When is a source not a source? When the waterway in question happens to be the sumptuous River Aire. Not content with two rival sources, the 71-mile Aire has three. And so this November, I laced up my boots and made my way to Malhamdale, five miles to the east of Settle, for a walk with a purpose: to investigate the mystery surrounding the wellspring of one of Yorkshire’s most photographed rivers.
My quest began in Malham, a magnet for tourists in the summer with its picturesque stone cottages, friendly youth hostel and welcoming pubs. It is also graced by Malham Beck, which drifts through the village, passing beneath ancient clapper bridges and a single-arch stone road bridge hard by the tiny village store. From here I took to the fields, heading southwards along a footpath running parallel to the beck. In a few hundred yards, a shallow stream some six feet across flowed out of a circle of stones. This is Aire Head Springs. As the name suggests, since time immemorial it has been cited as the source of the River Aire, and is still viewed as the official headwater today. Given the fact that the Aire clearly emerges from it, it’s easy to see why.
But to find out something of its challengers, I had to return to Malham and take the footpath north to Malham Cove. This stunning curve of 260ft-high cliffs, formed by an Ice Age cataract some 12,000 years ago, has inspired countless landscape artists and cinematographers (younger visitors will identify it from the penultimate Harry Potter film). To reach it I walked along Malham Beck’s eastern flank right up to the foot of the cliffs, where the stream emerges from a low cave. It’s doubtless this mysterious impenetrable opening, combined with the magnificence of the cliffs above, that have given rise to the popular misapprehension that Malham Cove is the source of the Aire.
I pressed onwards and, indeed, upwards. Those who like a good workout will enjoy the 260ft climb up to the top of the cove via what feels like hundreds of rustic stone steps. The exercise is well worth it though, because the view from the top is one of the county’s finest. Walk out along the lunar-like limestone pavement here and you have whole swathes of the Yorkshire Dales spread out before you, with Malham Beck in the foreground winding its way through the scene.
On the limestone pavement I got into conversation with a local man who informed me that, just three years before, Storm Desmond had deposited so much rain here that the cliffs had been briefly transformed into the highest single-drop waterfall in England (above ground, anyway). What’s more, there was a clue to the mystery of the Aire’s source beneath my feet – that sedimentary limestone. There’s nothing water likes more than to burrow its way through it.
And so, when I ventured along the gigantic rock-strewn groove of Ing Scar and reached the appropriately named Water Sinks, about a mile from Malham Cove, I saw a stream doing just that – disappearing into the ground like a conjurer’s trick. With the wind whipping around me and blowing a green woodpecker far from the nearest tree, I followed the beck – here called Malham Water. In a few minutes I arrived at Tarn Foot, the point where the beck drains out of Malham Tarn, England’s highest freshwater lake and the inspiration for Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. It was here in the 19th century that an experiment to verify the source of the Aire was carried out. The tarn was dammed and, when the water was released, it was found to have flowed underground all the way from Water Sinks to Aire Head, where it bubbled joyfully up. Thus was Malham Tarn proved to be the true source of the Aire. Not that anyone really listened.
However, that’s not quite the end of the story. Intriguingly, thirty minutes after appearing at Aire Head, tarn water also emerged at Malham Cove, by who knows what convoluted route. We may now know the source of the Aire, but the subterranean course of the river is another mystery altogether.
How to search for the source
Walk: 6 miles (9.6km)
To visit Aire Head Springs, start at Malham’s Buck’s Head Inn and head south along the road. Where it swings right, take the signed footpath for a third of a mile (0.5km) to the stream emerging from a wide circle of stones.
For Malham Cove and Tarn, retrace your steps, cross the stone bridge and head briefly uphill. Take the signed footpath between the Lister Arms and Malham youth hostel. Follow this for a mile (1.6km) to Malham Cove.
At the cliff face, take the steps to the left of the cove. At the top, turn right to cross the limestone pavement, following a footpath sign.
Follow Pennine Way signs from here for a further 1.5 miles (2.4km) north to Malham Tarn.
Continue along the Pennine Way until you nearly reach a five-bar gate. Turn sharp right and walk a few paces along a gravel track, turning right again onto an unsigned grass path just as the track bears left.
Follow this path all the way back across the moor, to the east of Malham Cove, until you reach a wall. Turn left and continue to a lane at a sharp corner. Turn right to follow the lane back into Malham.
Unlike the straight, man-made Aire & Calder Navigation, the River Aire follows a twisting route through the hidden corners of Yorkshire. The Canal & River Trust looks after the navigable parts of the River Aire, from Leeds to Haddlesey weir, just after Knottingley – find out more on our website.