It’s all a Question of Balance in Malham

Logo: Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

By Cat Kilner, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority Area Ranger for Malhamdale

One of the most spectacular and well-known villages in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is Malham. Although the village itself is only small, with approximately 150 permanent residents, the dramatic limestone scenery in which it is set means that Malham has few equals anywhere in the UK.

Just a short walk from the village, with its busy National Park Centre, cafés, Youth Hostel and outdoor and souvenir shops, is what the area is most famous for – Malham Cove.  There are also other impressive features close to the village, including Gordale Scar, Janet’s Foss and Malham Tarn.   All are relatively easily accessed by public rights of way and this means that Malham is a very popular destination for visitors – an estimated 250,000 of them, according to a 2012 survey.

Entrance to busy Malham ©Yorkshire Dales NPA
Entrance to busy Malham ©Yorkshire Dales NPA

On a busy bank holiday weekend, or on Malham show day, when the car parks are full and the roads are congested, it is easy to wonder how the businesses cope with the hoards of visitors. Malham has limited public transport, which means that most people come to the area by car or coach and, even with temporary car park arrangements, at busy times it can feel stretched to capacity.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) and the local community, including a pro-active Parish Council,  have taken steps over the years to alleviate some of the effects of visitor pressure in the area. Some of these have been quite radical and inventive. On arrival at Malham, the issue of car parking will be one of the first impressions visitors will receive. Money raised in the YDNPA car park goes back into the budget to help maintain the Yorkshire Dales. However there are other parking options and people who park in the village itself will see notices asking them for a voluntary donation as part of a  scheme  run by the Parish Council where the money goes directly back into maintaining the village and local amenities.

Litter is a constant problem and, in addition to looking unsightly, it is also a danger to livestock and wildlife. If an area has lots of litter people seem to be less concerned about dropping their own and the problem escalates. A number of years ago a decision was taken to remove litter bins from the YDNPA car park and the village. This was combined with a messages to visitors asking them to take their litter home. The result of this experiment was interesting. The accumulation of litter was reduced and it seemed that visitors took more responsibility for their litter, taking it home with them rather than dropping it. However, not everyone agrees with this policy and this approach is not without its problems. There have been occasions when bags of litter have been thrown at National Park Authority staff! One litter bin and recycling facilities have now been added by the Parish Council in the centre of the village near the shops and are carefully managed by the residents.

Several years ago, as a result of reductions to budget, the District Council threatened to close the public toilets in the centre of the village but the residents felt that they were an important facility for visitors, in addition to the toilets in the YDNPA car park. The Parish Council agreed to take them on, keep them open and manage them. Money raised through the voluntary parking donations in the village and the Malhamdale Safari week pay for these toilets and also pays for a local resident to do small maintenance jobs such as grass cutting around the village.

Malham Cove & path ©Yorkshire Dales NPA
Malham Cove & path ©Yorkshire Dales NPA

There has also been substantial work done to the rights of way network over the years. The features that people come to Malham to see are viewed from the public footpaths; originally grass-surfaced routes through the fields but the large number of people using these paths cannot be sustained without some help. This has resulted in most of the footpaths in the area being surfaced with aggregate to provide a hard surface for people to walk on. This has two benefits – it provides a relatively clean easy to follow route and it prevents damage to the surrounding fields by people trampling grass and crops. We obviously want to minimise the visual impact that these paths have and do not want them to detract from the scenery, so they are made using local stone to help them blend in as much as possible with features such as the dry stone walls and rocky outcrops. While providing these surfaced paths we are constantly trying to remove or reduce physical barriers on these paths and improve accessibility to all users. Where the gradient allows, routes are made to standards suitable for wheelchairs and, in other areas, high ladder stiles are removed when possible and replaced with more accessible stiles or gates.

The YDNPA works alongside the local community to help deliver projects that both protect the village and enhance the visitor experience. For example, the Authority has worked with the residents to create a path through a small woodland that runs through the middle of the village. This is available to all members of the public and allows people to walk off the road in an area where otherwise there are no pavements, so helping to improve road safety and ease the flow of traffic. The YDNPA also recently worked with the Parish Council to build a new footbridge in the centre of the village so, instead of walking across a rickety bridge made up of a couple of beams of wood, there is a smart new “clapper”- style, limestone bridge  that fits in with the other three traditional clapper bridges in the village. Another project involved replacing a utilitarian road sign with a traditional looking one designed after looking at old postcards and photos of the village. As an extra bonus, the bridge, handrails and signpost were all made by local businesses, which means that the projects boost the local economy as well.

Malham village bridge before ©Yorkshire Dales NPA
Malham village bridge before ©Yorkshire Dales NPA

The overall aim of visitor management in the National Park is to establish a positive management approach to recreation and visitor facilities that can be sustained in the long term. It also means any ‘gaps’ in provision can be readily identified and the location of new facilities can be considered on the basis of these sensitivities. To assist this, the Authority has developed a strategy that identifies the locations where you might expect to see certain developments

Most of the land is privately owned and the landscape in the Dales has been shaped by the way the land has been managed by the landowners and farmers – a process that has evolved over time. This evolution continues, and many of the Malham landowners and farmers have worked with the conservation interests and have taken steps to diversify.  For example, a visitor is now likely to see traditional highland cattle breeds such as Belted Galloways grazing the limestone pastures.

Malham village bridge after ©Yorkshire Dales NPA
Malham village bridge after ©Yorkshire Dales NPA

The National Park Authority works closely with partner organisations to provide services for visitors and to aid conservation. The RSPB Peregrine watch project has been situated at the foot of Malham Cove since 2004, providing access to a wide variety of birds and wildlife. This project has become extremely popular for visitors and also provides the opportunity for National Park Authority staff and volunteers to work alongside the RSPB in promoting conservation messages. The issue of nesting birds also affects other recreational users and, to this end, the National Park Authority has close liaison with the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) to discuss temporary, voluntary climbing restrictions to ensure minimal disruption at key times. This emphasises the importance of a voluntary approach and peer pressure to make this work.

The Authority also has a long history of working with the National Trust, which is a large landowner in the area. The Trust allows access to its landholdings promoted via publications and by working with Rangers and Authority staff in the National Park Centres, where both organisations have a presence. There is also a programme of walks, events and activities in Malham village and Malham Tarn.

Such a large number of visitors to a small village every year can mean serious threats to the special environmental qualities of the area and to the traditional character of the village. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine how the village economy could survive without them.

A balance has to be struck between the economic benefits of the visitors and the cost to the local area and, whatever the weighting of that balance, it will never please everyone.

But the most import factor that overrides everything else is that the future protection of this precious and fragile landscape must take priority.

(More information about the Yorkshire Dales National Park is available on the YDNPA website at

Updated information January 2017:

In order to tackle the increasing problem of dog waste being bagged and left in the countryside, there are now several dog waste bins and litter bins around the village and its most popular footpaths. These have been installed by the Parish Council and are carefully managed by the village residents.

First published in CJS Focus on Visitor Management and Engagement in affiliation with the Association for Heritage Interpretation on 10 June 2013

More on: