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Spectacular Landscapes in Limestone Country

The noble Malham Cove is the majestic highlight of this quintessential limestone Dales walk.

Distance 6.2 miles (10km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 1,148ft (350m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Well-marked field and moorland paths, more than 400 steps in descent from Malham Cove, 5 stiles

Landscape Spectacular limestone country, including Malham Cove

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 30 Yorkshire Dales - Northern & Central

Start/finish SD 894658

Dog friendliness Mostly off lead, except where sheep are present or signs indicate otherwise

Parking At Water Sinks, near gateway across road

Public toilets Car park in Malham village

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1 From the car parking space, walk through the gate, then turn left through the kissing gate at the Malham Cove sign. Walk parallel with the dry-stone wall on your left and follow the dry valley as it bends to reach a stile at the head of another dry valley.

2 Turn left and follow the footpath down the valley to reach a stile at the end. Go over the stile, then walk straight ahead to the limestone pavement at the top of Malham Cove. Turn right and walk along the pavement to reach steps. Take greta care here, both of the sheer drop down to your left and the gaps in the limestone pavement (known as grikes). Turn left to cautiously descend more than 400 steps to the foot of the Cove.

3 When you reach the bottom turn right along the track beside the river. Go through two kissing gates to reach the road. Turn left and follow the road into the centre of Malham village. Turn left to go over the bridge.

4 Turn right along the side of the river on a track, following the signs marked 'Janet's Foss'. Follow the signposted, mostly gravelled, path through eight gates. Eventually the footpath climbs up through woodland and passes beside the waterfall (Janet's Foss) to a kissing gate. Turn right along the road, towards Gordale Scar.

5 At the bridge go through a gate to the left. (To visit Gordale Scar, continue straight ahead here. Take a signed gate to the left and follow the path up through a field into the gorge. Keep going on the obvious route as far as the waterfall and then follow the same route back to the bridge.) On the main route, follow the signed public footpath uphill through two stiles and out on to a lane.

6 Turn right and walk uphill for ¼ mile (400m), to a ladder stile over the wall on your left. Follow the track, going left at a fork to reach another footpath fingerpost.

7 Turn left, following the sign, to reach a small tarn. Turn right at the sign for Malham Tarn, go over a ladder stile, take the left hand path and follow it back to the car park.

As you begin this walk, the stream from Malham Tarn suddenly disappears in a tumble of rocks. This is the aptly-named Water Sinks. In spectacular limestone country like this, it is not unusual for streams to plunge underground - it was subterranean watercourses that sculpted the cave systems beneath your feet. As you will see as you continue, this particular stream has not always been so secretive. The now-dry valley of Watlowes just beyond Water Sinks was formed by water action. It was this stream, in fact, that produced Malham Cove, and once fell over its spectacular cliff in a waterfall 230ft (70m) high. Although in very wet weather the stream goes a little further than Water Sinks, it is 200 years since water reached the cove.

Beyond Watlowes valley you reach a stretch of limestone pavement - not the biggest, but probably the best-known example of this unusual phenomenon in the Dales. The natural fissures in the rock have been enlarged by millennia of rain and frost, forming the characteristic blocks, called clints, and the deep clefts, called grikes. It's worth looking closely into the grikes; their sheltered environment provides a home to spleenworts and ferns, and you will sometimes find rare primulas flowering in their shade. The limestone pavement is the summit of the most spectacular of natural features in the Yorkshire Dales - the huge sweep of the cliffs known as Malham Cove. Take care as you explore the pavement, as the edge is not fenced. As you descend the 400-plus steps, the sheer scale of the Cove becomes apparent; 230ft (70m) high, it was formed by a combination of glacial action, earth movement (it is on the line of the Middle Craven Fault) and the biting away of its lip by the former waterfall.

On the slopes to the east of Malham Cove you can see ancient terraced fields. Up to 200yds (183m) long, they were painstakingly cut and levelled by Anglian farmers in the 8th century for producing crops. They show how the population was expanding then, and that there was simply not enough farmland on the valley floors to feed everyone. After walking through Malham village, the route passes through fields and a wooded gorge - called Little Gordale - to Janet's Foss. One of the classic waterfalls of the Dales, it is noted for the screen of tufa, a soft, porous limestone curtain formed by deposits from the stream, that now lies over the original lip of stone that was responsible for creating the fall. Janet (or Jennett) was the Queen of the local fairies, and is said to have lived in the cave behind the fall.

Where to eat and drink

As one of the most visited villages of the Yorkshire Dales, Malham is well-supplied with eating places. The Malham Café offers meals and snacks, while the Buck Inn has good pub meals and fine beer. The Lister Arms Hotel provides good food, real ale and, in summer, real cider.

What to look for

Nothing is what is seems in the Alice-in-Wonderland world around Malham. The logical among us would assume that if water disappears underground, heading in the direction of Malham Cove, just a mile (1.6km) ahead, it will reappear at the base of the Cove. But logic is wrong. The stream that bubbles up from under Malham Cove actually comes from Smelt Mill Sink, ¾ mile (1.2km) to the west of Water Sinks. The stream from Water Sinks, on the other hand, reappears at Aire Head Springs to become the infant River Aire. All this is known from experiments first undertaken at the end of the 19th century and still continuing today. Several methods are used. One involves creating surges of water by opening and closing the sluice gates at the stream's exit from Malham Tarn. A more modern method dyes club-moss that can be collected in plankton nets and scanned with a fluorometer.

While you're there

Visit Gordale Scar (a short walk beyond Janet's Foss). The route takes you along a valley that rapidly narrows and twists beneath overhanging rocks, until a final bend brings you to the waterfall in the narrowest part of the gorge. Once thought to be a collapsed cave system, it is now believed to have been formed by erosion from the stream, which has carved this spectacular gash through the limestone.

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