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. I used to think the last two were medical conditions, but they’re features, one and all. Some folk come just because it’s pretty, popping into artist Annabelle Bradley’s village blacksmith to admire the handiwork and finding somewhere for a coffee and a sticky bun. The Old Barn Café 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 wonderfully inviting, particularly when you’re unable to stop for a pint. Few of Malham’s visitors leave, though, without walking up the road to Malham Cove, a short distance to the north.
Malham Cove is a concave 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 descendant 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, frankly, 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.
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.
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. At least, I hope that’s what they’re doing. 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 more terrifying than 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.
So, trying to ignore the crazy climbers swinging carelessly back and forth to your right, batting away the twitchers to the front, 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 heavy wheezes. At least, that’s what I do – you suit yourself.
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.
There was a time when I’d skip fearlessly across a limestone pavement. Younger men are more courageous, or lacking in imagination; these days, I tread more gingerly, conscious that this is leg-snapping 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.
I am quite conscious of wind on top of Malham’s limestone pavement – sorry about that – and, to be honest, when it’s too bad it’s not somewhere I choose to linger. But on a good day, it’s a fine place for a picnic and the views can be spectacular. It was also 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. Not an ideal landscape to pitch a tent in, but who am I to argue with Hollywood blockbusters – or wizards, for that matter?
While I’m busy name-dropping, Bill Bryson, the American writer, once lived down the road at Kirkby Malham; he doesn’t now.
How’s that, Mr McFadden?