Mid-autumn and nature is ratcheting up the splendour by providing a rare flourish of snow, bringing new contrast to an already colour saturated landscape. Malhamdale really knows how to put on a show.
A friend’s visit makes a perfect excuse to explore this rapidly changing scenery. We head up river from Airton along the Pennine Way, feet soon squelching in half-thawed puddles, eyes fixed on the hills above Malham trying to make out where the line is between white earth and white sky, with only flecks and shadows to distinguish subtly textured hillside from cloud.
Soon, arriving at Mires Barn, we hive off north-eastwards along the paved footpath hugging Gordale Beck. As the valley narrows, becoming a steeply sloped gorge, woodland closes round and the air stills. It’s a cliché, but there’s definitely a magical feel to the space under a tree canopy, with or without leaves tinging the daylight green.
The little gorge has the added ingredient of what appears at first sight a highly mysterious feature in the shape of Janet’s Foss. This waterfall slides over what looks to be an outpouring of surplus concrete but is in fact an entirely natural agglomeration of limestone, in effect an outdoors stalactite, formed over millennia as the lime-laden beck tumbled over the moss hanging from the natural cliff edge left by the retreating glaciers. The resulting limestone wall hides a chamber, open at one side, once thought to be the home of Jennet, queen of the fairies.
Emerging into open space again, our next destination is Gordale Scar, a twisting cul-del-sac of an imposing, high-sided rocky gorge ending in a chain of waterfalls beneath overhanging cliff faces. Were it not for the paved route in, this would seem an entirely uncompromising landscape – the end of the earth. Rocks strew the ground, topped with miniature snow peaks, echoing the striated hillsides above to which trees cling crazily. The only sounds reverberating around the precipitous slopes are the cawing of ravens and the thrashing of water on stone. After a respectful few minutes we’re sufficiently humbled and exit the way we came, leaving the spirit of the place to its own thoughts.
The wind has whipped the snow onto the north and eastern faces of the drystone walls, betraying its origin and the reason behind this cold snap. Skirting the hillside past Grey Gill the view seems almost entirely wintry, save for a few reddish brown trees around Gordale Beck; but as we climb towards the hills above Malham Cove, a contrast develops between our snowy surroundings and the far greener, darker reaches of Malhamdale in the distance. Snow-dusted fields we marched across earlier in the walk appear verdant from up here. The deep grey sky over the south and west is a warning that the light will soon fade and we should complete our circuit of Malham Cove before too long.
Up here the landscape has been simplified by the snow to a high contrast light and dark; a line drawing highlighting only the essential counterpoint of topography, walls, rocky outcrops and occasional trees. Then the light does something very special: the face of Malham Cove has come into view below just as the sun leans towards the horizon, turning the grizzled precipice into a crinkled cloth of gold. It’s a moment that would made this whole walk worthwhile but is only one of many in what has been a uniquely enchanting day. Yet there is more to come.
The limestone pavement above the cove is treacherous underfoot in the best of weathers, so we pick our way around the less pitted area to the rear to avoid twisted ankles and sprained wrists. Even so, the greatest of care is required, the snow having disguised the undulations underfoot. It seems we’re not the only wanderers to brave it today, tentative footprints giving clues to safe routes. Sturdy boots are an essential tool and I would enjoy this more I feel with the aid of a walker’s pole. None of this takes away, however, from the astounding view, and the sense of being at the edge between two worlds: the wild and the tame, the ancient and the contemporary, the snow-bound wilderness and the sheltered valley where life is still possible.
And it’s to that valley we now return, navigating the steps west of the cove to its foot. After taking a detour to see the Malham Beck gushing from the letter-box opening at the base of the cliff, we begin the long trek back along the road. It’s only quarter to four but rumours of night are gathering and by the time we trudge foot-sore into Airton, the dark and the chill have settled and the fire and hearth are as welcome a destination as were the extraordinary places we encountered today.