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Malham & Littondale Fells 3 days / 42 miles (68km)

OS Route Map → Map Route file →

Date: 02 Jun 2010
Start / Finish: Langcliffe. Free car park.
Maps: Explorer OL2 & OL30: Yorkshire Dales Southern & Western and Northern & Central areas or Harvey Superscale Yorkshire Dales

Day 1Attermire Scar to Parson's Pulpit14.1miles / 2800 feet (22.7km / 853m)
Day 2Birks Fell to Plover Hill15.3miles / 2815 feet (24.6km / 858m)
Day 3Pen-y-ghent & Fountains Fell12.6miles / 1495 feet (20.3km / 455m)
Birks Fell from Monk's Road

A circuit of the fells around Malham Tarn and Littondale, formed from a group of six new Dewey 500m hills and completed by traversing several of the familiar mountains of the area.

A backpack of contrasts in both scenery and numbers of walkers, the well used paths and tracks in the areas of limestone-encrusted greenery near Malham Tarn were positively heaving with day trippers and walkers, but the Access Land areas away from public paths were completely deserted. During the first afternoon on the limestone High Marks, and the whole of the second day on the long moorland traverse of Birks Fell, I didn't see a single person, even from a far distance.

This western quarter of the Yorkshire Dales isn't in our top drawer of backpacking regions these days, mainly because much of the region has the general feel of elevated farmland rather than wilderness country, more akin to country rambling and its attendant popularity than the wild backpacking that usually prevails. Nevertheless the extensive limestone geology has endowed it with a special quality that lifts it a few notches above the commonplace and this trip was a highly enjoyable one.

Day 1 - Attermire Scar to Parson's Pulpit

As I arrived in Langcliffe the predicted early low cloud was still down to the treetops above the village, but the warmth of the sun soon began to dissipate it. I set off eastwards up the steep lane to the woodland corner and onto the farm track leading up to the base of Attermire Scar, part of the Langcliffe Scar Nature Reserve. These limestone battlements and the rugged bastions of Warrendale Knotts are among the best in the area, a justifiably popular walk but today I was early enough to be alone. The path curves around Attermire Cave and emerges on the tarmac lane leading up the valley towards Stockdale Farm.

Attermire Scar
Attermire Scar (02 Jun 2010__09:57:04)
Warrendale Knotts
Warrendale Knotts (02 Jun 2010__10:06:49)

The main problem with designing custom routes in this region, considering the recently established open Access Land, is its propensity for solidly built drystone walls, usually with more height added by a layer of wire fencing on top, and very few gates whose whereabouts are unknown. We have become skilled at climbing these walls without the slightest disturbance of the structure, but we only do it as a last resort and would rather not.

Internet research had revealed one gate that gave access from this side to the first objective Rye Loaf Hill. The valley bridleway departs the tarmac and climbs gently to a saddle where the gate is on the right, from here there is a thin path that follows the wall around to the grassy cone and trig point.

View from Rye Loaf Hill
View from Rye Loaf Hill (02 Jun 2010__11:37:20)

Not being fond of out-and-backs, I varied the route back to the gate by following the NE nose of the hill for a while and crossed back to the outward path. On the eastern side of the wall back at the saddle, a quad-bike track leads northwards towards the next top of Grizedales, an elongated unmarked grassy hump with a pleasing sense of isolation and anonymity if nothing else, a spot where very feet have trodden.

I crossed the moor SE to rejoin the bridleway at the next wall and later took the left fork bound for Langscar Gate, a fine approach to Malham Tarn through a landscape of limestone pavement. The car park near the tarn was full and several cars were parked on the verges of the minor road beyond, walkers and day-trippers were everywhere while cows wandered about freely, one of them using the Pennine Way sign as a scratching post. An information board describes the introduction of Highland cattle and Longhorns to the area. I walked over to the tarn for a photo and back to the road on the farm track.

Limestone pavement near Grizedales
Limestone pavement near Grizedales (02 Jun 2010__12:32:45)
Malham Tarn
Malham Tarn (02 Jun 2010__13:12:43)

At Street Gate there were more parked cars on the verges and a minibus unloading a group of lads with huge backpacks, a sight becoming increasingly familiar. I set off along Mastiles Lane, a green lane now closed to motor vehicles and well known among walkers yet I saw only a couple of cyclists for the rest of the day. The lane crosses Gordale Beck and ascends through the site of Mastiles Lane Roman Camp, a 'marching' camp described on an information board fixed to the stone wall as dating from the 1st. century AD but shows little evidence on the ground today (except to the discerning eyes of archaeologists).

The plan was to approach the next top Proctor High Mark from the south, easily discernible from the lane as a large conical cairn on the skyline. There is a gate at SD 938659 giving access to the hill and a track leads northwards directly to the cairn, quite an impressive one for these hills but a little south of the true summit which has a small but delicately built artistic cairn. There are good views over this limestone landscape known as the High Marks to the distant hills.

Cairn near the summit of Proctor High Mark
Cairn near the summit of Proctor High Mark (02 Jun 2010__15:30:24)
Summit of Proctor High Mark
Summit of Proctor High Mark (02 Jun 2010__15:33:52)

Descending NW over little limestone outcrops I scanned the walls and saw no gates, but where the converging walls meet, invisible until the last moment, cross-stones have been inserted to form a step-stile. I needed to be on the west side of the far wall which had no such luxury but was easy to cross without disturbance. I cut across the head of a shallow ravine to rejoin the wall westwards to meet the bridleway that took me SW through another wall, then finally I walked NW to a gate and ascended into a shallow gap where the summit of Parson's Pulpit lay on the left side, the highest point of the High Marks. Perhaps the top had a trig pillar at one time but only a base plate and trig stud remain now.

I made a good pitch to the west below the summit outcrops, adjacent to a patch of limestone pavement that provided a good seat and table to eat alfresco in the warm evening sunshine.

Typical limestone scenery on the High Marks
Typical limestone scenery on the High Marks (02 Jun 2010__15:58:40)
Trig stud at the summit of Parsonís Pulpit
Trig stud at the summit of Parsonís Pulpit (02 Jun 2010__16:37:47)
Tent pitch near Parsonís Pulpit
Tent pitch near Parsonís Pulpit (02 Jun 2010__17:51:25)

Day 2 - Birks Fell to Plover Hill

I aimed to follow the wall running NW to join the Monk's Road path, but first I had to deal with a cross wall: there is a fairly easy crossing point a short way uphill SW of the wall junction. The route follows a well defined shallow corridor between the wall on the right and a tilted limestone pavement on the left, a most attractive walk in the cool of the early morning sun.

Monk's Road traverses this limestone upland from Malham Tarn to Arncliffe and is a gem of a path, like a green carpet in parts with excellent scenery throughout, descending to Arncliffe above the steeply incised valley of Cowside Beck with views into Littondale.

Arriving at the village square I turned right to the eastern end and left past the church and school to cross the River Skirfare on the road bridge. Here was a striking display of buttercup meadow in the sunshine with a typical Yorkshire stone shippon on the hillside below Brayshaw Scar.

Tilted limestone pavement above Monkís Road
Tilted limestone pavement above Monkís Road (03 Jun 2010__06:55:09)
Cowside Beck valley & Littondale
Cowside Beck valley & Littondale (03 Jun 2010__07:49:43)
Buttercup meadows and Brayshaw Scar
Buttercup meadows and Brayshaw Scar (03 Jun 2010__08:28:43)

The eastern side of Littondale heralds a complete change in character: I left behind the limestone-studded emerald green of the High Marks for the very long traverse of Birks Fell, an upland of rough moorland grasses, peat and stunted heather. A footpath leaves the valley road and climbs to join a good track slanting up to cross the ridge at the 520m contour, probably a quarry track originally but now used by grouse shooters.

Looking back over Arncliffe to Low Cote Moor, the geological structure of the limestone scar upland can be clearly seen, resembling a shallow stack of rock discs.

Arc of limestone scar south of Arncliffe
Arc of limestone scar south of Arncliffe (03 Jun 2010__08:56:50)

The broad ridge of Birks Fell curves north-westwards for almost 8½ miles (13.7km) to the next new Dewey top of Cosh Knott, the last outpost on the ridge and one of the small elite group that exceed 600m. Despite the length of this traverse the height variation is only 74m. There is only one rule on this very long traverse: keep to the right (eastern) side of the ridge walls. One might be forgiven for thinking that the western half was ruled by the Bad Black Baron of Littondale: apart from a handful of points where a right-of-way crosses, there is no access to that side without awkward climbing, but on the eastern side there are gates provided for hikers at every crossing wall.

There is a beaten path all the way, arriving first at a ladder stile and continuing across the open moorland of Old Cote Moor Top to join the continuation ridge wall to the trig point on Firth Fell. On this section there are good views across Wharfedale to Buckden Pike. The ridge marches on past peat flats towards Birks Tarn, a somewhat desolate stretch of water with chocolate-brown shores and girdled with heathery hags. The recently reassigned 610m summit of the whole fell lies a short way past the tarn and is now marked by a prominent cairn.

Peat flats on Birks Fell
Peat flats on Birks Fell (03 Jun 2010__10:56:16)
Birks Tarn
Birks Tarn (03 Jun 2010__11:00:59)

The next top is the 609m Horse Head Moor, the old Birks Fell summit before the recent survey and now relegated to a subsidiary Dewey top, an unremarkable hump on the far side of the wall and designated Sugar Loaf on the map where we pitched our tent a few years ago. On past the Horse Head 605m trig point where the ridge turns westwards finally arriving at the indistinct summit area of Cosh Knott, the 602m spot height lying a short way along a crossing wall coming in from the right.

I descended to Cosh Beck Head, an area peppered with caves according to the map, and ascended onto the last broad top of Blaydike Moss, an easy walk until the last short section of rough peat hags from the wall corner to the 510m spot-height. This elongated shallow dome in the valley was not an attractive spot to linger and I returned to cross the wall without much difficulty, descending south to join a track heading westwards along the valley flanks.

Passing through a gate in the first wall, I spotted a quad-bike track heading directly down to Foxup Beck and up the other side. Surprisingly the beck was narrow enough to step across, just above a little waterfall marked on the map.

Foxup Beck valley
Foxup Beck valley (03 Jun 2010__16:08:03)

I decided to climb Plover Hill directly from the waterfall , rather than walking along the valley path to ascend via the public footpath: either way I knew from past visits there would be walls to contend with. The longest and steepest climb of the day right at the end: Plover Hill, more like Heartbreak Hill today in the calm heat, but the return of a cooling breeze part way up helped a lot. Finally arriving at the wall junction, someone has forced a way through one wall leaving a scattered pile of stones: there is no need for such destruction, it may be a nuisance but with care the wall can be scaled without any damage at all.

The broad flat summit area is bounded on two sides by walls and had no views, so no photos worth taking today, but the pitch was an excellent one with a good stiff breeze to cool things down.

Day 3 - Pen-y-ghent & Fountains Fell

Dawn brought another fine sunny morning and I set off early to the next wall junction where the public footpath passes through on the far side: it was quite easy to climb over directly onto the ladder stile with no disturbance. The peaty path leads easily across the broad col and onto Pen-y-ghent with its super smart S-shaped windshelter and trig point. A highly popular summit with day walkers, 3-Peakers and Pennine Wayfarers, it's unusual to be here in solitude at such a fine viewpoint in sunshine.

Early view from the ascent of Pen-y-ghent
Early view from the ascent of Pen-y-ghent (04 Jun 2010__06:20:44)
Ingleborough from Pen-y-ghent
Ingleborough from Pen-y-ghent (04 Jun 2010__06:25:35)
View south from Pen-y-ghent
View south from Pen-y-ghent (04 Jun 2010__06:30:46)

Starting to descend the steep rocky staircase of the south ridge I saw a group of walkers toiling upwards, probably expecting to be the first people at the summit at this early hour (hee-hee, don't you just love that when they spot you ahead at the top and gape in disbelief?). The Pennine Way passes some impressive shake holes on the way to the valley road and resumes its slanting hillward course up the slopes of Fountains Fell, a good spot to appreciate the profile of Pen-y-ghent.

Shake hole and Pen-y-ghent
Shake hole and Pen-y-ghent (04 Jun 2010__06:57:46)
Pen-y-ghent from the ascent of Fountains Fell
Pen-y-ghent from the ascent of Fountains Fell (04 Jun 2010__07:40:38)

On reaching the summit plateau at a stile, a National Trust sign warns of dangerous mine shafts and implores us to keep to the path, but there is a thin path departing the Pennine Way SW along the wall that leads directly to the summit cairn. Marker posts indicate a path across the rough moor to the South Top and I took a detour for my first visit to the shore of Fountains Fell Tarn, a pleasing stretch of water for a moorland setting such as this.

Fountains Fell summit
Fountains Fell summit (04 Jun 2010__08:13:14)
Fountains Fell Tarn
Fountains Fell Tarn (04 Jun 2010__08:26:46)

The south ridge of Fountains Fell is a seldom trodden route, following a wall and fence to a 593m trig point with Malham Tarn in view below. The first wall encountered here a short way south of the summit has also been damaged, some people obviously didn't see the step stile in the corner. A wall continues down from the trig point to a ladder stile to meet the bridleway leading to the road.

View from the 593m trig on Fountains Fell
View from the 593m trig on Fountains Fell (04 Jun 2010__09:46:13)

A short walk SE along the road is the footpath sign for the return to Langcliffe. Contouring around the base of the hill by a small ravine to a ladder stile, the right-of-way heads horizontally by the wall but the easier clear path ascends a little over the shoulder of the hill to the left and descends to another ladder stile - the line can be clearly seen ahead, later joining the obvious good farm track in the distance. This was a pleasant walk with distant views back to Pen-y-ghent and a thriving display of cotton grass on the flanks of Daw Haw.

Profusion of cotton grass on Daw Haw
Profusion of cotton grass on Daw Haw (04 Jun 2010__10:48:28)

The farm track ascends gently around the northern edge of Langcliffe Scar Nature Reserve and descends to the northern end of Attermire Scar. To vary the return to Langcliffe, a stile gives access to a good path down the limestone-studded field to the plantation corner and the road into the village.