Walk 65, Malham to Dale Head

Thornton in Craven to Malham Back to Pennine Way index Dale Head to Horton-in-Ribblesdale

The Walk

Today's ten mile walk includes the feature that is arguably the greatest scenic highlight of the entire end-to-end walk - Malham Cove.

The cove is a natural amphitheatre backed by a sheer 300-ft cliff of naked limestone, part of the mid-Craven fault. Malham Beck, a crystal stream if ever there was one, issues from a tiny slit at the base of the cliff and wanders southwards to the village, not quite a mile away, through emerald green pastures so typical of limestone country. Above the cove is Britain's best known area of "limestone pavement" or karst, a massive sill of rock weathered into slabs and rent with fissures within which semi-exotic lime-loving plants have taken root. Behind the karst pavement the dry valley of Watlowes, a miniature ravine walled with limestone crags, heads northwards up to Malham Moor, where you find the feature known as "watersinks" - the stream issuing from Malham Tarn disappears into the bedrock here, to reappear three miles south at Aire Head Springs. Malham Tarn itself, a strange anomaly in limestone country, is fringed with beautiful woodlands and is itself backed by the limestone cliffs of the North Craven fault.

Beyond the environs of Malham the Pennine Way reverts to type somewhat, traversing the wide, lonely rough pastures of the Yorkshire Dales among scenery made world famous by the BBC's James Herriot films. After crossing the Littondale road at Tennant Gill farm, the PW rises across the flanks of Fountains Fell to reach an elevation of almost 2,200ft, the highest ground yet attained on the End-to-End walk. A steeper descent to the even lonelier Stainforth - Halton Gill road follows, with a road walk to the southwest as far as the col at Dale Head to conclude the day.

Dale Head is in the middle of nowhere and there is no bus service - you have to walk out. Most walkers will combine this section with the following one, the five and a half mile traverse of Pen-y-Ghent that finishes at Horton in Ribblesdale. Given that Pen-y-Ghent is even higher than Fountains Fell this does make the day a bit too strenuous for some. There is a less strenuous and more direct route to Horton, of some three and a half miles, though even this involves a couple of hundred feet of ascent. The third and final option is to walk back to Malham itself, eight miles away by road.

Finally, Malham is surrounded by so many other scenic highlights that a day or two "at leisure" here is an option taken by many Pennine Wayfarers. A very popular "tourist round" takes in Janet's Foss and Gordale Scar (a twisting ravine, part of the mid-Craven fault), while longer hiking expeditions to Grassington or Horton, or an excursion to Skipton, are also worth considering. For lovers of strange and wonderful scenery, Malham is worth a long stay.

Walk Statistics:
Length: 9.93 miles / 16.0 km
Total ascent: 2212 ft / 674 m
Total descent: 1488 ft / 552 m
Estimated time: 3 hrs 59 mins

Map:  OS 1:25000 Outdoor Leisure 2 (Yorkshire Dales, south and west)

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Malham is the archetypal Yorkshire Dales village, pretty as a picture and surrounded by around a hundred square miles of awesomely beautiful limestone scenery. It reckons to get something around a million visitors a year (many of them school parties on geological field trips), and the National Park impose some pretty strict planning laws to keep it "just so". The car park is kept out of sight to the southwest of the village, no other parking is allowed for non residents, there are no litter bins. It's the classical dilemma of a place that's so appealing that it risks its very appeal being ruined by visitor numbers. The balance is never an easy one, but it seems to be struck successfully. (For more images of Malham see the previous page).

  Postbus service Skipton - Malham (Mon - Fri)
  Arriva Service 210 Skipton - Malham (Sat)
  Arriva Service 804 Wakefield - Leeds  - Skipton - Malham (Sat/Sun/Bank Holidays)
  Rail connections at Skipton via Leeds - Skipton - Settle - Carlisle line

Janet's Foss (off route)

The path between Malham and Janet's Foss

Janet's Foss and its environs

Many visitors to Malham, whether they be Pennine Wayfarers, other holidaying hikers, or day trippers, do the "tourist round" of scenic highlights that include Janet's Foss and Gordale Scar as well as Malham Tarn and Malham Cove. Janet's Foss and Gordale Scar lay either side of a lonely moorland road heading eastwards out of Malham. Janet's Foss itself is an energetic and picturesque waterslide, formed by Gordale Beck as it jumps over a deposit of limestone tufa. It lies within a wooded glade, a setting that adds much to its scenic value. Janet was said to be a local witch; "Foss" is the old Norse word for waterfall and reflects the Viking settlements in this area during the first millennium. Although you can reach it easily by road, a more elegant approach is to leave Malham southwards by the Pennine Way and then turn left, heading just north of east, at a path junction just short of Aire Head springs. The path largely follows the bank of Goredale Beck.

Gordale Scar (off route)

Goredale Scar

Laying about a mile northeast of Malham village, Goredale Scar is another "must see" scenic highlight off the route of the Pennine Way. It's an incursion into the line of the mid-Craven fault, formed by Goredale Beck having eroded the limestone well back into the sill. The scar is a narrow and sinewy ravine whose three sinister bends are littered with rock debris and which allows little ingress of sunlight (which, unfortunately, makes it a difficult subject for the camera). At the head of the scar Goredale Beck plunges down a series of steep cascades. There is said to be a scrambling route up by the waterfall, but I've never dared attempt it and I would warn anyone thinking of doing so that wet limestone is more slippery than ice. If you value the integrity of your limbs, be content to gaze upon it from below. It's also worth pointing out here that there is no right of way beyond Goredale Scar to the north - a great pity, for the map suggests some pretty savage karst scenery here. The "tourist round" continues up the lane to the northeast, breaking off short of Middle Laithe Farm for a footpath to the north. After about 1.2 km this path reaches the ancient byway of Mastiles Lane, which can be followed to the west past the head of Goredale (pictured above) to the Malham Moor road between Malham Tarn and watersinks.

Malham Cove

Leaving Malham

You don't really need directions from Malham to Malham Cove - just follow the crowds. In any event, the sheer cliff that forms the rear of the cove is clearly visible from the village, just a mile away. Walk northwards along the road as far as a very prominent gate, about half a mile distant; turn right here into the pasture and along the well trodden and beautifully maintained path of limestone gravel, which meanders among stands of birch towards the cove itself. Within the village itself it's possible to get off the road and follow a path through the ribbon of woodland immediately to the right.

Approaching Malham Cove

The cove itself is pretty damn special. The sheer cliff to the rear forms a graceful inward curve, and as you approach you see that it is not simply steep - it's not even vertical, but actually overhangs. It's a favourite climbing ground and you can sit here for hours watching climbers making their way up the face on ropes and pitons.

Malham Cove

The near approaches to the cove consist of swards of beautiful green turf, making it a perfect place for picnics. It's the sort of terrain and setting that naturally attracts wild campers also, but here there seems to be an unspoken agreement not to do so. During the week I spent at Malham in 1988 I grew to love coming down here in the late evening - there was rarely anyone about, and I never saw a pitched tent. It really is a wonderful feeling, having a place like this entirely to yourself in the twilight.

Malham Cove and Malham Beck

Malham Beck issues from a tiny slit, barely inches high, at the very foot of the cliff. It would be fairly obvious to conclude that this is the same stream that disappears into the ground at Watersinks, a mile to the north, but actually this is not the case. The real feeder stream is a rather insignificant dribble that meanders across Malham Moor to the northwest and disappears into the ground somewhere near Lang Scar.

Scenes at the foot of Malham Cove

The cliff itself is not far short of 300ft high. There would once have been a waterfall here, and it's not difficult to conjure up a mental picture of the torrent that would have leapt over the lip of the cliff to plunge, roaring, into the pool below. It would have been possible to have walked behind it, and it would have been the most spectacular fall in England, and quite probably the highest. Wainwright, in an understandable outbreak of hyperbole, declares that Malham Force "would have been higher than Niagara". (I've checked and it's actually true - Niagara Falls are 167ft high)

Leaving Malham Cove by the rock staircase to the northwest

The way out of Malham Cove is a sensitively constructed and beautifully maintained rock staircase climbing diagonally across the slopes to the west of the cliff face. The stairway does not rise in a straight line but zigzags somewhat, forming "landings" that invite you to rest and gaze upon the awesome rock scenery to your right as well as down into the cove and back to to the village.

At the top of the stairway the Pennine Way veers sharp right to head over to the lip of the cove. The top of Malham Cove is an area of limestone pavement, or karst, and generations of geography classes in Britain will have had this very spot ingrained on their memories as the best known example. There are actually two pavements, a lower sill (that surrounding the lip of the cove) and an upper sill (set around 50 meters back and at a slightly higher level). The two pavements are separated by an area of grass.

The top of Malham Cove

It's easy to see how the limestone bedding planes weather into squareish blocks, with the cracks between them running generally east-west and north-south. The gaps are known as grykes, while the slabs themselves are known as clints. Great care must be taken here, especially during or after rain. I will warn yet again that wet limestone is at least as slippery as ice, and the grykes are about the same width and depth as your leg. So watch out, don't mess about, and keep children and dogs under control. The same warnings apply, only more so, to the very edge of the karst on the lip of the cove. There is a sudden, sheer drop of three hundred feet. Feeling lucky?


The dry valley of Watlowes

The original course of the Pennine Way tracked eastwards of here then ran northwest along a high contour through the pastures above the dry valley running northwards from the cove. Generations of walkers have looked at the map, said "sod that,", and followed the dry valley itself. It is an irresistible temptation, and its use has become so universal that a made path has had to be constructed to prevent erosion scars, and the Pennine Way itself was eventually re-routed to take account of what was happening in practice.

Watlowes is a shallow yet narrow ravine, steeply sided with craggy limestone walls. Curiously, a drystone wall runs along much of the length of the valley. It would once have been the course of a river, of course, but since limestone dissolves so readily in water the river has long since leached out an underground route and left the valley dry.

<>The rock stairway at the head of Watlowes

The valley runs generally northwestwards for about a thousand meters. At the head of the valley your route ascends a second, rather rough, rock stairway. At the top of these steps the route swings hard right along a "landing", from which the view back along Watlowes is awesome. After a short distance swing hard left again for a short but steep ascent into a second dry valley.

Watlowes: The "landing" and the upper dry valley

The rock scenery around the entrance to the upper dry valley is awesome. Note the cave in the eastern wall. As you progress the scenery calms down, and eventually you find yourself following  a simple depression with a drystone wall alongside. The route curves slightly to the right to head east of north.

The upper dry valley


About 700m north of the ascent into the upper dry valley above Watlowes, you reach the point at which Malham Tarn Beck disappears underground into a sinkhole. It's a  spooky place. Ahead of you, the beck gurgles happily along its course; behind you is still water, then marsh, then dry grass. It's as if there was never a stream here at all.


Not far beyond Watersinks you cross the eastern loop of the Malham Moor road, which is heading just south of east at this point. To the east it becomes Mastiles Lane, an ancient byway going over to Grassington in Wharfedale, in theory a route open to all traffic but in practice quite unsuitable for any motor vehicle.

The PW reaching the Malham Moor road

The Pennine Way becomes a little confused after crossing the lane - three footpaths diverge from this spot heading north, north-northeast and northeast, and it really matters little which one you take. The official PW route is that heading north, though personally I'd prefer the centre of the three paths. They are all, ultimately, crossing a slight grassy rise and heading for the eastern edge of a group of trees fringing the shore of Malham Tarn. The tarn should come into view as you cross the rise.

The approach to Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn is a lovely little body of water, not quite one square kilometre in size. In this limestone world where water so readily disappears underground, it's a minor miracle that it's here at all; the answer lies, apparently, with an anomalous layer of slate on which the tarn rests. The Pennine Way loops around the east and then the north banks of the tarn, squeezing under the cliffs of the North Craven fault and running through a picturesque fringe of woodland.

Malham Tarn and Malham Tarn House

On the north bank of the tarn, the Pennine Way runs past Malham Tarn House. Nowadays the house is an outdoor studies centre but in the nineteenth century it was a private residence and had literary connections; Charles Kingsley wrote "The Water Babies" after being inspired by visits to the area, and there are also associations with John Ruskin and Charles Darwin.

Malham Tarn House access road

The PW runs for some 600m along Malham Tarn House's access road, which in places is very narrow and runs through a cutting blasted from bedrock. Be prepared to flatten yourself against the rockwall should any vehicles come along.

The access road to Malham Tarn House

The Pennine Way turning north at Holme Farm

The access road heads westwards to the Malham - Littondale road at Holme Farm (which could be used as a break point for a half-day expedition), but the route of the Pennine Way turns off to the north about 350m short of the farm. For the next mile it runs through a series of open pastures, alongside a drystone wall, with views of the moorland road to the left and a limestone-outcropped slope rising to the right. The point at which it kinks to the left to head towards the road is obvious enough; after the steeper part of the slope your route bears right again, gradually converging on the road not far short of a corner at which the driveway to Tennant Gill Farm leaves to the north.

Limestone pastures north of Holme Farm

The PW reaches the road just south of Tennant Gill Farm

Tennant Gill

The driveway to Tennant Gill Farm

Follow the driveway towards the farm, but turn off left just before the farm itself. There is a distinct change of landscape here; the terrain becomes lonelier and more drab, and the grass begins to lose the green lustre characteristic of limestone. The PW takes a slightly complicated course uphill, generally in a WNW direction but with one confusing dogleg to the southwest. A part-ruined drystone wall accompanies you for some of the way.

The Pennine Way in the environs of Tennant Gill

Ascending the flanks of Fountains Fell

Fountains Fell

The route continues for another 600m in the same direction before turning right, to head just east of north across open moorland. Assuming that you're using the OS 1:25,000 Outdoor Leisure map 2 of the Dales, now would be a good time to switch to the reverse side of the sheet - you won't want to do this on the summit if it's at all windy. There now follows a long, lonely ascent of Fountains Fell, so called because the land here was once owned by the monks of Fountains Abbey. The rock type changes from limestone to gritstone and the Pennine Way leaves the limestone playground of Malhamdale behind as mud and slop return and the grass turns brown and wiry. It's amazing how the day trippers melt away too. The PW runs diagonally up the slopes of the fell in the same direction for about 1km, before the path veers left again  There's now a mile of gradual but steady climbing ahead as you ascend the summit dome of Fountains Fell, at 2191 ft the highest ground yet reached on the End-to-End Walk.

The Pennine Way on Fountains Fell

The Pennine Way ascending Fountains Fell

Approaching the summit ridge

Fountains Fell - the top

The actual summit of the fell is bypassed to its right; by all means stroll across to the top of you wish, for it seems a real waste to come so far and not get to the very top. A stone wall crosses the path, following the summit ridge; here you are leaving the drainage system of the Aire and entering that of the Wharfe. In front of you is the whaleback summit of Pen-y-Ghent, seen across the lonely Silverdale - Halton Gill valley; its southern ridge is interrupted by two vertical sills, one of limestone and the other of gritstone. You'll be climbing this ridge next. To the left, and rather more distant, is the characteristic flat top of Ingleborough.

Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent from the top;  the descent

The route off Fountains Fell continues north west off the summit dome for a short distance, then turns generally west to head diagonally down the slope. Once you hit a drystone wall, follow this on the right-hand side (the summit of Pen-y-Ghent will be immediately in front of you). At the next junction of stone walls a little-used path goes off to the left; this used to be the official route of the PW but few hikers ever followed it, most preferring the direct route to the road below by continuing alongside the wall. The official route of the PW has been altered to follow this preferred path.

The descent from Fountains Fell

Pen-y-Ghent;  the PW descending Fountains Fell; a retrospective view of Fountains Fell

Pen-y-Ghent;  arriving at the road

The final mile is a roadwalk, along the road to the southwest. Unfortunately it's slightly uphill, and you are heading for the col between this nameless valley (coming up from Halton Gill in Littondale) and Silverdale (an offshoot of Ribblesdale), and thus Britain's main watershed. You pass the lonely farm of Rainscar and ultimately reach another lonely farm, that of Dale Head.

The road walk to Dale Head

Dale Head

There's nothing much here. You have three options from Dale Head; tackle the five and a half mile section from here to Horton in Ribblesdale via Pen-y-Ghent, which most walkers elect to do; take a more direct line of three miles to Horton, which is the easiest option; or walk back to Malham, eight miles away by road. Walk down Silverdale for two miles, then turn left onto the Malham Moor road at Sannat Hall Farm and keep going.

Dale Head


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Thornton in Craven to Malham Back to Pennine Way index Dale Head to Horton-in-Ribblesdale

This page last updated 10th November 2005