Great Close and Middle House area

2 September 2007 — Leader - David S. Johnson

The party met at Street Gate by Malham Tarn on a day which promised wet weather coming in. However, suitably dressed we walked north towards Great Close Plantation and on the east side of Great Close Hill with its burial cairn on top. We stopped to look at the wide expanse of grazing ground in West and East Great Close bounded by stone walls far in the distance and running along the edge of the scar to Middle House Farm. This was where the cattle fairs of previous centuries had been held in Autumn, with up to 5000 head of cattle walked down from Falkirk Tryst to be fattened for southern markets. John Birtwhistle of Long Preston was a man who made his fortune in this business. Just under Great Close Hill are the ruins of the hostelry which helped to alleviate any thirsts.

We proceeded to Middle House Farm built by Walter Morrison of Malham Tarn House in the 1890s. We then followed the path up to Low Midge Hills, now on the Monk’s Road to Arncliffe and beyond, a reminder of the days of ownership of this region by Fountains Abbey and of sheep farming which was so important in medieval days. Midge refers to mud, of which some remains, and at this point there can be seen faint indications of homestead foundations and more clearly the surrounding small irregular-shaped enclosures typical of late medieval tenements - although the age of many such structures cannot be determined without excavation and dating of any finds.

A little further north is Old Middle House, of ancient origins, and rescued from decay in 1999 by the National Trust. It is a fine building, together with a very substantial barn and 17thC dovecote. We were privileged to be able to enter and examine both with permission of the NT. The later porch on the house (no date on it but probably of the 1720s) has a datestone with initials “H K” which might be those of Henry Knowles.

Although there is an old settlement over Back Pasture to the west of the house, time and weather determined that we turned back and then diverted slightly west into a natural bowl where David showed us the loess (wind-blown) soil overlying the limestone in many places, as dug up by rabbits. At the centre of this bowl is a stone cairn which is probably a burial cairn. In the western distance on Highfolds Scar above Malham Tarn can be seen ruins of a hermitage (as described by Arthur Raistrick) and two medieval settlement sites.

On the way back we observed water-worn holes on the top of limestone boulders known as kamenitza. (Kamenitza is a term referring to a mode of dissolution of rocks, commonly dish-shaped surface depressions). We continued along the track to Street Gate having had a stimulating walk thanks to our knowledgeable guide.