Mother Shipton’s Cave: The Yorkshire cave and petrifying well attracting international visitors for 400 years due to the ‘intriguing’ story of Ursula Sontheil and natural beauty

Mother Shipton’s Cave has been open to the public since 1630 - for nearly 400 years the Yorkshire cave and petrifying well has been attracting visitors from all over the world.

Mother Shipton’s Cave is considered the oldest tourist attraction in England and was first founded as a public venue by Sir Henry Slingsby who bought the estate from King Charles I.

The park’s beauty and alluring story of Knaresborough prophetess Ursula Sontheil, most popularly known as Mother Shipton, has attracted visitors from around the world for nearly 400 years.

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Mr Slingsby planted beech trees in 1739 along what is now known as Beech Avenue and some of these trees are the oldest and tallest in the country. They were planted as part of a trail from the old inn to the Petrifying Well and Cave called Sir Henry Slingsby’s Long Walk and was known as a ‘romantic walk’.

Mother Shipton trail. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)Mother Shipton trail. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)
Mother Shipton trail. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)

Across four centuries, the attraction has been owned by five generations; the current owner, Fiona Martin, from Knaresborough, bought the park 13 years ago.

“I purchased the park 13 years ago on May 6 on my daughter’s birthday,” she told The Yorkshire Post.

“We developed it by keeping its natural beauty but introducing events for Easter, May half term, summer, Halloween and Christmas.

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“We get a wide range of [international] visitors; we get Candians, Americans, Germans, Italians, Spanish and then we get a lot of people coming from Middlesbrough and Newcastle and then you’ve got people from Leeds and London. It’s quite unbelievable.

The Petrifying Well. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)The Petrifying Well. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)
The Petrifying Well. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)

“When people come they are intrigued by what’s known as the Wishing Petrifying Well.”

Ms Martin explained what inspired her to buy the park attraction.

“I visited the park when I was eight years old and I was always intrigued by Mother Shipton, the witch,” she said.

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“Having had two children, I visited the park with them 14 years ago. I remember it was a very peaceful and quaint day. I could see that it had so much potential.

A statue of Mother Shipton in the cave. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)A statue of Mother Shipton in the cave. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)
A statue of Mother Shipton in the cave. (Pic credit: Charlotte Gale / Mother Shipton's Cave)

“Around three months later, the park was advertised for sale in a local magazine, I put pen to paper and wrote down all the ideas I could think of that I could do with the place, the sale went through and I never looked back.”

Ursula was born on a stormy night in 1488 to Agatha, who was 15 years old at the time and faced banishment for keeping the identity of Ursula’s father a secret. He was thought to be in a position of power, such as a judge.

Heavily pregnant, Agatha sought refuge in the cave and gave birth to Mother Shipton who was born with crooked features and a hunched back. She ended up having to walk with a stick and was very smart in school but was bullied.

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Her mother was taken to a nunnery in Nottinghamshire and died there a few years later. She never saw her daughter again.

Ursula was raised by a local family in Knaresborough and as she grew older she retreated back to the cave, where she felt most comfortable. As she grew older, she began making predictions; her most famous premonition was the Great Fire of London in 1666.

She died at the age of 73 in 1561, which was considered an old age at the time, and predicted her own death.

The Petrifying Well is lined with everyday objects that visitors bring to turn into stone; the items petrify very quickly.

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“Years ago they thought that the devil lived down there because the running water down the front of the Petrifying Well cascaded and turned objects to stone,” Ms Martin said.

“It’s a unique phenomenon because it goes up an aquaflow which is the way the rocks are formed, there’s a lake a mile underground, it travels up and over the top of the Petrifying Well and down again.

“We’ve had famous people that would visit, our last visitor was Jonathan Ross, he hung his boxer shorts so they are petrified now. We have had Terry Wogan, Warwick Davies, Anita Manning and all sorts of [celebrities who visited] and we’ve had the odd films filmed here.”

Over time, the development of science proved that there was a logical explanation for the petrification that took place at the well.

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“As science progressed they realised that it was the rich minerals, particularly the calcium carbonate in the water, that turned objects to stone,” Ms Martin said.

“They used to bathe in it years ago thinking it would heal skin conditions. It takes a little teddy bear about four months to petrify. We used to hang things like dead animals and wigs under the water years ago.

“We hang little teddy bears which are very popular and Mother Shipton was born Ursula, and Ursula is Latin for ‘little bear’.”

If you lived in Leeds and you visited Knaresborough, it would seem like you were abroad due to its remote location and beautiful and scenic appearance, Ms Martin said.

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“That’s why they visit today; the viaduct, the walk down the river and then you’ve got the walk on the other side of Knaresborough, it’s all really quaint. [Knaresborough] is really quite big on Instagram.

“It just seems prior to [Covid 19] lockdown and particularly during lockdown [people] would visit the boats. We were one of the first to open because we were classed as an outdoor attraction.

“[Easter] is extremely popular, I think everybody’s sick of January, February all looking dull and miserable with constant rain.

“Suddenly we’re starting to see a bit of green and nice little lambs hopping about. It’s very colourful [here] with lots of flowers and looks really pretty.

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Looking to the future, Ms Martin is planning on revamping the shop.

“I think people like to go into a shop and have more of an experience, not just to shop,” she said.

“There’s lots of plans to revamp the shop, for example ‘the crystal chooses you’, so you close your eyes, hover your hand over [the crystals] and decide which one is reaching out to you.”

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