Walking: The Yorkshire Dales at their very best

The view over a sparkling Malham Tarn after passing Malham Tarn House.
The view over a sparkling Malham Tarn after passing Malham Tarn House.
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Magnificent is the only word to describe this sweeping circuit of Malham Tarn – a journey of such delight and variety it will leave you begging for more.

From the wilds of Dean Moor and the windswept uplands of High Stony Bank to the gentle offerings of the Malham Tarn Nature Reserve to the sparkling outlook over the rippling waters of the tarn itself, this one has got the lot. Don’t let it slip though your fingers.

Malham Tarn, owned by the National Trust and now designated a National Nature Reserve, is an unusual remnant of the last Ice Age. It was left behind, stranded by glacial moraine, when the great rivers of ice retreated some 14,000 ears ago. It owes its existence to an unusual bed of slate which, unlike the porous limestone predominant in the area, retains water.

The tarn covers 153 acres and is the second largest natural lake in Yorkshire after Hornsea Mere. For all its size, it never exceeds a depth of more than 14ft and, indeed, was much shallower than that until 1780 when its southern end was dammed by the estate owner, Thomas Lister, specifically to raise the water level.

It was Lister, later created 1st Lord Ribblesdale, of Gisburn Park in Lancashire, who built Malham Tarn House in the 1780s as a shooting lodge. In 1851, the estate was purchased by James Morrison who gave it to his 21-year-old son, Walter, who enjoyed a long association with Malham.

Walter Morrison used Malham Tarn House as a summer retreat from the pressures of his busy life in London. An MP and Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1883, Morrison was a millionaire bachelor who entertained many of the leading figures of the Victorian age at Tarn House - Darwin, Ruskin and Charles Kingsley being among his guests.

The original Tarn House was badly damaged by fire in 1873 and Morrison rebuilt on a grand scale, adding an imposing frontage, verandah and Italianate bell tower, the top section of which was taken down in the 1960s. In 1946, the-then owners, the Hutton-Croft family, presented the Malham Tarn Estate to the National Trust and it is now used, under lease, as a field studies centre.



7 miles: Allow 3 – 4 hours. 
Map: O/S OL 2 Yorkshire Dales 
Southern and Western areas

Use the Watersinks free car park at the southern outflow of Malham Tarn. The car park lies alongside the Malham-Settle road two miles north of Malham village. Exit car park into road and turn right, through a gate across the road (open), to fingerpost on your left within 50 yards and, here, turn left for Malham Cove and Langscar Gate.

After about 100 yards, at fingerpost, take the right branch for Langscar Gate and follow the lovely green path up on to Dean Moor. Press on to the next fingerpost and go straight on for Langscar Gate. Next, on passing through a wall with bridleway fingerpost pointing back the way you have come – STOP!

Leave the main track and go half right up the slope on a grass trod, passing an immediate cairn on your right. There are actually two diagonal trods – the lefthand one is the best, but either will do (the righthand one actually passes a marker post with a green band).

At top of slope, bear right and continue to a wall ahead with a field barn (New Laithe) down to your front right. Cross a stile in wall – barn now to your right – and continue with wall on your right. At wall corner (marker post), go half right down the moor on a green trod to a chimney which is not too obvious to see and passing through the remains of a wall en route.

The chimney operated between 1815 and 1860 and is all that remains of a smelt mill built in the 18th century to process ore from surrounding lead mines. Pigs of lead were taken by pack horse to Gargrave to be shipped out on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Other industries operating in this rural backwater included copper and calamine mining on the slopes of nearby Pikedaw Hill. Calamine is used in skin lotions.

Pass to left of chimney and go straight ahead into a dip and then pass to right of telegraph pole – the path is always visible over the ground. It gradually closes with the Settle road on your right. Enter the road at the crossroads at Streets and take the road opposite for Arncliffe.

Go past High Trenhouse and continue for about 500 yards to enter the Arncliffe road and turn right. After about 200 yards, go through a gate on your right at a metal plaque for the National Trust’s Malham Tarn Estate (blue marker post just inside the gate).

1: Soon, at National Nature Reserve information board, turn right, through a gate, into the reserve and follow the boardwalk through the reeds, ignoring a boardwalk to your left after 20 yards. Follow the boardwalk throughout, soon turning sharp left with Great Close Scar to your front right. On crossing a footbridge, immediately turn right, through a “V” barrier, past a notice reading: No pushchairs etc.

Continue on the sedate stroll through the nature reserve with – eventually – Malham Tarn appearing ahead when the boardwalk changes colour. When the boardwalk finishes, go straight on through the trees to a house and outbuilding with red doors and enter the access road ahead.

Turn right, soon passing a bird hide, and press on to Malham Tarn House, a popular field studies centre, and turn left and right round the buildings and then turn left to exit premises along a vehicle track.

At a cattle grid and three-sided fingerpost, turn left for Middle House. Go up the grass, passing to left of a circular stone structure, and continue up the slope, slightly right, with the path improving to pass through a tiny cutting. Keep going up the slope to spot wire fence ahead and gradually join it.

When fence goes off left, go straight on along a broad green track with Middle House Farm popping into view. Soon, the huge expanse of the Great Close opens up to your right. Cross a stile with a blue sleeve to right of a gate and go half left for about 50 yards to a fork in the green track and take the right branch heading straight for Middle House.

2: On gaining farm trailers and a fingerpost before the farm, turn right over a stile. Ignore the fingerpost for Street Gate. Instead, put your back against the stile and go straight ahead, over the farm access track, past a rubbish heap and old trailer, to gain a wall and turn right along it to a gate.

Go through and half left over field to a prominent ladder stile with gate to its left (fingerpost). Cross it and turn right along a green sward with vague vehicle tracks, gradually leaving the wall on your right. Now enjoy the fine interlude crossing the Great Close.

The Great Close, a natural bowl measuring a mile from left to right, was once the scene of intense activity, bursting at the seams with 20,000 head of cattle. It was here, in the mid 1700s, that an enterprising Skipton grazier, Tommy Birtwhistle, held regular cattle sales.

After the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, Birtwhistle made the arduous journey to the Scottish Highlands to establish a profitable cattle trade. Scottish drovers brought 10,000 head of cattle to this spot where they joined 10,000 other beasts brought by local dealers. Here, the cattle were fattened up for sales which took place on the spot.

As you near the end of the path over the Great Close, you will approach a wall ahead with gated stile to arrive in a cross track - STOP! Turn right along this vehicle track towards woods in the distance. On nearing the wall ahead, turn left with the vehicle track down to a gate. Note: This track can flood after torrential rain when the infant Gordale Beck bursts its banks; the only solution is to tramp through it.

Go through the gate and take the vehicle track ahead and wind your way over the moor (High Stony Bank) before dropping down to the famed Mastiles Lane at a wall. This is Street Gate. Turn right through gate and go straight ahead along tarred road to a three-sided road sign and go straight on for Malham Tarn and Settle.

Follow the road – use the grass verge for comfort! – for three-quarters of a mile back to the Watersinks car park and your vehicle.