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.
(At the risk of infuriating Kentigern of course, with its blatant fibbery).
"In Cumberland there is a spring,
And strange it is to tell,
That many a fortune it will make,
If never a drop they sell."
The above prophetic rhymes are popularly understood to allude to Gilsland Spa, respecting which there is a very curious tradition, viz.., that on the medicinal virtues being first discovered, the person who owned the land, not resting satisfied, as would appear, with his profits which the influx of strangers to the place had caused, built a house over the spring, with the intention of selling the waters. But his avarice was punished in a very singular manner, for no sooner had he completed his house than the spring dried up, and continued so till the house was pulled down when lo! another miracle, it flowed again as before. Whether true or false, this story of antiquity enforces a most beautiful moral and religious precept. - Clarke's Survey of the Lake.
Similar to the anti-interference stories about some standing stones?
I called the folklore arising in the 1860 or 70s about the Popping Stone "synthetic" because I believe it to have been deliberately and cynically created to aid promotion of the stone as part of the Gilsland Spa tourist package. You are quite right to point out that folklore is being created all the time, but it is important (and difficult) to separate to two varieties.
The Spa at Gilsland didn't "obviously" get popular in Victorian times. Walter Scott went there in Georgian times, because it was already very popular then.
The Woodland Trust "information" board in the woods at the Spa also invites us to watch out for red deer. Roe deer are almost synonymous with Northumbrian/Cumbrian woodlands but red deer are not found anywhere near Gilsland. This is woodland ecology - something you might expect the Woodland Trust to know something about - I reckon their pronouncements on obscure aspects of local history are likely to be just as slapdash.
Pieces trotted out by office workers who have been told to "write something about Gilsland" do not count as folklore. Almost without exception such accounts are uncritcal, unreferenced cut & paste exercises from the handiest guidebook. The content of most guidebooks to Gilsland can be directly traced back to the flurry of publicity and synthetic folklore which appeared around the 1860/70s.
The information about the midsummer expeditions is more interesting, but I would like to see a contemporary report, for instance from a newspaper.
This page at the Woodland Trust suggests that people chipped bits off the stone to pop them under their pillows - that way they'd dream of their future lovers. Or spouses, as the page so primly puts it.
The Spa at Gilsland obviously got popular in Victorian times, but could chalybeate and sulphurous springs have gone unnoticed before this (you doubt it). This extract from 'Northumbria' (1920) tries to suggest the fad was a survival of the past.. though who knows. Gilsland Spa was obviously used as such before the Victorians (Kentigern's website says it was on a map from the 1770s).
Gilsland Spa has long been a noted resort, and an account is given even within recent times of the yearly pilgrimage to the chalybeate and sulphur waters as a modern survival of well-worship. On the Sunday after old Midsummer Day, called the Head Sunday, and the Sunday after it, hundreds if not thousands used to assemble from all directions by rail when that was available, and by vehicles and on foot otherwise. From North Tynedale and the neighbourhood for many miles round these unconscious adherents of heathen rites visited the wells.
[With regard to the 'synthetic folklore' derided in the post above, I would say that folklore is being created all the time (think urban myths) and even if it is made up on the spot it is clearly to fill a certain gap that is perceived to require some, and generally draws on ideas of what folklore should be about (midsummer meetings etc). I don't think I should only be recording 'genuine folklore', whatever that's supposed to be - if ideas get told, believed and retold, then that IS folklore, surely.]