Arncliffe in Littondale to Malham Tarn

In the Middle Ages much of upper Wharfedale and the adjoining valleys was grazed by huge flocks of sheep belonging to the great Yorkshire abbeys. Their farms, called granges together with cotes or subsidiary animal houses, were linked by upland paths many of which are still traceable today.

Distance: 11 miles

Time: 6 hours, worth making a day of it

Grade: moderate

Conditions: 2 well marked moorland crossings, not advised in bad weather

Refreshments: Arncliffe

OS Map: OL2

Originally published: 7 August 2009


Our 11 mile walk follows two of these tracks across the spectacular limestone moorlands between Malham Tarn and Littondale where Roger Deakin in his book 'Waterlog' found "stone walls which plunged almost vertically down the steep sides of the dale to the beds in perfectly straight lines and the limestone strata showed through the grass like flock in a threadbare sofa".


We start from Arncliffe, (GR 932718), the 'capital' of Littondale where its church by the river Skirfare exhibits a copy of an original list of local men who fought at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Littondale provided 22 men including John Knolle, 'able, horsed and harnished', (armoured), Oliver Knoll, 'a bowe' and 'Robert Tylson, 'a bille'. By the nearby bridge is Bridge End where Charles Kingsley is said to have written part of the Water Babies.


From the church take the path signed to Hawkswick. It's an easy one and half mile stroll, mostly by the Skirfare. The highlight in summer is in a mile where sand martins wheel above their nesting holes in the high river bank.


When you reach a tarred lane go right, away from the river and up to the valley road. Turn right along it for 200 yards past Hawkswick Cote Caravan Park to a sign to Street Gate on the left. Follow the track past Arncliffe Cote where the monks of Fountains Abbey sheared their flocks before sending their fleeces to their great grange at Kilnsey.


The track passes through a couple of gates and then begins the ascent of Low Cote Moor. It's easy to follow as it climbs steadily leaving the deep valley of Cote Gill away on the left.


The springy green turf makes a good, smooth walking surface. In half a mile there's a little ford to cross and then a short section where the track passes over polished limestone. Soon after the first gate you will notice a 19th century limekiln on the right. The scenery of limestone crags and scars and vast open pastures is there to enjoy in all its tranquillity. There are busy wheatear and pipits to spot too..


The summit is on Clapham High Mark at some 1700 feet. As you continue there are wide views southwards and across to the rounded slopes of Great Close Hill which we are soon to encircle. The path descends across the vast, walled Great Close, the site of Malham Fair where, in the 18th and 19th centuries from October 15 for up to several weeks, thousands of cattle, horses and sheep, brought by drovers from Scotland, were sold to southern buyers. At the far end of the Close the path for some 30 yards becomes a shallow, watery lane. We then pass through a gate before crossing the final stretch of moorland to Street Gate.


In medieval times this was an important crossing of monastic ways, the most important being Mastiles Lane, which goes off to the left, and was used to transport wool from the Malham area to the grange at Kilnsey.


You could return direct to Arncliffe from here by taking the lane signed, sharp right through the gate. It leads to Middle House Farm where, just before the buildings, you cross a stile on the left to rejoin the main route.


Our main route passes through the gate and continues ahead 100 yards to reach the road from Malham to Settle. At this point go right on a gravel track which leads direct to Malham Tarn, passing near the craggy scars  of Great Close Hill.


In half a mile we join the Pennine Way, close by the first woodland of the walk. The Way skirts the shores of the tarn which is now part of a large National Nature Reserve owned by the National Trust. It makes an ideal picnic spot too with a chance of seeing coot and great crested grebe.


We leave the tarn at a cattle grid giving access to woods on the northern shore. Turn right on a path signed to Middle House. It climbs the shoulder of Great Close Hill and head directly for Middle House Farm on a line still marked as Monk's Road on the OS map.


100 yards or so before the farm look out on the left for a path climbing the steep slopes of Low Midge Hill. At the top there's a good example of a limestone pavement on the left and a fine view back to the entrance to Malham Gorge.


Shortly afterwards you will pass the empty Middle House and in a quarter of a mile should bear right at a fork. The way is easy to follow, though stonier than our earlier crossing. The limestone scenery is outstanding with lines of scars and crags punctuated by the occasional drystone wall and, away to the left, are glimpses of Darnbrook and the deep valley of Cowside Beck. Features in the landscape bear names like Flask, Clowder, Dew Bottoms and Height.


All too soon this beautiful walk comes to an end, the last half mile being a steep descent into Littondale, emerging in Arncliffe by the Falcon Inn.

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