I left the car at the strangely-named Water Sinks car park and walked the 300 metres to the southern shore of Malham Tarn. The air was hazy with a thin drizzle, which softened the outlines of the surrounding hills. Though the summits of these hills were of significant heights, they appeared less so, because of the tarn’s altitude of 377 metres above sea level. The east and west shores were largely clear of trees, but a forest, resplendent in autumn shades, stretched along the north shore, its continuity broken by the open patch in which stood the impressive Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre.
A gently sloping weir allowed water to run from the tarn into a stream that flowed with hardly a ripple back to the road. I followed this for another few hundred metres beyond the road. The ground was so flat that the water seemed not to be moving, but puddled out into a series of small ponds populated by families of mallards.
Then the reason for the car park’s name became obvious. The stream trickled into a patch of stones and disappeared. It was tempting to imagine that it would emerge after a subterranean journey “through caverns measureless to man” to become the source of the River Aire at the base of Malham Cove, but in fact it does so a mile-or-so farther south, near Aire Head.
Malham Tarn is the higher of only two natural lakes in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Resting on a bedrock of limestone, its alkaline nature makes it rare in Europe. In addition to its being a National Nature Reserve, the tarn and its adjoining Moss comprise a Special Area of Conservation and a wetland of international importance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention.
I drove to a second car park west of the tarn then followed a boardwalk over Tarn Moss. This is a mosaic of acid raised bog and lime-rich fen, up to ten metres deep and ten thousand years old. Much of the spring and summer vegetation of bog asphodel, cotton grass, cranberry and insectivorous sundew had faded into autumn hues and the occasional pools occupied flat areas between patches of water-tolerant shrubs. I continued over a footbridge and through wet woodland to a road that brought me back to the car.
The following morning, beneath a blue sky and warm sun, I took the footpath that ran south out of Malham village. This led around a field boundary, before turning along a river bank. After passing a few barns, the path entered woodland and became rougher, scrambling up rocky steps to reach the beautiful waterfall of Janet’s Foss. Legend has it that Janet is a fairy queen, who lives in a cave behind the falls. The word “foss” betrays the Viking influence in the region, as this is the Norwegian word for a waterfall. In places like the Lake District, this same word has evolved into “force”. Words of similar origin are “dale” and “tarn”, the latter referring to a mountain teardrop. The waterfall, over the centuries has deposited a layer of calcium carbonate over the underlying rocks, creating a crust referred to, by geologists, as tufa. The mechanism of its formation is similar to that by which calcite curtains, stalagmites and stalactites are formed in limestone caves. Despite the temperature of the clear plunge pool, a hardy couple had succumbed to its seductions, and were engaged in what was probably a very cold swim.
Above the waterfall, the footpath levelled out again and continued past Gordale Bridge. Over the next half mile, the valley sides drew closer and became more precipitous, hinting that something dramatic lay ahead. Parts of the hillsides steepened into crags, from which hung thick ivy patches. Trees clung to cracks and tiny ledges, while a flock of crows circled above.
Then the footpath turned a corner to reveal one of the great set pieces of the Yorkshire Dales, Gordale Scar. The overhanging walls on either side of the stream rose to what appeared almost a touching distance apart. The base of the near wall was sufficiently undercut as to give shelter from rain, while metal bolts drilled into the limestone indicated the lines of rock climbs. A small cataract dropped into the centre of the gorge, which carried on cutting into the upper slopes. It was once thought that the gorge was the result of a roof having collapsed from a former cave, though it is now believed that it was cut by glacier and river activity during and after the last Ice Age.
I returned to Gordale Bridge and took the footpath uphill toward the second huge scenic marvel, Malham Cove. Again, the hints were there, but as at Gordale, the full spectacle revealed itself suddenly. First to appear was the limestone pavement, but after a few more approaching steps, this fell abruptly into the cove. Several people wandered across the pavement, some moving perilously close to the edge.
I crossed a dry valley that had once been a riverbed onto the pavement. This consisted of flat clints separated by deep, water-cut grikes that sheltered plants such as herb robert and hart’s tongue ferns. Beyond the pavement, a steep series of steps led down to the valley floor, from which the full spectacle of Malham Cove could be seen. Bigger and more open that Gordale Scar, this formed an enormous amphitheatre that dominated the entire valley all the way down to Malham village. Rock climbers tested their skills on a face that overhung a narrow ledge, and beneath that, the River Aire appeared magically from the base of the crag. Gathering in the waters from Malham Tarn the Aire now carries them downstream of the source and through the Yorkshire Dales to join the Ouse then the Trent and finally the Humber through which they are finally dispersed into the North Sea.