Boy sweep with hold on the imagination

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Sebastian Oake travels back to childhood at Malham in company with Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies

The distinctive arc of Malham Cove is one of the great landmarks of the North. Stand at its base and the sheer wall of limestone seems to reach to the sky. Peep from the top and the bottom seems a dreadfully long way down. Spare a thought then for Tom, the fugitive chimney sweep in The Water Babies, who climbs down a cliff like this.

Malham Cove is believed to be the main inspiration for Lewthwaite Crag, which Tom descends “by stock and stone, sedge and ledge, bush and rush”. Being a chimney sweep, he “dirties everything terribly” leaving “a great black smudge all down the crag”. Charles Kingsley may have got the idea for this from dark patches of lichen on the light coloured limestone.

Many elements of the dramatic scenery around Malham are hinted at in the book, which begins with the hapless young Tom being sent by his bullying master, Grimes, to clean the chimneys at a country mansion, Harthover Place.

Tom and Grimes are from a “great town in the North Country”, assumed to be Bradford, while Harthover Place is based on Malham Tarn House, which sits on the north side of this, the highest lake in England.

Charles Kingsley visited Malham Tarn House in 1858 when it was the home of Walter Morrison. Inspired by the rugged beauty he saw, Kingsley chose the Dales as the setting for The Water Babies. Walter Morrison even appears in the book as the squire Sir John Harthover, a man “with a face as red as a rose, a hand as hard as a table and a back as broad as a bullock’s”.

Today Malham Tarn House is owned by the National Trust and run by the Field Studies Council as a study centre offering a range of natural history and arts courses. The tarn itself is an object of rare beauty. Unusually for an upland lake, the water is lime-rich and Malham Tarn is a National Nature Reserve, home to crayfish as well as wild fowl like great crested grebe, moorhens, coots, tufted ducks and teal.

To the west and north are expanses of blanket bog, rich fen and wetland willow carr. A board-walk allows you to discover some of the rare plants these areas contain. You can also walk round two sides of the lake following the route of the Pennine Way. It’s a perfect stroll with the peace broken only by wildfowl on the water or the call of the curlew or lapwing.

Malham Tarn may be a picture of pure serenity for us but in The Water Babies it isn’t for Tom.

At Harthover Place he takes a wrong turn and ends up in the bedroom of a young girl, Ellie. Chased from the house as a suspected thief, he escapes across the countryside, over the “soft turf and springy heather” of moors, onto “great patches of flat limestone rock, just like ill-made pavements” and past potholes where he can hear “water falling, trickling, tinkling, many many feet below”.

In this way, Tom gets a taste of the limestone scenery of the Craven uplands. It’s a landscape you can’t help but marvel at. There are limestone pavements, dry valleys edged by shattered scars of rock, potholes that swallow down becks into a hidden world of caves and passages, dramatic gorges carved by glacial melt-water and magical waterfalls where dissolved lime is re-deposited as “‘sugary” tufa.

If you have just one afternoon to discover limestone, then head for Malham. Park at the National Park information centre on the outskirts of the village and follow the Malham Landscape Trail, which takes in the waterfall of Janet’s Foss, the unforgiving chasm of Gordale Scar and, of course, Malham Cove, topped with its incredible limestone pavement, probably the finest in the country.

Great weathered blocks of rock (clints) wobble alarmingly as you step on them, while between them deep clefts (grikes) are unexpectedly home to woodland ferns and other unusual plants.

If you have energy and time left, you can follow the Watlowes dry valley back up towards Malham Tarn. On the way you will witness for yourself the great disappearing act that limestone always keeps up its sleeve. At the aptly named Water Sinks, the out-flowing stream from the tarn seemingly dissolves into nothingness, leaving you wondering what has happened.

The water has simply adopted a lower course, slipping into fissures in the rock. It hasn’t disappeared for good though because south of Malham it re-emerges to give birth to the River Aire.

There is so much to look at round here but as Tom runs over the moors, he hardly pauses for breath. After all, most of Sir John’s staff are on his tail convinced he’s a burglar. He gets increasingly footsore, tired, hot and thirsty but eventually, beneath him, he sees a “deep, deep green and rocky valley, very narrow and filled with woods”.

He spies far below a clear stream and a neat little cottage with a lady wearing a red petticoat in the garden. The valley is Vendale or, to give it its real name today, Littondale, and the cottage is also very real – it’s Bridge End in Arncliffe.

The stream in the story becomes the River Skirfare, a bubbling but uncertain flow of water that is also prone to disappearing and reappearing when it suits. Between Tom and Vendale is the rock wall of Lewthwaite Crag with features and proportions borrowed from Malham Cove but it is no barrier for a young chimney sweep and he eventually arrives at the lady’s cottage. She is the local school teacher and gives him milk to drink before laying him to sleep on a bed of hay in an outhouse.

The school teacher is thought to be based on a Miss Hammond, part of a prominent local family, whom Charles Kingsley had afternoon tea with when he walked over to Arncliffe during his stay at Malham Tarn.

Today Arncliffe is an unpretentious village of rough charm with houses crafted from Dales stone and a solid looking church tucked away by the river. The Falcon Inn on the edge of the broad village green could have been lifted out of another age. Inside it’s more like a house than a pub and the landlord serves beer in the hallway from a white porcelain jug. You can eat there too.

Sadly Tom is too exhausted to tackle the piece of bread offered by the school teacher and falls into a stupor on the hay. Half asleep, he wanders down to the river to bathe himself, all the while the sound of church bells ringing in his ears. And there he is taken away by the fairies to become a water baby, free to swim, explore and make friends with the other creatures in the river.

Tom decides to swim downstream and he reaches the sea, where he has many adventures under the watchful eyes of the fairies Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by and Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did. He becomes a better person and travels to the end of the world – the Other-End-of-Nowhere – to help his old master Grimes receive forgiveness for his wrong-doings. He is even reunited with Ellie, the girl in the bedroom. And as a reward for passing the tests of morality set him by the fairies, he is restored to human form and becomes a “great man of science”.

Despite reflecting some of the prejudices of Victorian England, the appeal of The Water Babies has endured. The limestone country around Malham too continues to hold people spell-bound. It may be an open textbook of school geography but you don’t have to be young to appreciate its wonders.

Getting there

Train to Skipton then bus to Malham. See or call 01729 833200

Parking at Malham National Park information centre

Falcon Inn, Arncliffe; 01756 770205 or

Lister Arms, Malham; 01729 830330 or

Buck Inn, Malham; 01729 830317 or

Malham Youth Hostel; 0845 371 9529 or

Malham National Park information centre; 01729 833200

Malham Tarn Field Centre; 01729 830331

Fairy story with moral for victorian Britain

The Water Babies was published in 1863 as a fairy story that aimed to provide strong moral guidance for children based on Christian values and the notions of retribution and redemption.

Charles Kingsley was a Church of England priest and it explores many of Kingsley’s personal concerns, especially his abhorrence of child labour.

The Water Babies is often credited as being the catalyst for the passing of the Chimney Sweepers’ Act of 1864, which outlawed the use of climbing boys.

There are other themes, too – the wonder of nature and its pollution by man, the closed minds of the traditional scientists of the day and Darwin’s new evolutionary theory, which had just been published.

Kingsley became a strong defender of Darwin’s ideas.

The Collins Classics edition of The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, published by Harper Press, £2.50.