Vanishing Waters and Visual History
During the Carboniferous Period which began some 340 million years ago, the great movements of the Craven Faults caused many unusual things to happen to the landscape around Malham. The land above (to the north) of the North Craven Fault was lifted upwards along the fault line, while that to the south was 'downthrown' in comparison. This is easily seen by going to Malham Tarn, where the limestone cliffs of Great Close Scar lie hundreds of feet above those in the Watlowes valley a mile to the south. The limestones around the Tarn have been cut back so severely by ice and water erosion from the fault line (roughly where the clump of trees are in the picture) that a bed of impermeable basement 'slate' has been exposed to the surface. Since the last ice age this has held a unique natural upland lake, fed by lime-rich streams; the beautiful Malham Tarn.
Before my exploration of the Tarn, I set off to find the water's destination - just south of Malham village. This view is of the attractive Mires Barn, with Cawden reef knoll on the left, and the enticing valley of Gordale Scar at centre.
About two miles south of Malham Tarn, Cawden and Gordale Scar are features of the Mid Craven Fault, the line of which cuts just above Malham village from west to east. It is largely responsible for all that awesome scenery! These fields lie on Bowland shales that have formed on top of the downfaulted limestone, which lies hundreds of feet below the surface. In simple terms then, the faults have caused the limestone beds to lie in three gigantic 'steps': the highest being behind Malham Tarn, the next at Malham Cove, with the bottom 'step' lying beneath these fields. The power of nature indeed!
The infant River Aire beginning its long journey through Yorkshire just south of Malham. Where has all that water suddenly appeared from?
The answer lies here - at Aire Head. Remember that vanishing stream at Water Sinks? Well, here it is again, some two miles downstream, popping out of the Great Scar Limestone onto the Bowland shales. Its journey, from the Tarn to here, remains a complete mystery. Nobody knows if there are huge cave passages involved - or the amount of twisting and turning that the water undertakes on its journey. It's amazing to think of the water's secrets when you see it emerging from here ...
Aire Head in close-up. Within seconds of emerging it is rushing down the fields to meet Malham Beck (the water emerging from the Cove) to form the River Aire.
Standing above the resurgence at Aire Head, and watching the water emerging at the base of the limestone. Remember there is much limestone buried below, of course, but it has been covered by a layer of shale.
On the drive up to the Tarn, I peeped over the wall to the unmissable Malham Cove. Here, my camera is roughly on the line of the Mid Craven Fault, which lies about 500 metres downstream of the Cove itself. The great cliff has been cut back from the fault line over thousands of years. In the foreground can be seen the ancient lynchets where the fields have been terraced; these examples are believed to be some of the oldest in the area, and may date back to Celtic times.
The Smelt Mill Sinks in close-up. The stream can be seen making its way across the drift covered slate and meeting the Great Scar Limestone, causing it to promptly vanish before making its trip to Malham Cove. The drop to the Cove is considerable, so there could be huge underground shafts and waterfalls that man has never laid eyes upon ....
The chimney of the Smelt Mill which operated from 1815 to about 1860. Galena (lead sulphide) was brought here from the mines at Pikedaw to the west. Its position was determined by a close source of peat for fuel, and a good water supply for washing the ore. Galena was 'roasted' on top of a peat fire to a temperature where the lead separated from the sulphur and flowed out of the firebase as molten metal.
A close-up of the Smelt Mill Sink vanishing beneath the glacial drift into the limestone - next to be seen at Malham Cove - where it emerges as Malham Beck. In flood, more and more of the water mysteriously begins to emerge at Aire Head. Spooky!
The flue of the Smelt Mill would have originally have been covered over and served two purposes: firstly it was used to blast air up by using bellows - and secondly it reduced pollution by allowing lead in the flue gases to condensate on the walls. This was invariably scraped off and added to the lead produced by the smelter - so all in all it was a useful device.
A first view of the beautiful waters of Malham Tarn from the west side. Here, waters running off the high ground of Fountains Fell have formed an important area of acid peat bog known as Tarn Moss. It contrasts in colour with the lime rich grasslands of Great Close Hill, beyond the tarn itself. If, in the imagination, you picture the cliffs of Great Close extending across the entire picture, it gives some idea of how far the limestone has been cut back from the North Craven Fault, which lies to the right of the image. The Tarn lies on a bed of slate and has a natural dam of moraine along the south side, effectively 'bulldozed' there by a glacier.
Chapel Cave has been fully investigated as recently as the 1990s. The earliest finds date back to Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) times and it is believed it was used as a hunting shelter for game inhabiting the fringes of the tarn. Remains of fish (perch) have also been found, as well as objects from both Roman and Medieval periods. This is a cave with a long story - like everything else in the Malham area.
Close-up of Chapel Cave entrance. It is named after a supposed chapel that lies on the moor nearby. There were several of these religious hide-outs in the Malham area during the Dark Ages.
The cave is very special for another reason: it is a stronghold for the magnificent cave spider Meta menardi. This massive arachnid is one of the biggest and rarest spiders in the country. It is a privilege to see it this close. The spiders can bite if disturbed, but who would want to wake her up when she's this comfy? These amazing creatures are photophobic when adult, yet the youngsters enjoy the light, an adaptation believed to encourage the spread of the species. Note the beautiful silken egg-sac hanging as a work of art from the cave roof.
An interesting peat pool on Tarn Moss. The Field Studies Council organise many superb outdoor activities in this area, including pond dipping and exploring the many flower, moth and bat species. The tarn is owned and protected by the National Trust - and no wonder ...
The special peat bog environment of Tarn Moss. Recently, a superb re-cycled plastic 'board walk' has been placed across the moss to allow a close-up inspection of this unique habitat.
Looking south across the shallow waters of Malham Tarn. It is the highest alkaline natural lake in England, at 1229 feet above sea level, and considered of world importance as a habitat. No boating or swimming is allowed for a good reason. The tarn harbours rare stoneworts as well a colonies of the white-clawed crayfish.
Taking in the expanse of water ...
Malham Tarn House was originally built in its remote location as a shooting lodge by the Lister family, on the site of an older dwelling. In 1852 it was bought by James Morrison who gave it a Georgian style, but it is best known as the home of his son, Walter, an eccentric millionaire who lived here for 64 years until 1921. Morrison was a Liberal MP who spent much of his life giving away huge sums of money for various causes, as well as entertaining all and sundry at his 'mountain home'. Prominent guests included Charles Darwin ... but it is, of course, Charles Kingsley with whom the house is most associated. Malham Tarn House is the dwelling where Tom, of the Water Babies, saw himself unclean in the mirror .. and Walter Morrison was the model for John Harthover. After coming here, you will want to read the book, as I did. Today there was a craft fair in progress. It's usually much more lonely ...
Beyond Tarn House, the woodlands give way to open grassland and the rounded summit of Great Close Hill, with its important Iron Age burial chamber. The prominent, 'mother' like curve of this hill may have been important to early cultures.
Tucked behind the woodlands of Highfolds Scar are two archaeological wonders. This dwelling, 15 feet long and 9 feet wide, is known as the 'Priest's House.' Both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon objects have been uncovered here, mostly influenced by the work of that great dalesman, Arthur Raistrick. The main Celtic find was a circular brooch-like head, with gold inlay and split into four quadrants. Later objects included bronze articles identified as book edging and the tag of a book marker. The finds were similar to those in the Anglian monastery at Whitby, and it is believed this was the cell of an Anglian priest or hermit from the seventh or eighth centuries. As with all sites of this nature, it should be left undisturbed - as it was found.
The main living space of the Priest's House consists of an enormous limestone slab making up the western flank. The house is divided into three by small partition walls.
Let's step through the front door of the Priest's House ...
Just beyond lies the remains of a medieval farm. This was probably abandoned after the land was taken over by the monks of Fountains Abbey in the late eleventh or early twelfth centuries.
The farm is split in two, with half of it having a paved floor, beneath the turf, of limestone blocks. This half, at the rear, has a gravel floor below which much pottery was found.
The impressive shelter-cairn on the summit of Great Close Hill - Malham Tarn's dominating height - covers an important Iron Age burial chamber. This may cover an earlier site dating back as far as 2000BC. The position of Great Close Hill, surrounded as it was by water on three sides (Great Close Mire has now been drained) and with prominent 'curves', may have had some cultural significance for these early peoples. The proximity to a lake at such an altitude will have also played a part in its location. Hundreds of flints have been found on the shoreline surrounding this sacred hill.
The circular shelter is good protection from the wind, but I wouldn't fancy sitting in there today with all those nettles for company. To the south, just visible in this image, each end of a line of boulders can be made out, known as a 'linear feature', and found on other similar burial sites in Yorkshire. Its purpose remains unknown.
Coming down off Great Close Hill, the last remnants of the once extensive Great Close Mire are reached. This was another lake, adjacent to Malham Tarn. Beyond the wall is the huge pasture of Great Close itself, site of the former Malham fairs of past centuries. It is one of the largest enclosed pastures in Britain.
Just off the south-east corner of Malham Tarn is the fascinating Seaty Hill tumulus. This conical hill has a low mound at the summit, 66 feet across and surrounded by a ditch.
The thistle-covered tumulus has one or two 'kerb' stones remaining. It actually consists of two mounds, an earlier Bronze Age construction being topped by an Iron Age mound.
Two holes had been dug by ancient man into the top of the lower mound. In the north-west hole a seated skeleton was found, carefully placed with its knees drawn up, and facing another skeleton to the south east. Round the edges of the site, in saucer-shaped depressions, were some 13 other burials, usually of incomplete skeletons, three containing coloured beads and one with blue glass fragments. The sacred nature of Great Close Hill is obvious from this position and there may well have been some link between the two.
History is everywhere in the Malham area. This view to the east from Seaty Hill tumulus shows the ancient Monks road of Mastiles Lane bisecting the moor. If you look carefully on the background green field, just above centre and having a corner level with the white boulder on the right - a huge but faint rectangular ditch can be seen crossing the moor an lying either side of Mastiles Lane. This is a believed to be the site of a Roman Camp that would have been used for a short period when the Romans were crossing the moor.
The greatest find at Seaty Hill, however, was made here, where one of the 13 subsidiary burials lay more or less over the main Bronze Age example. Here a skeleton was found with a sheep-bone whistle or pipe wedged carefully between the knees. Also, an iron knife was discovered, and there were hand and wrist bones from other skeletons surrounding the main burial. Were these to play the pipe in the next life?
Back to nature on the southern shores of Malham Tarn - and here the outflow from the lake can be seen having its last journey over the till covered slate before meeting the limestone.
The waters leaving Malham Tarn. Tarn House can be seen in the trees in the distance, on the far side of the lake. To the left, part of the terminal moraine barrier that holds back the waters of Malham Tarn can be seen clearly.
Bye bye water! The enigmatic Water Sinks, where the stream sinks into the limestone, beginning its trip to Aire Head - where we began our day.