The Shell Grotto: 4.6million shells, 70ft of winding underground passages leading to a rectangular chamber, 2000sqft of mosaic and one big mystery…
The story goes that in 1835 Mr James Newlove lowered his young son Joshua into a hole in the ground that had appeared during the digging of a duck pond. Joshua emerged describing tunnels covered with shells. He had discovered the Shell Grotto, its walls decorated with strange symbols mosaiced in millions of shells. Is it an ancient pagan temple? A meeting place for some secret cult? Nobody can explain who built this amazing place, or why, but since its accidental discovery visitors from all over the world have been intrigued by the beautiful mosaic and the unsolved mystery.
“Shellhenge…Awe-inspiring… a truly major national site.”
Time Out Book of Weekend Breaks
In truth, the Grotto’s discovery may or may not have involved duck ponds, shovels and small boys. A number of different stories have been told, and with nearly 180 years’ worth of exaggeration, embellishment and sheer deceit, there seems little chance of unpicking the gossip from the reality. However he came upon it, James Newlove could clearly see the commercial potential of his find. The Grotto opened its doors to the public in 1838, and came as something of a surprise to the people of Margate; it had never been marked on any map and there had been no tales of its construction told around the town.
Since the first paying customers descended the chalk stairway debate has raged about the Grotto’s origins: for every expert who believes it to be an ancient temple, there’s someone else convinced it was the meeting place for a secret sect; for every ardent pagan, there’s a Regency folly-monger ready to spoil their fun. At first glance the Grotto’s design only adds to the confusion, with humble cockles, whelks, mussels and oysters creating a swirling profusion of patterns and symbols. A storehouse for the imagination, there are any number of interpretations; trees of life, phalluses, gods, goddesses and something that looks very like an altar, to name but a few.