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Scott fell for story of romancing the stone.

Byline: By Tony Henderson

On a bend in a dramatic river gorge stands what can only be described as a celebrity stone.

It's called the Popping Stone and can be found on the banks of the River Irthing on the boundary between Northumberland and Cumbria.

The ensemble of one, large, rounded and two smaller sandstone boulders is yet another example of the surprises which are hidden away in the quiet corners of this most diverse of regions.

The stone is reputed to be where the young lawyer Walter Scott ( later the novelist Sir Walter ( proposed to his bride-to-be, Charlotte Carpenter, in 1797.

Scott had met Charlotte at a dance in Gilsland's Shaws Hotel, next to the gorge, at a time when the village was drawing visitors because of its growing reputation as a spa resort.

Charlotte was described as being "without the features of a regular beauty", but she was "rich in personal attributes, a complexion of the clearest and lightest olive, eyes large, deep set and dazzling, of the finest Italian brown, and a profusion of silken tresses, black as the raven's wing." The walk along the riverbank of the wooded gorge, complete with waterfall, is a delight.

But, according to Gilsland historian and archaeology graduate Will Higgs, that may not have been the reason Walter took Charlotte to the stone.

The stone, believes Will, has an ancient pedigree and Scott, who was fascinated by folklore and legend, would have been attracted to such a site.

Will says: "Why does he take the trouble to march Miss Carpenter all the way to the Popping Stone if it wasn't already locally famous, or more likely infamous, as a rendezvous for lovers?"

It is Will's theory that the stone may have been the centre of myth and ritual connected to fertility and wooing.

What appear to be peck marks, possibly caused by chipping, are apparent on the rounded top of the main boulder.

Hearsay has it that women would chip or scrape off bits of the sandstone to wear in bags around their neck to ensure fertility, or put fragments under their pillow to dream of their future husband. Will believes the Walter Scott link with the Popping Stone was promoted in Victorian times for the benefit of the Gilsland spa visitor trade.

"But the Popping Stone goes back a long way before the Victorian period as a fertility source," he says.

"I don't think it was called the Popping Stone because Scott proposed there. The traditions associated with the Popping Stone may be evidence for its importance in the past.

"I suggest that it is an unusual type of megalithic monument and should be officially recognised as a potential ancient site."

Near the stone there was also a Hawthorn, known as the Kissing Bush, which is now gone.

As Victorian photographs and early 20th Century postcards show, the stone drew both photographers and people.

"Many of the photographs are of couples and young women on the stone," says Will.

It also appears that the stone changed shape in the 1870s. This has been put down to people chipping off pieces but Will thinks the appearance of the stone could have been altered to avoid offending the polite sensibilities of Victorian visitors.

Whatever, the stone is not the only surprise in the 140-acre estate belonging to the Gilsland Spa Hotel which sits on the crest of the gorge.

At the head of the gorge is the Crammel Linn waterfall.

From the corner of the hotel car park, the visitor takes a footpath to descend to the river where, beside a footbridge, flows a sulphur spring encased in a man-made stone frame.

This is one of the springs which put Gilsland on the map as a spa.

A short walk along the riverbank is a sight which has an eerie touch.

Amid encroaching woodland is an outdoor swimming pool. It was once used by guests of the hotel but was abandoned in 1939.

Saplings are now growing out of the pool, where porcelain linings are still visible, and the moss-covered steps descend into what is now only a blanket of vegetation.

At what would once have been a riverside place of happy and noisy times, there is now only the rustling of the leaves.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 14, 2005
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