By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener Easter Bank Holiday and la famille Wildlife Gardener find themselves in Yorkshire. After 17 years of visiting Harrogate and 17 years of pleading with Mr WG to see Mother Shipton’s Cave and Dripping Well a couple of miles down the road in Knaresborough (‘Why would you want to pay £20 to see a load of teddy bears on strings under a waterfall?’) I stamped my green wellies petulantly one more time and at last we went. Now, if I have £20 in my pocket I can think of worse ways of spending it than using it to marvel at the calcifying properties of the Nidd Gorge’s limestone geology and England’s oldest paying visitor attraction since 1630.
Mother Shipton’s Cave and Dripping Well is mentioned in my all-time favourite UK Guide Book, Bollocks to Alton Towers: Uncommonly British Days Out, an invitation to go far from the sodding crowd and follow little brown signs to quirkier, uncommonly British visitor delights. And Mother Shipton’s quirky delights are many.
We paid our £20 and drove along the river beneath the towering viaduct to a little car park, admiring the pretty houses of Knaresborough tumbling up a steep hillside to the ruined castle, and the banks of spring green wild garlic by the whooshing weir:
We followed a neatly maintained path round and down to the Petrifying Well. It is an astonishing great crinkled sheet of deposited carbonates and sulphates of calcium, sodium and magnesium with kettles, pants, gloves, shoes, plastic lobsters, cricket bats and yes, a load of teddy bears, on strings – as shown in the first picture above.
All these dangling things have the mineral-rich water from the limestone caverns of the Nidd Valley above trickling over them:
The water calcifies them rapidly (a teddy bear takes 3-5 months to be turned to stone). Many, many items have been calcified over the years. The two nostril-like protuberances you can see in the first photograph are a top hat and a bonnet left for petrification by a Victorian couple who never returned to collect their stony headgear.
Behind the Petrifying Well is a perilously low-ceilinged little Wishing Well which, with elaborate ritual, you can put coins in. A stern message of bad luck warns those who take coins out. To the right of the Dripping Well is the Cave of Mother Shipton herself – Ursula Sontheil, a Tudor prophetess not blessed with good looks, who predicted, variously, the Great Fire Of London, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and for 1881 to bring about the end of the world. Her statue within the gloomy cave has freaked out children for several centuries:
We at Naturenet like nothing better than a crap waxworks museum and the Mother Shipton site does not disappoint:
A small museum at the High Street end of the site features calcified artefacts, some of which have been donated by celebrities as diverse as the cast members of Emmerdale and Coronation Street, David Dimbleby (gloves), Queen Mary (a shoe), Agatha Christie (handbag):
And as the commentary jauntily informs us, ‘No exhibition of petrified items would be complete without something from famous magician Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee’. No indeed. Before selling up and disappearing as joint owners of the Mother Shipton complex, Paul and Debbie calcified McGee’s toy rabbit wearing Daniels’s bow tie.
The museum also contains waxworks of local historical figures: Sir Charles Slingsby with a stuffed greyhound, Blind Jack (John Metcalf, a celebrated roads engineer) in a pub and the obligatory torture tableau, here, the execution of famous murderer, Eugene Aram by iron gibbet:
There’s a creepy cawing tape loop on a sensor triggered by passing visitors (I hope, otherwise I fear for the till assistant’s sanity) of the stuffed crow forever pecking him to death and Aram’s groans of ‘help me’, to freak out the children once more.
So what’s in the Mother Shipton complex for nature lovers? The beech walk connecting the Cave and Petrifying Well to the museum comprises what are billed as the UK’s tallest beech trees (although oddly enough they don’t seem to appear on the British Champion Tree Register):
And for the lepidopterists among you, there’s even a British moth called Mother Shipton Moth (Callistege mi). Can you guess why?
A visit to Mother Shipton’s Cave and Dripping well is indeed a Grand Day Out. It’s also an encouragement to ignore the ‘oh but it’s just…’ naysayers; and just get on and go to Britain’s curious hidden tourist attractions!