On the banks of the river Nidd, near the town of Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, is one of the oldest ‘entrance charging’ tourist attraction in England. It’s a petrifying well that was once thought to have been cursed by the devil, for whatever object the dripping waters touched, had been turned to stone. The leaves of creepers, sticks, even dead birds. People also noticed the side of the well looked like a giant’s skull. Most people avoided it because they believed that they too would be turned to stone if they touched it. The courageous ones started leaving everyday objects near the waterfall to watch them slowly turn to stone over just a few weeks. You can spot a Victorian top hat and a lady’s bonnet left at the waterfall in 1853, and other trinkets like teddy bears from more recent times.
The earliest written reference to the well was by John Leyland, antiquary to Henry VIII, who visited the well in 1538. He wrote that the well was very well-known and visitors drank and showered under its falling waters, as they were believed to have miraculous healing powers. Around this time, the legendary soothsayer and prophetess Ursula Southeil, who is better known as Mother Shipton, began to gain popularity.
According to the legend, Mother Shipton, the daughter of a local prostitute, was born in a cave, now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, not far from the cursed Petrifying Well. Mother Shipton was reputed to be hideously ugly, even as a baby, which was attributed to her father being the devil. Since her childhood, Mother Shipton’s misshapen body aroused the curiosity of her neighbours. But Mother Shipton gave them plenty of other things to talk about with her lyrical prophecies. Like Nostradamus, Mother Shipton is said to have predicted the Great Fire of London in 1666, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 as well as the invention of cellular phones. As Mother Shipton’s notoriety grew, so did the fame of the petrifying well.
In 1630, King Charles I sold the land where the Petrifying Well sits to a local gentleman named Sir Charles Slingsby. By then the well was so famous that Slingsby started charging visitors for guided tours around it. In doing so, Slingsby unknowingly created England’s first visitor attraction.
Eventually, scientific analysis of the water revealed the magic behind the petrification process. The water has high mineral content that precipitates over objects creating a hard shell of mineral over it in much the same way as stalactites and stalagmites form in a cave. What’s amazing, however, is the speed at which petrification occurred. Rather than centuries, small toys like teddy bears can petrify in just three to five months. Teddy bears are popular because they are porous which allows water to soak in and petrify the toy inside out. Other have left personal items such as rings and clothing, kitchen utensils, and even a bicycle.