Petrifying objects

The waterfall at Mother Shipton’s Cave beside the River Nidd is a natural feature which was first opened to paying visitors in the 1600s, and is believed to be the oldest entrance-paying tourist attraction in England. For centuries this and other ‘petrifiying wells’ have been an attraction to visitors who could have objects turned ‘to stone’ in the mineral rich waters, preserving their objects as stony mementos.

About a year ago, for a few pence, I bought an old photograph from a car boot sale in a circular brass frame. I had no idea what or where it was at first, but I learned that this was taken at Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire.

According to the book ‘Judging the Authenticity of Photographs’ by David Cycleback, “large oval photographs held in frames with bubble (concave) glass were popular in the late 1880s and early 1990s” (p75) which is probably about the right time for my circular glass framed image, and after looking at it many times, curiosity got the better of me; I visited the cave.

There was much change, of course. The natural ‘attraction’ I was expecting was a little less natural with added lighting and sound, and where single personal objects such as hats and gloves once hung in the waters now there were strings of numerous teddy bears. The overhanging cliff in the photograph had greatly changed shape, losing its ‘face’, but two large bumps are visible, believed to be a hat and a bonnet left in the water during the Victorian era and now well covered in thick flow stone. What appears to be a railing in the top right of the souvenir image was nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t just Knaresborough which offered the service of turning possessions to stone.  A petrified flower basket and a bird’s nest with eggs from Derbyshire were sold at auction recently.  According to the auctioneer’s description:

“Of great curiosity to the Victorians the petrifying wells of Matlock Bath in Derbyshire created petrified souvenirs for the aristocratic tourist trade . In 1832 the Princess Victoria visited Mr Joseph Pearson’s ‘Great Petrifying Well’ where the water filtering through a mass of tufa drops from the roof and sides and losing a part of its carbonic gas forms earthy particles upon the substances on which it falls . The objects were placed under the drops which then produced a calcareous deposit which in time assumed the hardness of stone. ‘The Royal Petrifying Well’ as it became known after the Princess’s visit was the bigger of the three ; Mr Smedley’s being under his spar shops and Mrs Boden’s situated near the post office . All three of these wells were filled with a profusion of articles put in to be petrified : stags heads , wigs , baskets of flowers , birds nests etc. all of which had to be turned every few weeks to prevent them from growing to the bottom .”

Despite the updating of the Mother Shipton’s Cave attraction and the ‘petrifying well’ for today’s tourists, our centuries-long fascination in processes of transformation and preservation endures, whether it is changing objects from one material to another, or scenes into photographs.

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