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Popping Stone (Natural Rock Feature) — Folklore

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.

Popping Stone (Natural Rock Feature) — Images (click to view fullsize)

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The Matfen Stone (Standing Stone / Menhir) — Fieldnotes

2nd September 05: There's another hack taken out of it on the other side. Maybe this should be reported to the police?

Popping Stone (Natural Rock Feature) — Images

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Popping Stone (Natural Rock Feature) — Fieldnotes

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.

Popping Stone (Natural Rock Feature) — Links

The Popping Stone

My observations and research on the Popping Stone to date, including analysis of legends linking Sir Walter Scott with its naming.
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