A Gordale Scar & Malham Cove Day Walk,

Yorkshire Dales

[2] 18th May 2008 

Gordale Scar is a dramatic limstone ravine close to the village of Malham in North Yorkshire. It contains two waterfalls and has overhanging cliffs of limestone over 100 metres high. The gorge was formed by water from melting glaciers. Gordale Scar is one of the highlights of any visit to Malham. The stream flowing through the scar is Gordale Beck, which on leaving the gorge flows over  Janet's Foss before joining with Malham Beck two miles downstream to form the River Aire. A right of way leads up the gorge, but requires some mild scrambling over tufa at the lower waterfall. Tufa is formed by calcium carbonate rich water precipitation. The Limestone Clints (the blocks of limestone) and Grykes (the gaps), very much in evidence at Malham Cove, create a unique wildlife habitat or micro-climate for rare wild flowers and ferns such as wood sorrel, Herb Robert, Green Spleenwort and Wall Rue.

It was upon our return from a weekend in Chapel-le-Dale in the Yorkshire Dales, a trip we have done annually in the recent years of the Xerox Hiking Club, that I joined a few others, led by Martin & Vanda, for a return to Gordale Scar & Malham Cove. Anne Young & Phil Newton were also present and though Chris Platten, a fine hiker, had brought his young son, Mathew, along, this in his gradual attempts to initiate him to the world of outdoor adventuring as he grows up; nevertheless, the tricky ascent of the waterfall at Gordale Scar is not recommended if you're carrying a child on your back. It was a gorgeous day and the entire area was bathed in bright sunshine, save the sheltered section hidden by the overhanging cliffs. 

According to a BBC1 Series ‘The British Isles: A Natural History’, Gordale Scar is at the northern end of Craven Fault, a 22-mile geological fault line which runs from the borders of Cumbria into the Yorkshire Dales.

Chris Platten & family

This great limestone gorge is one of the most spectacular sights in the country. It is somewhere around 15-16 million years old. Malham Cove is a natural limestone formation near Malham. A well-known beauty spot, it comprises a huge, curved limestone cliff at the head of a valley, with a fine area of limestone pavement at the top. To the left-hand side of the 80-metre high cliff face are about four-hundred irregular stone steps: these lead to an uneven limestone pavement which slopes gently down from nearby Malham Tarn, a glacial lake. It is 377 metres (1,240 ft) above sea level, making it the highest lake in England. The lake is one of only eight upland alkaline lakes in Europe. Its geology, flora and fauna have led to it being listed under a number of conservation designations (names and/or acronyms which explain the status of an area of land in terms of conservation or protection). The site is currently owned by the National Trust. Malham Cove and Gordale Scar was also featured in an episode of the BBC TV series Seven Natural Wonders, as one of the natural wonders of Yorkshire.




The approach to Gordale Scar









Gordale Scar & waterfalls


Originally, a large waterfall flowed over the Cove as a glacier melted above it. The remnant of a stream which once fell over the cliff flows out of the small lake of Malham Tarn, on the moors above the cove. The stream now disappears underground at the aptly-named 'Water Sinks', one and a half kilometres before its valley reaches the top of the cove. A stream of a similar size emerges from a cave at the bottom of the cove. It used to be assumed that the two streams were one and the same. However, experiments with dyes have now shown that two separate streams go underground at different locations, cross paths without mixing behind the cliff, and re-emerge a couple of kilometres apart. This is a testimony to the complexity of the system of caves behind the cliff, which are thought to be around 50,000 years old. Divers have so far explored over 1.6 km of cave passage entered from the base of the Cove.

The lip of the cove has been more heavily eroded than the sides, creating a curved shape. A colossal amount of water used to flow over this waterfall, which measures 80 m high and over 300 m wide. Nowadays the underlying cave systems have a large enough capacity to swallow any flood waters before it reaches the fall. The last record of water flowing over the fall in any kind of volume dates back to the early 19th century after a period of heavy rain. The valley was formed at the end of the last ice age when the ground was frozen. The frozen ground meant that meltwater from the melting ice sheet formed a large river flowing over the surface, eroding the valley that we see today. The water from this river flowed over Malham Cove to form a huge waterfall. When the climate warmed around 12,000 years ago the ground thawed and the river in the valley disappeared underground leaving the valley dry as we see it today.


Martin, Vanda, Anne & Phil (group left); Martin, Phil Anne & Peter (group right).





Scrambling up to the moors away from the gorge & waterfall;







The plateau above Gordale Scar, towards Malham Tarn.




Views of Dry Gorge & Malham Beck (towards Arncliffe).



Malham Cove views & examples of the Limestone lints & Grykes


View of the walking path leading down from Malham Cove along Malham Beck


Malham Cove & Malham Beck


Malham Beck


Our walk took us from Gordale Scar in the direction of Malham Tarn, though we didn't quite reach it, returning via Dry Gorge to Malham Cove. It was after our descent that we continued on some distance before eventually reaching the village of Malham. Martin had asked for a lift back to Welwyn (Vanda had to remain in the area on business) so we agreed to have lunch at the pub before heading off around 17h45. Malham has a population of 120, so with the weather being as fine as it was that day, it came as no surprise to see that many visitors flocking to the village for the day. The Pennine way, which has its origins in Edale in the Peak district, passes through Malham.




Malham Village


Malham Beck flowing away from the village of Malham, where it meets Gordale Beck further downstream.



[Gordale Scar - Malham Cove - 2002]

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