The Petrifying Well

Over the years millions of people have come to see for themselves the amazing powers of The Petrifying Well. This ancient Well – formerly known as the Dropping Well –is believed to be the only one of its kind in England. At the time Mother Shipton was born, Knaresborough townsfolk believed the Well to be magic and never ventured near it, they had seen small twigs, leaves and perhaps a dead bird turned to stone in the Wells falling waters.

They were very superstitious in those days and believed that if they touched the waters they too would be turned to stone. They noticed the side of the Well looked like a “Giants Skull”. The earliest written reference to the Well was by John Leyland, Antiquary to Henry VIII, he visited the Well in 1538 and noted that it was very well known and visited by many to drink and shower under its falling waters as they were believed to have miraculous healing powers.

Two large bumps are visible sticking out from the rock face of the Petrifying Well. These are a gentleman’s top hat and a ladies bonnet, placed there by a young couple on their way to York Races in 1853. For some unknown reason they never returned to collect them. When placed in 1853 the hats would have been hanging at the bottom of the face under the waters just as existing items do. They clearly show the build up and accumulation of rock in 150 years even though its scraped and cleaned regularly to slow it down.

In the early 1600’s samples of water were examined by a Medical Physician, his report concluded that the waters from the Well were “a miracle cure for any flux of the body” In 1630 the section of the Royal Forest that now forms our Park was sold by King Charles I. It was purchased by a well known local gentleman, Sir Charles Slingsby. By then the Well was so well known and visiting it was so popular that he placed it on exhibition and charged for guided tours around it. He had no idea he was creating England’s oldest visitor attraction. It is only in the last 150 years that scientific analysis has revealed exactly what lies behind the “magical” petrification process.

For the geologists among you, here are some hard facts :

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    The water springs from an underground lake and seeps up through the earths crust via a layer of porous rock called an “aquifer”.
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    The spring has never been known to dry up, a measured 700 gallons or 3,200 litres of water flow over the Well every hour, summer, winter, rain or drought.
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    The waters extremely high mineral content means that everything in it’s path is turned into stone.
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    The waters leave behind mineral deposits that build up to form a crust of new rock.
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    The minerals that are most abundantly present are calcium, sodium and magnesium with traces of lead, zinc, iron, manganese and aluminium. These exist in the form of sulphates and carbonates with some chlorides and a little silica. The proportions have remained more or less the same for centuries.
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    As the waters flow down the front of the Well they leave a small deposit on it’s face, slowly building up over the years.

Twice in its recorded history this has led to the collapse of the Well itself in 1816 and again in 1821 when large pieces became so top heavy they snapped off. Some large pieces can still be seen in the river. However there is no danger of a similar incident today, the Well face is scrubbed and scraped with wire brushes every 8 weeks. It’s a painstaking job that stops the Well face becoming too top heavy.

The Well is made of two types of rock; Tufa, a soft porous, coral like rock. This is the fastest forming deposit of the Petrifying Well, it grows where a constant flow of air causes rapid evaporation and crystallization. Travertine is a harder more compact rock formed where the water flows constantly so that smaller crystals are formed more slowly. Travertine can be cut and polished and made into jewellery. At different times of the year the mineral content of the water varies slightly this results in the dark and light banding on the face of the Well.

Today’s visitor to the Petrifying Well can see a whole host of everyday objects slowly being petrified in the cascading waters. The most popular item is a teddy bear or soft toy which usually takes between three and five months to turn to stone. Larger non-porous objects can take up to 18 months.

Many celebrities have donated items to be petrified here, even a member of the Royal Family has succumbed to the magic of the Well. Queen Mary who visited the Cave and the Well in 1923 was so taken with it she took off her shoe and left it to be petrified. It now takes pride of place in our Museum. Items worn by cast from Blue Peter, Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Eastenders are also on display, alongside a flat cap once worn by veteran actor Lionel Jeffries, a handbag belonging to Agatha Christie, and a hat belonging to John Wayne.