Well, they’re both more accurately geological features than hills. Gordale Scar was a cavern during the last ice-age; its roof collapsed to form the magnificent gorge you see today. Malham Cove is huge, curving limestone cliff from the bottom of which the River Aire emerges.
From the National Park carpark at the foot of the village, J and I head east over the infant Aire (at this stage, it’s still humble Malham Beck) and follow the footpath in a shallow northeast curve toward Gordale Beck. Where the two becks meet, the Aire is officially off the mark. The sun is bright enough to need sunglasses but there are sharp teeth in the wind’s mouth. We enter the woods near Gordale, which are almost bare now; in May they are thick with the heavy scent of wild garlic (known locally as pungent ramsons). The footpath leads us to a pretty little waterfall called Janet’s Foss – foss is from fors, an Old Norse word for waterfall, and Jennet was the queen of the fairies.
We emerge from the woods into bright sunlight and cross the road, blinking. If Gordale Scar is a torrent (or if you just don’t fancy it), there’s a path on the north side of the road that will lead you to the top of the gorge without soaking you or scaring you silly.
A well maintained track takes you up into the gorge – it’s an impressive slab of geology. There’s a huge rock splitting the Gordale Beck as it tumbles out of the scar. If you’ve any experience of scrambling, this should not detain you – there are plenty of hand and foot holds and only about 4m of ascent in total. Actually reaching the boulder is more problematic than climbing it; there’s a lot of rock-hopping in the stream and the going underfoot is slippery. I conclude that the lining in my favourite boots is giving up the ghost. J is nervous but does not back down and attains the top with a minimum of fuss. Pausing to help her up the last step I find myself in a curtain of spindrift and my trousers are soaked. As are my underpants. Splendid. We find ourselves in a limestone bowl with a smaller waterfall pouring through a hole in the rock above us. A steep, short pull uphill takes us back into the sunlight; with the breeze and the sun, our legs are soon dry. A herd of my favourite cattle, belted Galloways, grazes in the distance.
Easy going on springy turf takes us along the top of the Scar to Malham Tarn National Nature Reserve, where we pause for lunch next to Ha Mire. I did some of the field work for my degree here and spent many a dull hour with a quadrat investigating whether plant communities change with soil moisture. They do. J has made some tasty, if crumbly, chocolate flapjack. We watch heavy clouds rolling in from the west and the light goes flat and grey. The tarn is the highest lake in England (377m) and one of only eight alkaline lakes in Europe. It’s underpinned by Silurian slate, which is why the water doesn’t just seep out through the limestone.
The track around the northern end of the lake takes us through woodland, ragged now with autumn. Chaffinches flit ahead of us, scrounging in the trees for the last of summer’s bounty. We duck down a permissive bridleway to forestall road walking. It’s lined with trees thick with dark red berries and, in better light, it would be quite lovely. Emerging onto the road we turn southwest, taking the southern fork at the next junction. At a crossroads we turn southeast, angling towards the top of the Cove. Through some very careless navigation, we turn off the road too soon. Note to self: there’s no room for complacency just because you’re on a road. We soon right ourselves and wiggle down onto the Pennine Way on the flank of a limestone ravine. This is a popular track and the stone is polished by the decades and thousands of feet. It’s also wet and covered in cow dung. I appreciate the fine work the highland cows are doing for conservation, but their excrement is making the Pennine Way mighty slippery. The Way drops down into the beautiful Ing Scar, a long, steep sided valley gouged into the limestone by (I assume) some long-ago watercourse.
We’ve escaped the blanket of grey cloud and we’re rewarded with magnificent light as we descend the gorge; sunshine runs down the ravine’s eastern flank like honey, brightest where it pools against a ledge of shadow. At the end of Ing Scar, we reach an expanse of limestone pavement beyond which is the 80m drop off Malham Cove. I know that this is famous example of limestone pavement but in reality it’s in rather poor nick. Most of the plant interest has been grazed out. I can’t see any sheep, so I wonder if a recovery might be in the wings. In the meantime, there are far more satisfying pavements around Ingleborough National Nature Reserve.
A broad, stepped footpath takes us down around the side of the Cove. Climbers are catching the last of daylight below the impressive overhangs on the vast, white cliffs. A pair of peregrine falcons nest here in the summer but are absent when we pass. Malham Beck emerges from the foot of the Cove on its way to becoming the River Aire. The path follows it for a short way before climbing up to the road. Turn left, we head down into Malham village. An alarm chorus of cawing jackdaws pulls my head skywards. Sure enough, a sparrowhawk hurtles from their roost to perch in a tree on the far side of the road. He scans the hedgerow below before plummeting from sight. A very short stroll later sees us back at Grunty.
My pack (a Macpac Amp 25) contained: Haglofs Spitz II jacket, Millet Touring Hoody jacket, Rab Bergen pants, Montane Flux jacket, OS OL Sheet 2, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Julbo sunglasses, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Petzl Tikka Plus 2 headtorch, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, iPhone, coffee, water, flask of dhal. I wore Millet High Roc boots, Montane Vortex Stretch gaiters, Montane Terra pants, some long-sleeved bamboo top I got from TK Maxx.