Pennine Way Stage 8: Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale

Published 10 June 2015

Gate at the edge of Malham village

It seems to be the case that all travel writing needs to feature a quote from Bill Bryson in it somewhere. Doesn’t matter quite where, but its inclusion is compulsory; because of a tradition, or an old charter or something. That is, unless you are Bill Bryson, for Bill Bryson quoting himself would be just a tad strange and weird. So if you’re Bill Bryson, you need to quote Paul Theroux instead.

In case you haven’t noticed, my name isn’t Bill Bryson. This means that, according to the rules, I need to include something attributed to him somewhere in this tome. And in doing so, I had a choice. A prime candidate, and personal favourite, was his quote about looking like a giant condom when decked out in waterproofs. But instead I decided to go with this one:

“I won’t know for sure if Malhamdale is the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance), but until that day comes, it will certainly do.”

Bill knew the Malhamdale area well, living locally for several years before he and his family left the UK in order to live in the United States. He did return, but not to Malhamdale. These days he lives in Norfolk.

Anyway, is Malhamdale the finest place there is? I don’t feel like I’ve done enough research to be sure. Although, I confess that personally I’m inclined to put the Scottish Highlands above it. Still, it’s a beautiful place, with some very fine features. And the Pennine Way was leading us directly towards two of them.

Malham Cove at the end of a valley.

Malham Cove. It's stunning.

The first thing that springs to the lips on seeing Malham Cove is “wow.” Probably quickly followed by “that’s big.” And it is. The Cove’s cliff face is 80m high, and about 300m wide, and it sits there – just sits there – at the head of the valley. You stop, stare it at it for a while. And then you pose in front of it for a photograph whilst grinning like a loon.

You wander cautiously to the rock face, idly wondering where that stream is coming from. The one that just emerges from a hole at the bottom of the cliffs, and just flows on merrily. No waterfall here; this water is heading down from the top of the hill via a network of caves instead.

Then you realise that you have to go up to the top. Not because it’s calling for you to climb it or anything. It’s more that you’ve seen that Pennine Way signpost that sits to the side of the path, and it’s pointing up a set of steps, which are going to take you up to the top. And where the Pennine Way goes, so must you. Besides, if you don’t you’ll find yourself at a dead end.

In terms of height, the ascent up those steps isn’t particularly big, but it feels like it. You probably should go to the gym more. But up you go, pausing every now and then for a moment to admire the view of the valley. And catch your breath. And then, all of a sudden, you’re at the top. And wow, was that rock face nothing – not one thing – in comparison to what you saw below, because now you’re standing on top of Malham Cove’s mighty limestone pavement.

On the limestone pavement at Malham Cove.

Malham's limestone pavement - a fine part of the Pennine Way

The ground is covered in the stuff. Large blocks of limestone, with channels in between, looking like some sort of crazy paving scheme created by the local big friendly giant. One that was the result of him making a proper pavement but not being bothered to smooth it off by filling in the cracks. As a giant it probably doesn’t make much difference to him or her, however you – being normal sized – are required to bounce around on top, bounce, bounce, bounce from limestone boulder to limestone boulder.

Then you make your way to the edge of the cliff to look down at that view. And oh my, what a view. There’s the valley down there. There’s where you walked the day before, and the panorama stretches miles further off into the distance. Unless the cloud is low, in which case you won’t see much at all.

View from the edge of the Limestone Pavement at Malham Cove

You potter around at the top of the pavement, looking at the nooks and crannies, wondering about it all; how it came to be (the answer is nothing to do with lazy giants, but instead due to the limescale being eroded by water over millions of years) before checking your watch and reluctantly dragging yourself away.

But that’s all right because the limestone doesn’t end there. Anyone walking here will find themselves heading up hill once more, through a craggy landscape. There are rocks everywhere, caves and even some sinkholes, where water from streams sinks through the limestone ground, eventually joining rivers some miles away.

Slowly but surely you begin to leave the limestone behind; grass begins to dominate and just for a minute you think it’s all back to plain sailing. That the Pennine Way hasn’t got anything else for you to admire.

Then you arrive at Malham Tarn. And your love for the area is renewed and bolstered further. For this lake – the highest in England, incidentally – looks near perfect too. And you pause and think that maybe that Bryson fellow was onto something after all.

Walking round Malham Tarn

A large Georgian manor house sits at the top of Malham Tarn, home to a field studies centre owned by the Field Studies Council. I wasn’t entirely sure what the Field Studies Council did, but I was sure it was appropriate that the Pennine Way went right on its doorstep.

We weaved past the buildings and made our way on towards our next target: Fountains Fell, which would be the highest point of our journey so far.

Despite the height – Fountains Fell rises 668m above sea level – it was an easy climb thanks to a gently ascending path running over a couple of miles. Although, as Fountains Fell has a rather flat top there wasn’t going to be much of a view when we got there. And that’s before we took the weather into consideration. The sky was just full of haze and cloud, meaning there wasn’t a view of much at all really.

Shake Hole on Fountains Fell

We were walking through a former mining area, and coal pits and mine workings can be spotted by the observant all across the fell top. And then there were the shake holes – gaping holes in the ground, caused by water removing soil or bedrock – which we passed plenty of. Several were exceptionally large, certainly plenty big enough to fall down. No small wonder that many of them are popular with cavers.

Unfortunately for Fountains Fell, the crown of “The Highest Point on the Pennine Way, So Far” was to be swiftly taken away from it. Nearby Pen-y-ghent comes in at 26m higher and is the next port of call for the walker heading towards Kirk Yetholm. The haze meant we’d been unable to get much of a view of it from afar, however as we now got closer it began to emerge from the gloom.

To anyone who has seen it, Pen-y-Ghent must be one of the most instantly recognisable fells around. It’s also one of the hardest shapes to describe. In for the challenge though, I got my notebook out and got thinking. Descriptions of sleeping cats or lions sprang to mind, as did up-turned pasta bowls. But in the end I decided that the shape of Pen-y-Ghent was like a big flat lump, with a nose carved out on one side; an image most people will be instantly able to conjurer up in a matter of seconds, I am sure.

Pen-y-ghent seen in the haze and gloom

Along with neighbouring Whernside and Ingleborough, Pen-y-Ghent is one of the “Three Peaks”, although these days most people call them the Yorkshire Three Peaks; the original name having been, in recent years, nabbed to describe the ascent the challenge of walking Ben Nevis, Snowdon, and Scafell Pike all in one day. Well sorry guys, but Yorkshire got there first as far as I’m concerned.

The summit of Pen-y-Ghent is an ideal place to take in the view of the other neighbouring hills. Or at least should be. From the valley below it was quite clear that we wouldn’t be seeing much at all. With so much cloud and haze in the area, Catherine had even pondered bailing out. What was the point in heading up a major hill like Pen-y-Ghent if there’d be no view from the top of it, she mused, before spending several minutes investigating alternative, non-hill based alternative routes to Horton-in-Ribblesdale.

To some, such an attitude would be sacrilegious. But why? The Pennine Way is just a path after all; a slightly arbitrary line drawn across the country that loosely follows a string of hills. Would it really matter that much if we skipped part of it because it wouldn’t particularly be worth doing?

Well yes, of course it would. And that’s exactly why we headed up Pen-y-ghent. Up its stone steps and over its gravel paths. Higher and higher until, at long last, we reached the top. And found that there was next to no view to be seen. All that was visible was a few bits of Pen-y-ghent’s slopes. Any chance of admiring the splendour of the neighbouring fells was thwarted.

The summit cairn of Pen-y-ghent

We spent a few minutes enjoying the sheer novelty of being able to see absolutely nothing – a feat we’d get to enjoy several times more on later trips – and being battered by a strong wind that had appeared out of nowhere and which was hitting Pen-y-ghent as hard as it could.

“Maybe it will blow the cloud and haze away,” said Catherine optimistically, although it seemed unlikely anything would be happening soon and we soon began to head down again.

It had been a pointless visit to the summit, but hey, at least the sanctity of the Pennine Way – and our pride – was intact.

Hull Pot is apparently – and I say apparently, because I can’t actually find out who said it to be so – the largest pothole in Britain. It’s 91 metres long, 18m wide and another 18m deep. It’s got a waterfall in it, and very occasionally fills up completely with water. It sits just to the side of the Pennine Way and is a splendid sight; an awe inspiring, inspiration and one of the finest things a Pennine Way walker will see on the whole of their journey. Or so I’m told because we just walked right past the short detour to it without noticing.

Horton Scar on the Pennine Way

We did at least admire nearby Horton Scar; another set of limestone rock faces like Malham Cove, although nowhere near as dramatic. Or maybe we just felt that because we were gasping for a cup of tea, and looking for excuses to move on. Either way, Horton Scar didn’t quite get the same level of appreciation we’d shown to its fellow down in Malhamdale.

A cuppa was, at least, close by. Our two day trek on the Pennine Way would be ending just a short way down the track in the village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale. The Pennine Way entered the village’s main street in triumph, arriving right outside the Pen-y-ghent Café. The café spends most of its time dishing out cups of tea and bacon rolls to walkers and over visitors, however its staff also find time to run a clocking-in service for those walkers trying to walk, or run, all three peaks in a day. Oh and it also doubles up as the local tourist information office.

The latter point was the handiest for us. We’d booked in for the night at the Crown Inn, one of the village’s two pubs. There was a slight snag. We didn’t know where it was. Both our guidebook and an information board near the café listed the The Golden Lion and the New Inn. The Crown Inn was completely absent from both.

Pen-y-ghent Cafe in Horton-in-Ribblesdale

The café was just closing up as two confused walkers entered, wondering whether they’d managed to book themselves into some pub in a completely different village by mistake. The man behind the counter was swift to reassure us. The mysterious New Inn was actually the Crown after all. The café’s owner pointed us in the right direction, much to our relief.

“You’re walking the Pennine Way then?” he said, before popping under the counter and bringing out a large notebook. “We have a signing in book for people walking it.”

It was an understatement of epic proportions. For the Pen-y-ghent Café has the oldest known Pennine Way signing in book, which now spreads over several volumes.

“Oh we’re not walking the whole thing,” explained Catherine, worried that someone might the wrong idea about our intentions. The response was a shrug, and the proliferation of a pen, and our names were quickly added to the book.

She needn’t have worried. Settling into the Crown’s bar that evening, supping a pint of the gloriously dark, smooth and silky Theakston’s Old Peculier, I muttered some words that would prove to be immortal.

“I could do some more of this Pennine Way thing.”

It seemed that whilst our two day jaunt had ended, and the mission had begun.


Eric Manning

24 May 2018 at 4:11 pm

I walked the Pennine Way this May and have to say I found 99% of it incredibly boring, including Malham which is far overrated. So you walk for hours and come to a high cliff – a little interest in a sea of boring moors. I mean really? It’s hardly Beachy head. Sad to say but asides from the first two days (on Kinder Scout) and a walk over the Cheviots at the end (with backpackers be warned – the PW does not pass any water source) most of the PW is up there for dullness and drudgery. Sadly, few commentators, including this one it seems, cares to be honest.

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

24 May 2018 at 9:47 pm

Hi Eric – what I would say is that everyone likes different things in a walk. Some people don’t like the Pennine Way. Some people do. Each to their own!

David Toole

24 July 2021 at 11:04 am

I have walked both the whole of the PW and much of the SW coastline and admittedly Beachy Head is spectacular (as is also the start of the Southern Upland Way and of course either end of the Coast to Coast – both excellent, worth doing and completed!) but even the most ardent maritime native would tire of just the sea views ALL THE TIME or at least for a fortnight’s continuous trek?).

The PW offers much more variety and not just for confirmed ridge walkers without even mentioning the social merits/folklore etc -not many pubs on coastlines! – I partially agree that some places (even PW “touristy” locations can be deemed over-rated?) but even he would SURELY NEVER describe Cauldron Snout and High Cup Nick (a mere single day’s effort!) as such?

Factors such as the weather and consequent visibility (not just persistent rain but cloud etc) have a major impact on one’s PW experience and I suggest he does it again (and out of season perhaps?) If he doesn’t like solitude then stick to beaches but to describe 99% of it as boring is grossly unfair and in my opinion 99% untrue!

It is physically challenging even in fine conditions and you will be a richer, more philosophical and less critical (and much fitter!) person for having endured and conquered the PW’s challenges! Good luck!


30 January 2022 at 6:55 pm

To say the PW is “physically demanding” is such an exaggeration. No scrambling, no climbing, stone slabs to walk on, steps up hills. Quite civilised really for an OAP like me.
I love the PW. My friends and i walk a few days along it every year. It’s really a nice relaxed walk and discovering new places and stories, meeting friendly people. Wild camping along the way is great.
Difficult, no way.


11 April 2022 at 9:25 am

Interesting to read the commentary. Planning a trip to the UK and came across your site whilst researching walks in the Dales. Had thought the section Gargrave to Tan Hill was worth a ramble, now not so sure.

My only reference as to what to expect is from walking through the high country and mountain heath in different parts of Australia, particularly the Overland Track in Tasmania.

Do you know how this compares?

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

11 April 2022 at 9:38 am

Hello Russell – I’ve never been to Australia so can’t compare. It depends what you’re looking for in a walk, but Gargrave to Tan Hill offers an excellent representation of walking in the Pennines, and does cover some of the trail highlights like Malhamdale. And for that matter, the Tan Hill Inn. Ever since I went there I’ve been trying to work out a reason to go back!


19 July 2022 at 6:17 pm

I’m walking the Pennine Way at the moment and am at Malham. I come from Australia and most of my walking is done in the Victorian High Country. I’ve done a considerable portion of the AAWT and I’ve done the Overland twice.
Whilst at times I am reminded of parts of walks at home on the PW part of the charm is being in a different environment.
I must admit I especially love the moors.

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