The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Popping Stone

Natural Rock Feature


Nowadays, the Popping Stone is a group of three rounded sandstone boulders located in the Irthing Gorge, near Gilsland. It lies within the extensive grounds of the Gilsland Spa Hotel on the Cumbrian or west side of the River Irthing, which here defines the county boundary. The Popping Stone is marked on the 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps and can be reached by footpaths, although the last section can be very muddy in wet weather. The hotel welcomes the use of its large car park and the enjoyment of the wooded grounds by visitors, particularly if they decide to take advantage of the excellent hospitality available !

The secluded site is at the northern end of a 250m-long riverside meadow or haugh stretching from the Popping Stone Footbridge and narrowing northwards. Just upstream from the stone the river bank merges with a cliff and becomes impassable except by wading. The river curves to the west along this stretch, the result being that the site of the Popping Stone is invisible from most vantage points along the eastern cliff tops.

The largest stone is now approximately 2.7m long, 1.3m high and 1.4m wide and the two smaller stones are about 70cm and 85cm in length. The Popping Stone's present distinctive shape is due to the smoothly rounded bulges on the top of the larger stone, particularly as viewed from the east side, the grooves between the bulges seeming to result from exploitation of natural flaws in the stone running roughly at right-angles to each other. Some parts of the rounded top appear to have peck-marks, as if they had been shaped by hammering, this is especially noticeable on the southern aspect of the upper surface. The stones are set close together, and can be seen to be almost touching in old photographs but are now somewhat separated, presumably due to undermining during spates.

The Popping Stone was not always this shape, however, and old photographs show that it was dramatically reshaped during the 1870s. The change in shape is acknowledged in some later publications, though generally asserted to be a result of people chipping pieces off for their magical properties. An old postcard, unfortunately undated, shows the old shape, with figures in Victorian costume. Although probably derived from a photograph this image is heavily altered and on its own would be an unreliable guide, but I have also been able to find a fine photograph apparently dating from the early 1870s showing the same original shape.
Posted by kentigern
7th July 2005ce
Edited 21st July 2005ce

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