Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Gordale Scar
The Incomparable Extrovert

Click each image to view full screen as Gordale deserves to be ...

Malham would be world famous if it only had the Cove and Tarn to boast about, but just to the east of the village lies perhaps the finest inland combination of rock and water in the British Isles.  No words can really do justice to Gordale Scar - but I'll try my best here. The first unforgettable impression, when the great gorge is approached along that tame-looking path in the valley bottom, never fades no matter how many times you visit.  I live only 45 minutes drive from this place, and have to kick myself to believe it.

The approach could be any other limestone valley - all be it on a large scale.  A first time visitor may be wondering what all the fuss is about ...

Things begin to grow in scale ... and there is a sense of something waiting around the corner.  

The cliffs soar over 30 metres at his point, and a wall of limestone provides that last obstacle ... that wardrobe doorway into Narnia ...

Let's just peep around that corner ...

And this is what hits you! Gordale Scar, like Malham Cove, has been caused by the Mid Craven Fault, a massive series of earth movements that began millions of years ago.  In this case a series of huge joints and minor faults running at right angles to the Craven Fault itself has been exploited by glacial meltwater and an incredible ravine has been carved through the solid rock. As Arthur Raistrick famously pointed out, the main joints in the Great Scar Limestone run roughly north west to south east and this is very evident in the lie of the gorge. No doubt, if similar faults and joints were found at the Cove, a massive gorge might have been formed there - though the water there has long since found its way underground.  So why is the water still active at Gordale?  Read on .....!

James Ward (1769-1859) captured the moodiness of Gordale Scar in an enormous painting that now hangs in the Tate Gallery.  It was painted from 1812-1814 and Ward spent days at a time making sketches to prepare for his work.  I hope the cows were friendly!

James Ward (1769-1859). My word, he was old!  Maybe all that time in the limestone air did him good.  Why is it that all learned and prominent gents from those days look like Father Christmas?

The towering walls of limestone lean in to within a few feet of each other.  Boulders on the floor once led geologists to believe that this was a collapsed cavern, though this is now no longer accepted.

With each and every step, the scene becomes more and more mind-numbing, especially when it is noticed that there are, in fact, two waterfalls, with the upper fall cascading through a window in the limestone.  So much noise, so much water, so much rock: no wonder many people shudder here at the rawness of nature. 

The first falls plunge over a screen of material that, at first, looks like fossilised wood or the remains of a gnarled old oak.  This is, in fact a delicate formation known as tufa or travertine. Gordale Scar has some of the best and most famous tufa deposits in the country.  Water percolating through soils and vegetation on the moors above, near Malham Tarn, has much dissolved carbon dioxide from all those plants, and this is added to by algae and microbes. The carbon dioxide acts as a weak but effective carbonic acid and attacks the limestone so that the calcium carbonate (derived from those creatures millions of years ago) is held in solution in the water.  Once the water emerges into daylight, the carbon dioxide is lost to the atmosphere and the calcium is no longer held in solution, being deposited as tufa - a golden brown formation that collects and builds up on rocks and stream beds.  Steep drops such as those at Gordale agitate the water and cause an increase in the loss of carbon dioxide, so we get spectacularly large deposits or 'screens' of tufa, like this one.  Hundreds climb it every year, unaware of its very special nature.  This waterfall is no longer depositing tufa ... and you will see why as we continue our adventure ...

Take a deep breath after all that technical stuff and enjoy the amazing situation.

Another wonderful view of the now inactive tufa screen.  In normal water conditions it is reasonably easy to climb up - to the left of that main hole in the centre.  The boulders are stained golden by calcite deposits coloured by the presence of micro-organisms and algae.

I stopped half way up to peer down at the waterfall ...

Looking back out of the gorge.  The lower cliffs are of Cove Limestone - the largely unbroken type that makes up the main cliff of Malham Cove and was formed under more or less consistent sea-levels.  This can be seen best in the basement cliff just left of centre behind the scree slope.  The upper cliffs have far more noticeable joints and bedding planes and are made of - appropriately enough - Gordale Limestone.  Now, there's a surprise!  This is the same limestone that makes up the pavement on the top of Malham Cove, a mile to the west.

Close-up of the structure of the now inactive tufa screen, forming the first waterfall inside Gordale Scar.  Look at those two big beady eyes and that long nose, staring to the left ...

An interesting cave on the east side of the gorge, just above the first waterfall.  Great when it rains!

The magnificent cliffs on the east side of Gordale Scar, as seen from the top of the first waterfall.  The Old Man of Gordale, with his beady eyes, long nose and serious mouth, can be seen on the first main buttress in from the left, beneath the overhang.  He has a beard of green moss for full effect - and even a moustache if you look carefully!  The Cove Limestone with its vertical, largely unbroken walls is dominant in the lower cliffs, with the change to Gordale Limestone being very obvious in the higher reaches.

A slightly different perspective.  Just one of the Old Man's eyes can be seen at the extreme left, while some people can even see another man with pointed nose to the left of the joint down the centre!  Full grown trees on the cliff tops give a sense of scale.

And now a view of the entire east side - including the cave.  A screen of limestone to the right of the cave indicates the former wall of the cliff before faulting and erosion caused large slabs of limestone to peel off and  drop to the floor of the gorge.  Both old men are seen together here!

Gordale Scar: the full width of the amphitheatre from the summit of the first tufa screen.  Unforgettable.

The stream coming down from the top waterfall is guided by another fault, to the right, which provides a convenient scamble out of the gorge for those who have braved the first waterfall.

The spectacular 'Hole in the Wall' waterfall is covered in  carpet of moss and this, combined with the steep fall, is the reason for it actively depositing tufa.  A fine golden tufa screen can be seen forming beneath the moss and cascading water.  Until 1730, the water came down slightly to the west - but during a great flood of that year it finally broke through the limestone barrier above and has followed this route ever since.  

Experience the 'Hole in the Wall' for real ...

The fault-guided ravine up which steps have been placed to avoid erosion as explorers tackle the steep scree slope.  There were no steps when I was a kid, and it was tortuous indeed!

The former route of the upper waterfall.  This abandoned tufa screen, largely grass-covered, was the actual course of the water until 1730 when it cut its way through a weakness in the limestone and formed the present 'window.'  The boulder at the top marks the point at which the water cascaded over the edge.  The water now passes through the rib to the right.

The awe-inspiring view down as height is gained - the joints and bedding planes in the Gordale Limestone showing up prominently from this vantage point.  The full height of the massive cliffs continues up the grassy slope and they are well over 300 feet high - beating even Malham Cove for sheer grandeur.  The sheer erosive power of meltwater can be appreciated from this photograph.  

Don't try this at home.  By shuffling over a narrow rib of rock after a little climbing, I wriggled forward on my stomach and peeped over the edge for an unbelievable view of the 'Hole in the Wall.'  All around, everything was on a scale unparalleled elsewhere in Yorkshire ... and perhaps even England for that matter.  The forming tufa screen with its convex profile is well seen.

Nothing beats being surrounded by wild scenery like this: nature in the flesh.

The narrow rib of rock that I crawled along can be seen here on the left - and the view down was beyond the tree on the end.  The great East Rift can be seen cutting through the turf on the left before forming a series of caves on the east side of the gorge.  It is another example of a fault affecting the landscape.

'The Hole in the Wall' from a slightly lower, and safer, position.  Here I am about to cross the  bridge of rock and examine the hole from the other side. The rib of rock from which the previous pictures were taken is rising to the right of the image, in the foreground.

Feel the force.

I came on my adventure late in the evening so that I could capture Gordale Scar's raw beauty at a relatively quiet time - but, peeping down through the 'Hole in the Wall', an awestruck walker has arrived at the base of the first tufa screen and is peering up at me with his digital camera.  He gives a great sense of scale and no doubt is not very happy that I am spoiling his view.  He adds a touch of grandeur to this one.

The astonishing view through the 'Hole in the Wall' where the beck first broke through in 1730 and made the scenery all the more memorable ...

 Stand in the stream and watch the falling water cascading through the window.

A lovely view of the depositing tufa screen underneath the tumbling water.  

The force in the flesh.

Emerging from the ravine, the still active valley - formed by meltwater, carries the beck to its furious drop down the nearby waterfalls in the gorge.  The deposition of tufa, largely aided by algal colonies in the water, may well have plugged any fissures in the bed of the beck and prevented the water from sinking underground as it has done to the west, leaving the parallel dry valley of Watlowes, above Malham Cove.  It that is the case, then well done to the tufa!  Gordale would be awesome without water, but is unforgettable with it.  

Nobody wants to return the same way - and the waterfall is much trickier going down than up - so I like to traverse along the cliff-tops on the west side Gordale Scar.  That way, you get to see it from a whole different perspective: a peregrine's-eye view!

And nobody wants to leave the Gordale area without  seeing Janet's Foss - home of the legendary Queen of the Fairies.  

Rarely are you alone here.  It is worshipped by walkers and photographers - but for once - and only once, I was ..

Janet's Foss has a beautiful plunge pool barring the way to Janet's Cave - across the beck. The cave where the Fairy Quen lived, however, is actually behind the waterfall itself.  She mustn't have minded having a wet bottom.  

Janet's Foss:  the cave of the fairy is actually to the right of the top of the fall, below the tree, and it is very difficult to access due to slippery rock.  The waterfall comes down a beautiful screen of tufa - the waters from Gordale having replenished carbon dioxide from the surrounding soils and being agitated into tufa deposition by the steep drop of the fall.  

A last view of this enchanting place - which sums up everything that is good about limestone country.

Gordale Scar can be combined in a great walk with Malham Cove or in a classic circular involving Malham Tarn and the Watlowes Valley.  However, each feature deserves a full half day's exploration in its own right.  The best time to visit Gordale Scar is early morning or late evening, to avoid masses of coloured anoraks on your photographs.  That way, parking is easier on the lay-bys close to the campsite, and may be impossible at peak times.  My simple circular took me up through the gorge, then I doubled back on myself, keeping to the cliff tops on the right of the image and descending to the green 'triangle' of land at bottom centre.  Janet's Foss, reached by a short path into the woods, is just off the image at bottom left.  I consider Gordale Scar to be the greatest single natural wonder in England, and few who experience it will disagree.  It gives the Yorkshire Dales a status that very few seekers of wild beauty can argue with.  

Stephen x

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