The Magic Well That Turned Objects To Stone

By Debra Kelly on Monday, February 29, 2016
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“We’re so lucky we’re still alive to see this beautiful world. [. . .] Everywhere we look, complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes!” —Van Gogh in “Doctor Who”

In A Nutshell

In 1630, Sir Charles Slingsby was given the cave and well associated with the birth of Mother Shipton, said to be a witch, soothsayer, and fortune teller. He recognized the well for the gold mine it was. Any object left in the waters would be covered with lime and “petrified” within only a few months. Slingsby began charging people to check out the well and created perhaps the first paid tourist attraction.

The Whole Bushel

People have been paying to go to one of Britain’s oldest tourist attractions for centuries. Nestled in what’s left of the Royal Forest of Knaresborough and along the River Nidd is a well named for its bizarre and mystifying abilities. The Petrifying Well petrifies anything left in its waters in only a matter of months.

First, the science. Modern science has revealed that the high mineral content of the water petrifies teddy bears, clothing, and bicycles alike. It’s a very cool effect even if you know how it happens, and it’s been entertaining people since at least the 16th century.

The first written record we have of the well dates to 1538 and was written by the antiquary of Henry VIII, John Leyland.

At the time of the reign of one of the country’s most notorious monarchs, Leyland wrote that the well was thought to have healing powers. That belief was common at the time, but it was also about then that the well began to take on a more ominous aura.

By the time Leyland was writing, the woman who would become the notorious soothsayer Mother Shipton had already been born on the banks of the River Nidd to a 15-year-old girl who wouldn’t reveal the father of her baby.

Her mother was sent to a nunnery and the baby was given to another family, where she grew into a supposedly misshapen little girl who was often taunted by the locals. She took up an unofficial residence near the cave she had been born in.

Married briefly and taking the name Shipton, Ursula Sontheil supported herself by making potions and remedies. Later, she would add fortune-telling to her repertoire.

Mother Shipton lived to be 73 years old, which was ancient in the 16th century. Those who visited her saw not only her cave and the well, but the things—plants, trees, and even the bodies of animals—being slowly turned to stone in the waters.

It’s no wonder people began to suspect the well’s petrifying abilities came from whatever dark magic Mother Shipton had access to. After her death, the well became the must-see place for the upper classes to visit on an afternoon out.

Similar to the way dripping water in a cave creates stalactites and stalagmites, the waters of the petrifying well preserve items left there by covering them in layers and layers of lime. Unlike most cave waters, though, the process takes months instead of centuries. An article written in 1858 reveals a heartbreaking reason some made a pilgrimage to the well.

While some left birds’ eggs or items of clothing (a Victorian-era top hat and a bonnet are reportedly still there), others went to leave something else to be petrified and preserved. But some of the little toys left there were one of the only toys left behind by a child who died, taken to the well to be preserved by a grieving family.

By 1630, landowner Sir Charles Slingsby had been given the land that included the well. He was the one who started charging curiosity-seekers to visit the well, making him the mastermind of the tourist attraction. Today, there are only a few petrifying wells left, including another at Matlock Bath. Because economic opportunities are never left unappreciated, shop owners have long been selling the lime-covered objects petrified by the well.

Show Me The Proof

Amusing Planet: The Petrifying Well of Knaresborough
Mother Shipton’s: The Story
Historic UK: Knaresborough
Britain Explorer: Petrifying Well—Knaresborough
Scientific American: Petrifying Wells
Peakland Heritage: Petrifying Wells

  • OldBoris

    “Mother Shipton lived to be 73 years old, which was ancient in the 16th century.”

    This is something people keep repeating when talking about pre-industrial Europe, but it simply isn’t true. The average life expectancy was fairly low until the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but that is taking into account high infant mortality. A study about the effect of the Black Death on the health of Europeans by Dr. Sharon DeWitte at the University of South Carolina has suggested that after 1347, slightly over 25% of all people lived to be more than seventy years old, and a lot more lived to be between fifty and seventy.

    http://flowingdata.com/2016/01/19/how-you-will-die/
    If we assume Mother Shipton was a white woman, born in the United States (I have no neat visualization for England, so America will have to do) today, and she lived longer than 75% of her peers, she would live to be 87 or 88. That’s old, yes, but I would hardly call it ancient, and it would not have made her very special in her community in and of itself.

  • Xan Xan