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Thomas Pennant

Thomas Pennant (1726 -1798), was a Welsh naturalist and antiquary from the parish of Whitford, Flintshire, where his family had a modest estate at Downing Hall. As a boy he had been inspired with a passion for natural history and after his early education at Wrexham grammar school, he went on to Queen's College, Oxford, then to Oriel College. He left Oxford without taking a degree, although in 1771 his work as a zoologist was recognised with an honorary degree. He published several popular books of tours and his tour through Malhamdale appears in his Tour from Downing to Alston Moor, the first part of a two volume account of his journey from Downing Hall to Scotland, published in 1774.

Thomas Pennant
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Pennant's tour through Malhamdale on his way to Settle, took place in 1773 and like all the other visitors, he describes seeing Gordale and Malham Cove, though he did get the names rather mixed up, which seems unlikely for a scientist, making you wonder whether it was an actual visit or perhaps a guide based partly on the reports of others?



........I pursued my tour along the road to Settle, through Paythorne, Newsom, and Nappa, as far as Swinden, the last called a manor and township in Paghanele, in Doomsday-book; and Ghiseburne, Pathorpe, and Neuhuse, manors, in Nappar. These, and others adjoined, such as Helifield and Malham, were granted by the Conqueror to William de Perci.

A little beyond Swinden I quitted the road for a more private way through Helifield, another village, between which and the next, Otterburn, is a large round tumulus.
At Helifield is an ancient house called Helifield Peel, in form of a tower, with walls four or five yards thick. It is the residence of Mr. Hamerton, descended from the very ancient and wealthy family of the Hamertons of Hamerton, whose ancestor, Sir Stephen Hamerton, forfeited his estate in the time of Henry VIII. — Passed through the small town of Kirkby in Malham-dale, where there is a large and neat church, once in the gift of the Abbey of West Dereham in Norfolk, now of the Duke of Devonshire. The country is hilly, but not mountainous; destitute of trees, and farm-houses and arable land, but abundant in pasturage. The farmers live in society in the villages, and have their barns and cattle-houses in the midst of their grounds, without any adjacent dwellings; they are under one roof: here they lay up their hay, and fodder their cattle, during winter. The hills are excellent for sheep, which sell from seven to twenty pounds a score. The farms are from forty to three hundred pounds a year. At this time were a hundred dragoon horses, which are sent here annually for the summer grass.

I breakfasted at the hamlet of Malham, about a mile and a half farther; took a walk by the side of the Air here, a rapid torrent, through a stony valley, to visit the celebrated Gordale Coves, a vast chasm open to the sky, embosomed in rock; one side projects, and in a manner wraps round the tremendous concavity, and impends so as to form a vast hollow beneath, sloping inwards from top to bottom. The material is a solid limestone, with only fissures enough to admit the growth of a few large junipers above. Out of the concavity, at a vast height, bursts forth a copious stream, which must have had a fine effect; but the passage having been destroyed by a great flood, much of its beauty is lost. This and another stream from Gordale-scar, a tremendous precipice a little to the west, form the river Air, which, passing by Gargrave near Skipton by Leeds and Ferry-bridge, empties itself into the Ouse below Armyn-chapel.

Mr. Lightfoot observed several very rare plants about these picturesque scenes. At Malham Crag, the Draba muralis, Fl. Angl. 1,278; and the Draba incana, Fl. Sc. 1,338; both called in English, Whitlow-grasses, from their supposed virtue in that disorder of the fingers: — the Actaea spicata, or Herb Christopher, Fl. Angl. 1,228; it is also called Bane-berry, a stinking plant, chiefly among the repellents, yet to be used with caution, as the berries are venomous; perhaps it lies under worse repute, as toads delight to shelter under its shade: — the Polemonium cceruleum, or Greek Valerian, and a variety with a white flower; the Saxifraga hypnoides, or Moss Saxifrage, FL Sc. 1,224 ; and the Satyrium albidum, or White Satyrion: — and on the stones of the rivulet, which issues from the crag, the Lichenoides gelatinosum foliis angustioribus uniformibus of Dillenius.

At Gordale Cove are found also the Greek Valerian, and the Thalictrum minus, or small Bastard Rhubarb, or Meadow Rue, whose leaves, mixed with other pot-herbs, says old Gerard, do somewhat move the belly.

I returned to Malham, ascended a steep hill, and crossed a range of mountains over a bad and unfrequented road, with a most dreary prospect around, of vast extent of stony mountain, mixed with scanty pasturage. Gordale-scar appeared to great advantage beneath, the sun shining full on it, and shewing its precipitous surface as smooth and resplendent as glass.

I saw Malham-turn in a bottom amidst the hills, a small lake about two miles round, famous for trout and perch. The waters which flow from this lake immediately sink under ground, and form a subterraneous river about half a mile in length, and appear again, in open day, bursting out from the precipice of Gordale-scar.

The stones on the hills I was travelling over were abundantly scattered about, and of singular structure, flatted at top, and laminated beneath, evidently the work of water, and the nodular subsidences at the great event of the Deluge.

Cloud Berries are found plentifully on the moors between Malham and Settle. They take their name from their lofty situation. I have seen the berries in the Highlands of Scotland served as a desert. The Swedes and Norwegians preserve great quantities in autumn to make tarts and other confections, and esteem them as excellent antiscorbutics. The Laplanders bruise and eat them in the milk of rein deer, and preserve them quite fresh till spring by burying them in the snow.

I descended an exceedingly tedious and steep road, having on the right a range of rocky hills with broken precipitous fronts. At the foot of a monstrous lime-stone rock, called Castleberg, that threatens destruction, lies Settle, a small town in a little vale, exactly resembling a shabby French town with a place in the middle. Numbers of coiners and filers lived about the place, at this time entirely out of work, by reason of the recent salutary law respecting the weight of gold.

I dined here at the neatest and most comfortable little inn I ever was at, rendered more agreeable by the civility and attention of the landlady. This is a market town, and has a small trade in knit-worsted stockings, which are made here.

You can down load a PDF copy of Thomas Pennant's Tour from Downing to Alston Moor from Website logo

Read the accounts of other 18th & early 19th century visitors to the Malhamdale area.


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