In 1488 Ursula Sontheil was born to her unwed, fifteen year old mother, Agatha. Despite being brought before the authorities of the time, she refused to name the father.
This has led to speculation that she may have been a prostitute, but one thing was undeniable, the unattractive baby girl would become known through the ages as the infamous Mother Shipton.
Legend has it she was born during a violent storm in the reign of Henry VII. Her early years were spent with Agatha in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd, Knaresborough until the Abbot of Beverley took pity on them. Ursula was taken in, but Agatha was sent to a nunnery miles away never to see her daughter again.
Ursula did marry Tobias Shipton, despite reportedly having a crooked nose, bent back and twisted legs
Her family life was to be cut short when Tobias, a carpenter from York, died. She returned to her cave and studied the wildlife, plants, forest and natural remedies that she became famous for. Many claims have been made as to what this wise woman is said to have predicted, amongst them:- Inventions, such as: iron ships and aircrafts.
Many have yet to happen. Whatever the truth behind her predictions, she lived till 1561 and died at the age of 73
The Dropping Well - the only petrifying well in England
The cave she lived in was near an amazing feat of nature that had also been the focus of superstition and linked to the devil in early times: The Dropping Well.
It was feared at first as the waters were said to be able to turn you to stone - a claim that had some truth within it. Amazingly, in the sixteenth century, it also became a place where the water was then said to have healing properties.
NEVER DRINK THESE MINERAL RICH WATERS!
Stories become embellished through time, but the lady existed and was alive when John Leyland, antiquary to Henry VIII, documented the well in 1538. The well is definitely worth a visit. There is a beautiful walk to it and it is now privately owned, but it is a rare find, England's only petrifying well.
Even a bicycle is being petrified!
In all seasons, and it is said through all weathers, 3,200 litres (700 gallons) of water pour over every hour in a continuous flow. This provides a coating over the items, which have been fastened up for petrification, with a hard mineral shell. A small teddy can take 3-5 months to turn to stone.
We now understand this amazing place is not the work of the devil, but a very natural and unique location. I was taken to see it as a child and returned to it as an adult when I visited the History Festival in nearby Harrogate last October. I still found it a peaceful and fascinating natural feature surrounded by beautiful views over the River Nidd.