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malham cove
Malham Cove

Standing some 80 metres high and 300 metres wide and north of the mid craven fault, Malham Cove is a curved crag of carboniferous limestone formed after the last ice age. Meltwater, particularly from Malham Tarn, cut back the cove as it fell over the edge as a waterfall. This erosion took place more actively at the lip of the fall rather than at the sides, hence the curved shape.

Water (in reduced amounts afer the ice age) easily finds it way down through the many joints and fissures of the limestone and thus the saturation level never rises high enough to make Malham Cove the waterfall that it once was, although it has been reported of water flowing over the cove after heavy rainfalls in the early 19th century.

The emerging stream derives from the smelt mill sinks, three-quarters of a mile north west of the Cove on the moor and is mistakenly thought of as the source of the River Aire. Water from the tarn flows at a deeper level and rises south of the village as the Airehead Springs - the true source of the River Aire.

The cove face is noticeable for its horizontal ledges, due to variations in the hardness of the limestone layers, and the dark vertical stripes, which are formed by the growth of lichens and mosses as water seeps down the face of the rock. The addition of soot and dirt in the air gets caught on the growths, further tainting the color.

Another explanation for these dark stripes was suggested by one Charles Kingsley, who deliberated that they could quite possible have been made by a chimney sweep (perhaps named Tom) falling over the edge of the cove and sliding down the face.

The magnificent limestone pavement on the surface of the Cove is deeply fissured and fretted by a pattern of channels. Chemical weathering due to the slightly acidic rain dissolves and widens the many joints of the limestone (running very near to the direction nnw-sse), carving the patterns that can be seen today. The resulting limestone pavement is known as 'clints' and 'grykes', where the naked limestone lumps are the clints and the fissures in between are the grykes. The grykes are home to many rare (shade-loving) plants - harts-tongue fern, wood-sorrel, wood-garlic, geranium, anemone, rue, and enchanter's nightshade.

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