When we arrived at Margate we deviated inland by just under half a mile, as there was something I had read about and wanted to see: Shell Grotto.
It is said that in 1835, James Newlove was digging a duck pond when his spade went through the soil and into nothingness below. He dug out a small hole and lowered his son, Joshua, inside. When Joshua came back out again he told of fantastic hidden underground passages, ornately decorated with shells.
By 1838 Shell Grotto was open to the public. It still is. It sits innocuously in a side street in Margate. There is a gift shop (selling shells – what else?), where you can pay a small fee to go down into the grotto itself.
The way down today does not involve attaching yourself to a rope and jumping into a duck pond. There is a stone staircase in a quiet corner of the gift shop’s basement.
At the bottom of the staircase is a rough passage, hewn out of the rock. Its floor slopes gently downwards. This is North Passage.
North Passage leads into the Rotunda. The first sight of Shell Grotto is quite extraordinary. Clicking on the photos will enlarge them.
This photo was taken without a flash. The same shot, taken with a flash, might produce a sharper picture, but the richness of the grotto is lost.
I did not have a camera tripod with me (there are certain things I haven’t been lugging around the coast of Britain) so camera-shake in the grotto was an issue. I held my camera as steadily as possible and took as many shots without the flash as I could.
The Rotunda is a small circular passageway, leading from the North Passage to a feature called The Dome, and back round again. The Dome is the one part of the grotto where natural light makes its way in. It is like a cupola, but the walls and ceiling leading up to it are covered in shells, as is the inside of the dome itself.
Beyond The Dome is the Serpentine Passage, which leads to the Altar Chamber. This passage, like the Rotunda, is lined with panels. An ankh, skeleton, and the Tree of Life are all believed to be depicted here.
The Altar Chamber, as the name implies, contains an altar.
The Altar Chamber suffered bomb damage during World War II. An entire wall was destroyed. The area has been repaired in modern materials. Plasterboarded walls and ceiling contrast starkly with their ornate surroundings. The flat and square may be the modern form and easy to clean and maintain, but against such a beautiful backdrop it appears cheap and easy. It has no place here. The fact that it bisects a panel of shells in its very core only serves to accentuate this fact.
From start to finish the Shell Grotto is only 104 feet in length. That doesn’t sound like much, and indeed its compactness is noticeable. Perhaps, therefore, it is worth dwelling on the fact that in that 104 feet there are 4.6 million shells. Here are a few of them.
There are no documents which mention the Grotto which pre-date its discovery in 1835. There is nothing to date its construction. There is nothing to say who built it, or when.
There are various theories, most of which are to do with pagan symbolism. Every self-respecting pagan shrine needs a phallus, and Shell Grotto is no different.
On the way back out, I spotted a more modern panel, set in a frame within the gift shop basement. This had been created by a previous owner of the Grotto. This one panel took five months to create, after years of collecting shells. How long, therefore, did the Grotto itself take to create, I wonder?
Shell Grotto is special. It is worth a visit. There are no long queues, no pretensions, no gimmicks, no advertising. It is a real hidden gem.
Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):
- Shell Grotto: N 51° 23.262 E 001° 23.363
Walk #32 Statistics (the entire walk through Margate into Cliftonville of which this post forms one small part):
- Date of Walk: 8 September 2012
- Walk #32 total distance covered: 9.54 miles
- Coast of Britain Walk Total Distance Covered: 251.96 miles
- CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO INTERACTIVE MAP!!!
That looks amazing!
I didn’t see it when I passed through Margate. I was pretty underwhelmed by Margate in general and made a blithe, and wholly incorrect, assumption about what sort of thing I’d find if I went looking for it. So I didn’t bother. I should problably learn some sort of lesson from that.
I think you made the right decision with your detour! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Ju – I was last in Margate about 10 years ago and have to say that it is better today than I remember it from back then.
How cool is that? I wish that someone knew who and why it was built – I’ll bet that would be a really interesting story…
What with the altar room there’s religion and/or ceremony in there somewhere.
Wow – how did I miss the shell grotto? I almost want to go back to Margate! Actually, it was so hot when I was there – despite being Easter – I spent most of the time cooling off in the aircondtioned Turner Contemporary art gallery.
Hi Ruth –
We didn’t dare go near the Turner – it had a Tracey Emin exhibition on and we get enough difficult questions from the kids as it is!!!
I see you are getting close to Kingsbridge – I am really looking forward to that section as my ancestors lived there and I have never visited.
We must have a discussion about travel arrangements sometime as I am intrigued to know how you fit it all in when you have to go such distances even to start walking!
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I visited the Grotto almost fifty years ago and it’s stayed in memory since.
But I have no memory of the shop, or how I got down there at the time … I think that if ever the true age is determined it might be surprising.
Perhaps if the shells are glued onto the walls, the bonding agent itself might be organic enough to be carbon-dated? (Unless all the soot blows away any chances. Bummer~!)
A good thought. Part of me would be very interested to know how far back it dates; part of me thinks perhaps I prefer the mystery!
Hello, I like this article very much, and also enjoyed the scenery described in this article. I am a journalist from Taiwan, and I want to introduce this amazing tourist site to Taiwanese people, so may I use your photos in this article? Thank you very much.
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Hi chavachou and thank you for your message and kind words. I have just sent you an email. Best wishes. Nic