By Anna Lewis 18th December 2023

In our 80th year, we handed back the lease of our Malham Tarn centre to the National Trust. It was a sad moment for us because it was one of our earliest centres, but it was the right decision for the charity. Here we pay tribute to the hard work of generations of staff who welcomed over 152,000 residential and 20,000 day visitors to enjoy and study Malham’s unique environment.

The centre opened to visitors in 1948 after much hard work by the first Warden Paul Holmes who turned around a house which only had one piece of furniture and the rest of it “empty, leaking and extremely dirty.”

The Place and the People

Malham Tarn was one of our upland centres located in unique and spectacular scenery of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It provided incredible opportunities to study rare limestone scenery, geological features, many habitats and their rare flora and fauna.  The archives show that our centre put on a vast range of imaginative natural history and arts courses from archaeology to zoology. Meteorology and mosses, poetry and palaeontology, Malham provided all the courses that might be expected and more, including bird listening for the visually impaired, upland farming and even medical parasitology.

People were welcomed from all over the world and were of all ages and abilities.  These included students from the Gulf States who experienced a 20cm snowfall, overseas doctors studying Tropical Medicine and what in 1948 were described as “experimental groups from Modern Schools”. Visiting students came to work from all over Europe, one arriving having walked across the frozen Tarn guided by the lights of the centre.  

True to the charity’s core purpose, right from the start, opportunities were provided for school children who were likely to miss out on outdoor learning thanks to generous donations from individuals, trusts and institutions.

Being Part of the Bigger Picture

The centre was embedded in the local community. Efforts were made early on to “dispel the air of mystery which many people felt about the centre” by holding regular open days which were very well attended. Care was taken to build good relationships with famers in whose fields a lot of fieldwork was carried out.

Successive wardens played a role in the changing national picture including involvement in the fledgling Nature Conservancy Council, the opening of the Pennine Way and the establishment of Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The weather and the water supply

The weather did indeed loom large in everyday life at Malham. The archives tell of quite extreme winters, ice skating on the tarn and being regularly snowed in. Deep snow and late snow so often disrupted early spring courses that the centre’s operating season had to be shortened. The water supply was problematic and remained so. Drought became a serious issue. In 1972 an option that wouldn’t be considered acceptable for modern visitors was to cancel all baths for three weeks!

Leaving Malham

Changes in customer needs and at the location itself made the centre no longer viable for our charity. The understandable need to protect such a rare environment meant that access to the Tarn became increasingly restricted, disappointing some of our learners. Options to grow and develop our business were likewise restricted. Unreliable water supplies and sometimes no water at all meant that visitors had to relocate at short notice.  In 2022 we closed to visitors.

Items with a connection to past members of staff were offered to their families. Scientific records, items of local historical interest and works of art depicting the local area will be staying in the local area thanks to the help of museums, record offices and civic organisations. Other records relating to the site will be retained by the National Trust.

For us, it was time to leave and reinvest in other aspects of our charity’s work.  However, we will always be glad that we played a role in introducing people to the wonders of the area and spark their interest in the natural world.