You see it on the television sometimes, invariably an areal shot, from a plane sweeping towards it. Some programme about hill walking, of course, as it is on the route of the Pennine Way – one of that route’s most striking features, and a well-known ‘beauty spot’.
I approached it from Malham village, slowly on foot. The extent of my walk that day would be to the Cove and back – not for me the climb up its steep cliff and up to the spectacular limestone pavement that takes the serious walker further on his way.
Malham Cove is essentially a giant cliff in the middle of the North Yorkshire countryside. A tall, curved cliff. It’s a natural formation, actually formed by meltwater after the last ice age, so essentially it was once a waterfall.
The cliff itself is grey limestone, and has horizontal ledges on it as a result of different layers of rock, as well as vertical lines caused by mosses and lichens growing in the water that seeps out of it. Various plants grow on it so that at the sides it’s quite green.
A stream emerges from its base, and a clump of trees nestles at the foot of it, giving way to pretty pastures with grazing sheep. The fields all around are defined by ancient stone walls and slope more gently up to the level of the clifftop. The grey walls form an amazing criss-cross pattern on the hillsides.
The route from the village passes through another little clump of woodland, the path winding alongside a stream, and then along a narrow country road, before a photogenic signpost marked ‘Pennine Way’ directs you across the sheep-dotted fields towards the majestic Cove.
As I approached, alone and on a fine summer’s day, I became accosted by the sound of voices – children’s and adults’ voices – shouting out as they played some game, football or cricket, I don’t recall. The voices echoed because of the shape of the cliff towering above. At the time I was slightly annoyed about noisy people ruining the peacefulness of a remote and natural place, but the sounds actually gave it some sort of context, demonstrating the echo which goes towards making the place have such a striking atmosphere. Now it’s the echo I remember when I think of it.
The sound of the stream echoes as well, a pretty stream with nice stepping stones. The sort of place people go for picnics – and play football or cricket with their kids, I guess.
I sit amongst the trees, looking at the cliff and the greenery and the scree and the stream. I watch walkers climb up the forbidding path at the side of the curved cliff, wondering how they have the strength and the energy to do so and then carry on walking mile after mile. I also see that there are a few climbers on the cliff face – dwarfed by its size. I can’t imagine anything I’d be less inclined to do, but doubtless it has issued them some challenge that they need to overcome.
Yes I suppose it would be interesting to sit looking up at that massive rockface and think, ‘I’ve climbed up there, and seen the view from the top’.
I’ve also seen the view from the top – but a car was involved, I did it the easy way by walking from the nearest carpark on the road above.
The point about Malham Cove is that it is a rather spooky place. The lie of the land – the tall cliff and the ‘dell’ it creates below – along with the echo and the shadows and the tinkle of the stream, all conspire to make it feel a little mysterious, or mystical. It’s a ‘more than the sum of the parts’ place. It feels like there’s something secret lingering there, like it’s a backdrop for something hidden and special. I can imagine it must be pretty terrifying to be there at night.
I’ve just read that the place has featured in a Harry Potter film. Not surprising that it’s been seen as a suitable location for a tale of magic. I shall have to watch the films and look out for it, but for the moment let me turn my mind to how I might use it as a setting for various types of story:
- Magic elves (tautology?) gather at night by the stream to discuss how to save Yorkshire from an invasion of evil goblins. They sit on the rocks alongside the brook, and perch in rows on the ledges of the cliff. More and more of them stream in, jumping along the tops of the stone walls separating the fields, or climbing down from where they’ve been hiding in the tops of the trees. Once the council is over and plans have been made, they dance with pretty fairies at the base of the Cove, drink toasts to each other’s bravery, and eventually disappear back into the nooks and crannies from which they came.
- A beautiful winged horse – a magical white Pegasus – which only visits our world on rare occasions, arrives on the top edge of the cliff and stands looking down in the moonlight. He sees a beautiful young lady unicorn step out from the trees in the grove below, and launches himself into the air, swirling around the moonlit Cove before landing gently on the soft grass beside his mythical companion, in order to collude about mythical secrets. The sheep from the fields all around have witnessed his arrival, and, spreading the word amongst themselves, they creep to the Cove, where they gather in a ring around the two beautiful magical creatures, greeting them and offering their homage and help. The winged horse steps around the circle of sheep, touching their noses gently and thanking them for their kindness.
- Highway robbers who have recently accosted a coach and horses travelling to a nearby castle, hide out at the Cove overnight. Two rough looking men who are in fact brothers, and a plucky young tomboy girl who has reluctantly been allowed to follow them, and yearns to be as daring and accomplished at riding and swordplay as they are. With their horses grazing nearby under the trees, the men fill their waterskins from the stream and build a little fire in the dell, on which they roast a rabbit they have caught nearby. When the girl has gone to sleep, they sit and discuss their predicament and make plans; they are not true highwaymen, but are carrying a secret message which must somehow be delivered to a certain Robin Hood, who is fighting for the good of the country further south.
- In the middle of the night, on a certain long-preordained date, a stone panel in the cliff-face slides open and a beam of light shines up from it into the sky. Presently an alien spaceship appears, and lands gently on the limestone pavement above the ancient waterfall. A young man, who is not really a young man but an alien being in disguise, runs up to it and climbs up a ramp into its interior. “Hi Mom,” he says, resuming his true shape and kissing one of the occupants of the ship on what passes for its cheek. “Take me away from this planet quickly! I have so had enough of these appalling people and their petty concerns. Hope my report was okay? Good, now for a holiday! Can you drop me off at the Kraxalian Nebula? Ta!”
- The young girl with long black hair and a purple cape runs into the arms of her secret lover in the copse beside the stream. “I’ve done it, my darling! I’ve run away to join you! They’ll never keep us apart again!” The young man has tears in his eyes, so happy is he to at last be reunited with his young love. “Oh, let me kiss you my dear, let me tell you how much you mean to me, and promise you that I will look after you always, and that you never need fear again.” The young lovers embrace in ecstasy. “Not so fast,” says a gruff voice from the darkness, and the pair start in terror as the girl’s evil uncle appears from among the trees, a heavy axe in his hand. “No!” the young man cries, and draws his sword. “I will not let you take her or harm her again!” And as the maiden in the cape stands cowering, the men begin to fight over her future. They will fight to the death and the loser’s bones will lie long by the stream, hidden by earth, until the grass grows over them, and they are but one rough mound of many, hiding an old secret.