If like me, you are attracted to mystery and you enjoy being wowed by unexplainable facts then the Shell Grotto in Margate has to be high on your bucket list. Trust me and read on, you are going to love it.
Hidden away in the back streets of an unsuspecting residential area of Margate, within walking distance of the centre, is a curiosity that will hold your wonder for days after your visit. In fact, it is so insignificant you would be forgiven for passing it by or for even not finding it all! It is said it was discovered by mistake in 1835, when James Newlove was digging a duck pond in the ground and came across a hole. Like any loving father, he lowered his son into it to explore and his son returned, thankfully, describing a labyrinth of tunnels covered in shells below ground.
Well, that’s one story of how it was discovered but there are a number of stories out there and after 180 years of exaggeration and embellishment there’s not a lot of chance finding out the truth!
Anyway, in 1838, three years later, James opened the Shell Grotto to the public and now, almost 200 years to the day, it hasn’t lost its ability to draw the curious in. It remains a hugely popular place to visit when in Margate.
“My brother found out about the underground place sometime before it was known. He never dared to tell father. He found the chalk loose at one end of the passage next to the cottage, which was built afterwards, and he opened it up by taking the stuff away, as it were in rough blocks. Then when the opening was wide enough, he crawled through and got into the Grotto. And so did I. Yes, and two or three other young girls too. We crept in through the opening, and had to scrub ourselves right through the dirty chalk, and lor, we did make a mess of ourselves. But we got in and saw it all; we had to take a candle in a lantern round somebody’s neck.
“Once, when we were in, father shouted for us, and we were in a fine hurry to get out. “Where are those girls?” The reason he wanted us then was because a new governess, a clergyman’s daughter, had just arrived, and we were to be introduced. So we got out as quick as might be, and we were all white and dirty from the chalk and the dust. We needed some brushing, I can tell you; and we had to do it quick too.
“But it was really discovered in 1837, and my brother was dropped down the Dome with a light. He had been through it before, but had not told father.”
— Fanny Newlove
The Shell Grotto
The Shell Grotto measures 104ft long and the walls are covered in 4.6 million shells mosaiced into intricate panels each depicting a separate design and meaning. There is the Turtle Panel, the Aries Panel, the Skeleton Panel and the Ankh-Isis Panel amongst the 20 that have been named since the discovery.
To date no documents have come to light mentioning the Grotto, no correspondence, no maps and no plans of construction, so nobody knows really with any certainty what it was built for. All we have to work on are theories.
- Those who believe the Shell Grotto was a place of worship
- Those who think the Shell Grotto was a rich man’s folly.
- Those who are certain the Shell Grotto was a smuggler’s cave.
What we do know is 99% of the shells used are all locally found but in the corners of the Altar Room, there are queen conches from the Caribbean which adds an exotic touch to the mystery.
When to visit and how much does it cost
The Shell Grotto is open daily from 10am – 5pm from the beginning of the Easter holidays to the end of October half term and in winter at the weekends.
Tickets cost £4.00 for adults, £3.50 for concessionaries, £1.50 for children and a family of four (2 adults and 2 children) £8
What else is there to do?
There is a wonderful shop selling all sorts of shell related products and precious stones plus a cafe where you can get a drink and a bite to eat. Read up more on the Shell Grotto website and if you are in the area go and see it for yourself.