limestone pavement. Your posts are slowly pushing me towards the idea of spending some time in Yorkshire this year.
    I seem to remember that there was a youth hostel nearby (in fact - yes - there is actually one at Malham Cove. I have just looked it up. Very smart and bright.
    I remember how splendid Malham Tarn was.

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  38. I have been here, on a drizzley gloomy day in 2007 but it was still awesome!

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  39. A comprehensive post in which your Geography teacher would be proud and your photos capture the essence of the place.
    In the grand scheme of things, it's an unusual and unique UK place offering a few geographical and walking delights. I've only been here once about 5 years ago as a day filler for a hillwalking week and wrote a very embarrassing early blog post. I wasn't going to link it here but strangely enough I also mention my failure in Geography with the comment ... "If Geography was all about reading maps at school, I'd have another job now, unfortunately, the exam was all about rocks.....so just rewards today." !!

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.