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Great Britain

Teddies turn to stone and children learn to fly broomsticks at Mother Shipton's Cave

AS A child Mother Shipton’s prophecy kept me awake at night.

Reputedly born in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd in Knaresborough, This wise woman told fortunes and made predictions throughout her life in the 16th century.

One of these - which was printed on a postcard I kept beside my bed - referred to the end of the world, ‘in nineteen hundred and eighty one’, a terrifying prospect to a small child visiting in the late 1960s.

Thankfully, this did not come to fruition, and whether she genuinely made that particular forecast has been cast into doubt. Yet many of the predictions made by Mother Shipton, whose real name was Ursula Sontheil, give food for thought:

‘Iron in the water shall float, as easy as a wooden boat’; ‘Around the world thoughts shall fly, In the twinkling of an eye.’

She is also said to have predicted the Great Fire of London.

Visitors to this picturesque town can learn more about Ursula’s life at Mother Shipton’s cave, sited in an unspoiled spot in one of the remaining swathes of the ancient Royal Forest of Knaresborough.

Attracting visitors since 1630, the cave and adjacent petrifying well is one of the oldest tourist attractions in England and among the most fascinating.

We arrived on a glorious day and, after being greeted at the gates by a helpful member of staff, parked and set off along a shady riverside path which I later discovered is called the Long Walk and dates back to 1739.

The wide gravel path - with benches along the route - takes you through magnificent beech woods, where some trees are reputed to be the tallest in the country, to the dark cave, where Ursula was raised by her young mouther Agatha.

Beside the cave lies the well. Water from an underground spring trickles over an intriguing natural rock formation, creating a dripping well. The calcium carbonate in the water turns any object hung there to stone.

Strings of pint-sized teddy bears dangle down in various states of petrification alongside other objects: there’s a tea pot, a toy duck, an Action Man, an ice skate identifiable by the back of its blade.

The time needed for petrification depends on the size and porosity of the object. Small teddies bears take between three and five months. Larger porous items can turn to stone in six months to a year. Non-porous items such as a top hat can take up to 18 months.

One criticism - there were too many teddies, giving the well the look of a fairground stall. I’d have liked to have seen a greater range of objects as there was when I took my daughters about 15 years ago.

Two bulges in the overhanging rock are a petrified top hat and summer bonnet placed there in 1853 but never collected.

A small but very interesting museum contains petrified items donated by famous people. There’s John Wayne’s hat, Agatha Christie’s handbag and - probably the most historic and valuable item is a shoe left by Queen Mary when she visited in 1923.

Modern day celebrities have donated items including a tie and cricket gloves. Sarah Lancashire’s petrified stiletto shoes and Julia Bradbury’s earmuffs were on display. Broadcaster, the late Terry Wogan had donated two very odd items - a tea bag and a car air freshener, both of which were deemed too fragile to petrify.

There’s a petrified teddy to pick up and hold. The stone bears, which are sent to museums across the world, can be bought at the shop.

The Mother Shipton experience has changed much since we last visited. There’s much in the way of witchy and wizardly in the Harry Potter mode. We watched instructor James Riley giving children lessons on how to fly on a broomstick at Broom School. There’s a potions class and children can earn wizardry certificates, presented by a wizard.

There a great adventure playground, installed in 2017 in a sunny spot beside a dedicated picnic area, and dinosaurs in the woodland, linking to the ancient history of the area, explained on information boards.

Next month sees the attraction host its popular Halloween experience, with plenty of scares and thrills. It runs between Saturday October 26 to Sunday November 3.

There is a cafe, but it is small and did not look not very inviting. We opted instead to leave the car and walk into town for a snack. A wristband gets you back in.

We left the attraction at the opposite end of the Long Walk, climbing the hill to Knaresborough Castle and later strolling past the bustling cafes beside the Nidd. In a timeless scene, families were enjoying themselves on boats, rowing under the lofty Nidd Viaduct.

Prices for Mother Shipton vary depending on events and savings can be made by booking online. Parking is an additional £2. You get your money’s worth, and if they are anything like I was as a child, youngsters won’t forget what they have seen in a hurry.

*For information on opening times and prices visit mothershipton.co.uk; Tel: 01423 864600 or email [email protected]

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