Walking in Yorkshire - 400 steps up the side of Malham Cove and beyond

MALHAM COVE: One of the spectacular sights of Britain.
MALHAM COVE: One of the spectacular sights of Britain.
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What an incredible day out! What a way to enter spring!

A monster circuit through some of the best limestone scenery in the British Isles. Simply mouth-watering. Although a bit on the long side, the main route is never too strenuous – apart from the 400 steps up the side of Malham Cove! – and so it is well worth the effort.

Most of Malhamdale was gifted by Norman landowners in the Middle Ages to Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory with Fountains establishing an important grange in Malham village. The Malham Beck, which runs through the village, was the dividing line.

At the Dissolution in the 1530s, the Gresham family took possession of the Fountains lands and the Bolton estates went to the Lamberts of Calton, near Kirkby Malham. General John Lambert, a century later, fought on the side of Cromwell in the Civil War.

Malham still retains many ancient buildings. Beautiful Beck Hall, a time-warp residence dating from 1710, is situated by the side of Malham Beck on a site once occupied by a Fountains property. Just above it is a stone clapper bridge, Moon Bridge, named after Prior Moon of Bolton Priory.

Cromwell Cottage, near Beck Hall, is said to have been used by the Lord Protector as a shooting lodge. He is known to have visited General Lambert in 1655 at Calton Hall and to have witnessed a marriage at Kirkby Malham Church.

Note: Do not attempt this walk in poor visibility as the crossing of featureless Hanlith Moor depends upon following a line of marker posts – if you can’t see them, you could end up anywhere.

Parking: Park by the roadside in Malham in the vicinity of The Buck Inn (£2 honesty box) or, if full, park at lefthand side of road just before entering Malham. Or use the village car park (£4.50).

MALHAM, MASTILES LANE and WEETS TOP

Choice of 9 ½ or 7 ½ miles: Allow 4 – 5 hours for long route. 
Map: O/S OL2 Yorkshire Dales Southern and Western areas. AVOID IN MIST.

Start from the The Buck Inn and take the road signposted Malham Cove, Stainforth and Arncliffe to leave the village. On passing last property on your right, go off right for the Cove past a sign for the Malham Tarn Estate. The strong path leads to the mighty Cove, one of the grandeurs of Britain.

At the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000-12,000 years ago, a torrent of water from the melting glaciers spewed over the top of the 260ft-high precipice. Down the centuries, the water found its way through the porous limestone bedrock to disappear underground, although the phenomenon reappeared three years back in one of the wettest winters on record..

The water emerging from the foot of the Cove is often mistaken for the River Aire but is, in fact, Malham Beck. The Aire emerges half a mile south of Malham at Aire Head.

When within about 200 yards of the Cove, at a fork, take the left branch for the climb up the side of the Cove. This is a real flog – there is no escaping it – so take your time and enjoy the views.

At the top, go through a walkers’ gate and half right on to the clints at the top of the Cove and either turn right across the clints - beware, very slippery in the wet – or keep going up half right to gain the back of the clints and bear rightwards behind the clints (easier).

If you do contour round the back edge of the clints, follow the clints as they curl right to gain a wall with two gates and a three-sided fingerpost with the dry valley of Watlowes to your left.

This dry valley once carried the raging river which poured over the top of Malham Cove. The fine wall running down the centre of the dry valley has a special significance. It was built by the monks of Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory to mark the boundary of their adjoining lands.

Go through the lefthand gate and straight ahead up slope with wall a few yards to your left to gain a ladder stile and cross it (NT plaque for Ewe Moor). A good path leads, eventually, through an opening in a wall and onward to arrive at a stone-step stile (NT plaque). Keep straight on, aiming for a wood in the distance, to arrive at a fork and take the right branch which aims for the right end of the wood.

1: Soon, there is another fork (less obvious) at pools with a fingerpost visible half left – take the right branch to close with the prominent wall ahead. Stay alert! When roughly level with fingerpost across to your left, look out for a track going right – if you find it, take it to run parallel with the wall across to your left. If not, plough on to the wall and turn right along it.

Follow the wall all the way across the moor, descending at the end to a gateway giving access to the Malham-Malham Tarn road and turn left. After about 400 yards, as road begins to bear left, go straight on by the wall on your right along a stout track.

After another 400/500 yards, turn right through a gate at Street Gate (fingerpost: Kilnsey) along the famed Mastiles Lane.

Mastiles Lane was first used by prehistoric man as far back as the Stone Age. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Roman armies marched along its route. But it was the monks of Fountains who established the broad track you see today, using it to take their huge flocks of sheep from their grange at Kilnsey, four miles to the east, on to the high summer pastures of Malham Moor.

Follow Mastiles Lane to a ford, stepping stones and footbridge at the Gordale Beck - it runs rightwards to Gordale Scar - and press on through a gate. After about 300 yards, look out keenly for a slightly-raised grass bank on your left which passes through the wall on your right (it can be seen if you put your head over the wall). This is the site of a Roman marching camp (there is an information board a little farther on).

This simple camp, measuring 400 yards by 300 yards, was set up as a defensive position by Roman soldiers as they marched through these hostile lands in the late 1st century AD. The Roman troops dug out a ditch and embankment hedged with spears and slept within its boundaries in tents made of leather. The camp would have been used for one night only.

Keep going on this splendid journey, passing a stout stone sheep fold on your left, to arrive at a gate across the track and a fingerpost for Smearbottoms Lane. Turn right and follow the wall down the fields to Smearbottoms Lane and turn right. Weets Top to your front left.

2: After a short half mile, ignore a fingerpost on your left for Park House – continue to the next fingerpost on your left for Weets Top.

SHORT ROUTE: For a quicker finish, continue down the road to the entry path to Gordale Scar (well worth the detour if you have never been), go past Gordale Bridge and turn left at footpath sign for Malham, past the pool of Janet’s Foss waterfall, and follow the good path back to Malham.

LONG ROUTE: For the main route, turn left at fingerpost and follow the walled track up to the medieval stone cross at Weets Top (1,360 ft).

Weets Cross is remarkable in that it is the only local surviving monastic cross with its shaft intact – usually, only bases survive. The monasteries used these crosses not only to mark their lands, but to guide the monks between their various farms.

Go through gate to a fingerpost and half right for Calton. Follow this fine track for 500 yards to a fingerpost for Hanlith and, here, turn right to gate in wall (fingerpost out of line!).

Go through gate and turn left along wall and then follow white-topped marker posts down Hanlith Moor. These posts are a godsend as they lead you safely down the wild moorland for three-quarters of a mile to enter a vehicle track, Windy Pike Lane.

Go straight ahead for a short mile to arrive at houses and march briskly down the road towards the main part of Hanlith, sweeping right. Now stay alert! As the road turns sharply left – STOP!

Spot the Pennine Way fingerpost on your right to the right of a house with stone porch. Take this path, soon through a wooden gate to right of a stone drinking trough. Go straight across field on a vague path, passing below the hill to your right. Aim for a caravan in the distance (on our visit).

A wall comes in from your right with a red metal gate – aim well left of this gate to find a new fingerpost. Go round wall corner and onward to a gate, pass through and follow wall on your left to a kissing gate and go straight on with the confluence of the Malham Beck (on the right) and the baby River Aire on the left (just after it has risen at Aire Head).

Descend steeply to a stream, cross it and then contour to the left, round the hillside, and then bear half right up to a kissing gate. Now go half left down to the Malham Beck, go through a broken wall and straight on by beck on a green path, over a stone clapper bridge and through kissing gate.

Go across next field, aiming to left of a field barn, to arrive at a fingerpost and turn left. Follow the man-made track back to Malham. At Miresfield B & B, turn left over a footbridge into the centre of Malham. Regain your vehicle.