14 March 2011

Gordale Scar and Malham Cove

A circular route starting with a scramble up the waterfalls at Gordale Scar, joining the Pennine Way just below Malham Tarn to return to Malham via Ing Scar and the Cove.
Distance: 6.3 Miles | Time: 2h 30m | Difficulty: Easy

It's a fickle mistress is work, one minute there's none of it, the next minute you can't shift for the stuff - taking up every waking moment and filling your precious free time with a desire to do nothing more than sleep. Then there's life, has the funny ability to get in the way of getting out and about and stuff done, so it was after a few false starts that I got out to Malham earlier this week for one of the classic walks of the Yorkshire Dales; Gordale Scar and Malham Cove.

Traditional Barn

I tend to steer clear of Malham, it's a lovely place don't get me wrong, but you usually can't shift for people - especially on weekends. That and once you've seen Malham Cove that's it, done and dusted. I know it's the pride of the Dales but it really doesn't evoke the sentiment of "You haven't been to Malham Cove? Here, take my car..." But if you look further than the limestone and the hordes, there's some good walking to be had (with some excellent pubs for post walk refreshments).

Quick links: the map | photos on flickr | gpx file for your gps device

It was a grey and overcast day as we left the centre of the village, away from the distractions of purveyors of beer (not that they'd be open at 10am mind you), following the route to Gordale alongside the pleasantly burbling Gordale Beck. Passing through open fields the well worn path leads firstly to Wedber Wood and Janet's Foss.

Janets Foss

According to local lore the cave behind the falls was home to Jennet; Queen of the fairies - hence the name (Foss being Old Norse for force or waterfall). There's all kinds of stories revolving around the Foss however, copper smelters working at the nearby Pikedaw mine were said to live in the caves there, and there's history of the pool being used to wash sheep prior to them being shorn in mid summer. Either way it's a picturesque spot in summer, and a bit miserable on a day like today - not that it stopped the 12 or so folk there...

Enter Gordale

Leaving Janet's Foss behind, the route crosses the beck at Gordale Bridge before continuing on through the campsite into the mouth of Gordale Scar itself. As the valley sides close in you get a feel for the destructive forces that carved this great gash in the landscape.

In some ways the structure reminds me very much of the South-Western US, places like Bryce Canyon spring to mind - albeit not so brightly coloured and with fewer Americans in loud shirts milling about, but the patterns of erosion are broadly similar.

Only Way is Up

Some people seem to be a bit daunted by Gordale Scar, confused as to where the path leads they turn round and head up over New Close Knotts instead. As we approached the bottom of the falls a Geordie lad asked if we knew where the path went as it just seemed to stop at the waterfall - didn't seem too pleased when he heard you had to climb it!

Not a particularly daunting task (and the most enjoyable part of the walk, I could easily spend all day just climbing up and down it), and less so when there's so little water coming down. There's plenty of hand holds up the middle to aid in the scramble up to the next set of falls.

Three Routes

Above the first falls there's a choice of three routes up, a relatively well maintained set of steps along the left hand wall, a scramble up the middle, or proper climb up the right (impossible to do without getting soaked to the skin). Regardless of the route you take Gordale Scar makes for an enjoyable scramble section on this classic Dales walk, just bear in mind it can be hazardous after prolonged and/or heavy rain.

Lone Tree

Leaving the pleasures of Gordale behind the path heads steeply (or pretty much as steep as it gets in the Dales) up onto the northern end of New Close Knotts, meeting up with the fraidycats scramble-free path that avoids the waterfalls. From here onwards it's a real motorway of a route, thousands of walkers have trampled a clear path 20ft across, stretching from the waterfalls, up to Malham Tarn then back down to the Cove, it's like walking up the M1 (without the obvious risk of being run-over) but at least the scenery isn't too bad.

As seems commonplace with the majority of my walks these days, then was the moment that the weather decided that we'd had our fair share of pleasantness and it was now time to dole out some stronger stuff to test our mettle and send us packing. But a wee bit of hail doesn't bother me, even if it is on par with having your face grit-blasted.

On reaching the paved road at Street Gate you'd normally head straight on up to Middle House Farm then cut back to Malham Tarn for the "classic" route, however we opted to skip this little bit (for reasons I genuinely forget) and head straight along the lane to pick up the Pennine Way back to Malham.

First Falls

The Pennine Way follows the outlet of Malham Tarn before it plunges into the ground at one of many sink holes lining the river bed. During the last ice age the the water flowed onwards, above ground, towards Malham Cove, dropping down a series of waterfalls - the largest of which being below Comb Hill, channelling a torrent of water into Watlowes prior to reaching the 80m falls at the Cove.

It's said (and scientifically proven) that the water that dives underground just south of Malham Tarn isn't the same as that that emerges from the foot of the Cove - that stream actually resurfaces some miles away. So what puzzles me is where the hell does Malham Beck come from then? Thanks to the good people at the Yorkshire Dales Park Authority I can now say that it comes from Smelt Mill Sinks. Anyway, enough of my confused little mind and on with the walk...

Ing Scar

Continuing along the grassed motorway that is the Pennine Way, the path continues around the south side of Comb Hill, before dropping down into Watlowes alongside the now defunct waterfall.

A typical dry valley with high limestone sides, the path through Watlowes can be a bit of bottleneck when it's busy, but on what was turning into a blustery March's day it provided a welcome respite from the wind and hail, and the ideal place to hunker down and make light work of a malt loaf and banana chips.

Limestone Pavement

Passing underneath the broken rocky outcrops of Ing and Raven Scar the valley gradually opens out onto the wide, uneven limestone pavement at the top of Malham Cove.

Whilst Malham Cove itself is somewhat impressive (and certainly if you've never seen it before) I think of greater interest is the pair of Peregrine Falcons nesting on the front face of the rock face and, of course, the stunning view back over Malham. Say what you want about the Dales, there are few places in the world I'd rather be.


Descending the stone steps, all 400-odd of them (And at double time as, unlike in the Lakes, these steps have a pretty much uniform rise to them. The result of proud Yorkshire craftsmen, not like them slap-dash Cumbrians), deposits you at the emergence of Malham Beck.

From Easter onwards the RSPB tend to have a viewing station located here to observe the Falcons from, however with it being March, there were no such pleasurable diversion so it was onwards and downwards back into Malham itself.

Malham Cove

All in the route was slightly over 6.3 miles and 2.5hrs to complete. It just so happens that the path back down into the village passes the doors of all the pubs in town, so it'd be rude not to stop in for post-walk refreshments. The Lister Arms can be recommended for their fine selection of Thwaites' Ales (one of my personal favourites at the moment).

The Map

OS Maps: Landranger 98 | Explorer OL2

View the trip at EveryTrail.com | See all the pictures on Flickr | Or go get the GPX file

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