It’s an unpromising looking morning of the sort that in many locations would inspire me to stay in and do precisely nothing; but in the Yorkshire Dales landscape there’s no such thing as a lack of promise, be the sky leaden and the prospect ever so bleak. The late dankness has been replaced by a spell of dry weather, though the clouds still loom low over the hills. So, with no pressing engagements I set off on a cycle ride, determined to reach Malham Tarn – amazingly for the first time.
The great wall of landscape centred on Malham Cove and stretching to either side taking in Pikedaw Hill to the left and Gordale Scar to the right is an imposing barrier approached on a bicycle in the best of weathers. In the lowering cloud cover on this January Saturday it’s enough to make me contemplate turning this into a little jaunt to the Old Malham Café for a relaxing brew and a slice of their fabulous Yorkshire Curd. However, dogged determination to make the most of a rare dry day spurs me on to tougher if not greater things.
I’m no sports cyclist by any means, normally using the bike to get from A to B with a maximum range of a few miles – so I have to grit my teeth to make the ascent out of the village along Malham Rakes – a climb almost as demanding as High Hill Lane out of Settle and at least as long. Before long I realise I’m making slower progress than a very nonchalant looking hiker a few dozen yards ahead, especially as I keep stopping – to admire the view of course… That view fades and bleakens gradually as I climb into cloud so that as the gradient finally flattens out the cycle ride and in fact whole landscape take on a completely different complexion. Up here on the moor, the moist air is still, silent and bitterly cold. Everything is either grey or a bleached brownish green. Few trees and even fewer boundaries structure the landscape which seems to be framed only by low hilltops clothed in rough grass and sedges. It may not sound convincing as a beauty spot but actually this eerie emptiness is one of the things the north of England does really well; and to the busy soul drunk on the bustle of urban life (as I suppose I used to be before moving to Airton), a bit of isolation goes down quite nicely.
I plan to circumnavigate the Tarn and choose the clockwise route, bearing left to stay on the tarmacked road past the watersinks car park. Watersinks is a prosaic and aptly descriptive name for the spot where Malham Water peters out in the grass on its journey to the base of the cove where it re-emerges as Malham Beck – a strange surrender of a river to the ground which only adds to the mystery of this wild place.
Looping north along Cove Road I still haven’t caught sight of the Tarn, which as waterbodies go seems remarkably well concealed. Not until passing through the edge of some woods along the Pennine Way bridleway does the shoreline appear between the trees. It’s an entrance to beguile the most cynical of travellers (if there are such people…). Having climbed a thousand feet up a seeming vertical highway, here in the clouds I find a lake of tranquil beauty surrounded not by peaks but gentle shores of an almost fenland character. It’s as though the world has quietly reorganised itself while I was looking at the road, putting things the opposite way around to where they ought to be. But it’s all real – as is the bird hide I take shelter in to drink in the amazing serenity of it all.
As for the birds, apart from a few tufted ducks and coots near the opposite shore, most of the many species of wildfowl that habituate the Tarn are keeping out of sight – possibly not very impressed by the temperature. And were it not for the cold I could stay here all day with a good book and a pair of binoculars but there’s something else on this ride I’m quite looking forward to: freewheeling more or less all the way back down to Malham – about the most fun you can have on a bicycle, due deference to oncoming walkers & vehicles excepted. And this being a bike ride rather than a walk, I’m back in Airton in time for a warming lunch of soup & home baked bread by an open fire.