The Shell Grotto, Margate

In 1838, workmen digging in the garden of the Belle Vue Cottage on the outskirts of Margate came across a stone slab which covered a narrow hole. On removing the slab they discovered that this hole led down to a tunnel. But this was no ordinary tunnel, for what they had found turned out to be the dome of what the Kentish Gazette described at the time as a ‘kind of Aladdin’s cave’. The complex of tunnels underneath the garden were lined with incredible shell decoration, the like of which had never been seen before. The mysterious Shell Grotto in Margate has been attracting visitors ever since, and indeed this strange attraction is still open to the public today.

The stairs down to the Shell Grotto, Margate

The stairs down to the Shell Grotto, Margate

A visit to the Margate Shell Grotto begins with the small museum at ground level, which gives some of the background to the discovery of the tunnels and the diverse theories that have emerged as to their origins. Next comes the really exciting part. The Grotto lies down a flight of stairs and at the end of a narrow rock-cut cave which descends into the darkness.

The rock-cut tunnel leading to the Shell Grotto, Margate

The rock-cut tunnel leading to the Shell Grotto, Margate

Once inside the grotto proper, every inch of the tunnel walls are decorated with elaborate symbols and patterns, a mosaic created from millions of tiny shells. The effect is breathtaking, particularly in the central roundel which is lit from above by an open dome. The amount of time and effort which went into building this grotto is immense; a similar but much smaller shell grotto created at Goodwood in West Sussex during the 1740s took seven years to build, and that has a floor space of only four square meters, while the shell mosaics in the Margate grotto cover seventy feet of tunnels. Even the task of collecting the many shells would have taken years, because although Margate lies on the coast, the nearest beach which could supply such large quantities of shells is located over six miles away.

Inside the Shell Grotto, Margate

Inside the Shell Grotto, Margate

What is even more strange about the Margate’s Shell Grotto is that noone knows when, why or by whom it was built. Many theories have been put forward over the last century and a half, ranging from the eccentric to the utterly unbelievable. Many have compared it to other 18th Century shell grottoes, but if it had been built during the 1700s then why would it have been blocked up and totally forgotten by the mid 19th Century? If it was an extravagant folly like the example at Goodwood, then why did noone know about it, and why would it be located on what was previously undistinguished farmland? The strange symbols and patterns used in the decoration of the grotto are largely unique, and give few clues to their age. Some have suggested that this is a Roman temple, some believe it to be related to a possible Phoenician trading post, while suggestions that it can be attributed to Minoans, Hindus or Mexicans seem entirely fanciful.

The central dome, Margate Shell Grotto

The central dome, Margate Shell Grotto

Attempts to carbon date the shells have proved fruitless, as the rudimentary lighting used in the grotto in the 19th Century has coated the shells in carbon deposits, and extensive restoration over the years means that analysing the mortar and shells is probably only going to confuse matters further. The map given to visitors attempts to interpret some of the symbols on the walls as a skeleton, an owl, a god and a goddess amongst many others, but the interpretations require a vivid imagination and are frankly rather subjective. It seems then that the Margate Shell grotto is destined to remain an intriguing, magical enigma for many years to come.

To be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way.


15 Responses to “The Shell Grotto, Margate”

  1. “Pressed” to Sillyverse, thank you!

  2. Went there a few years ago…..loved it…..thanks for the memory 🙂

  3. Fascinating, would love to know how it got made.

  4. Very interesting indeed. Just looking at that entrance cave makes me feel very claustrophobic though. I always admire people who find things like this and are brave enough to enter such a narrow space not knowing where it leads.

    • Actually it is not too claustrophobic once you are in there, and the Grotto itself is well worth it. But you are right, the men climbing in there for the first time must have been amazed…

  5. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words Says:

    what a wonderful post …I would like to wander among the whispers in there…can you imagine what they have to say?
    Beautiful art graces the walls….
    Thank you for sharing…I will have to read more on this one…
    Take Care…You Matter…

    • Interesting you mention whispers, as I have since found out that if someone whispers at one end of the grotto tunnel, their words can be clearly heard at the other end…magical!

      • LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words Says:

        I like that, though I am thinking some may not….
        last night I looked it up…what an incredible place… such intricate works of art…it reminded me of the Nantucket sailors Valentine cards the sailors made when they were out to sea…
        I would love to go inside…but that tunnel…whew! I have claustrophobia…
        Thank you again for sharing…I enjoyed it very much
        Take Care…You Matter…

  6. I’ve been studying the Phoenicians of Carthage. Their northern most trading center was at present day Lisbon, which is only about a 7-8 day sail from Margate and considering the grotto’s location next to a nice anchorage on a major promontory, it would make sense that it was built as a temple and solar observatory by ancient seafarers. The Carthaginians had economic incentive to travel to Southern England too as it was the fastest way to get to tin supplies needed for making bronze. Otherwise it had to be hauled over gaul by middlemen and then the Greeks would get it in Marseille…a 30 day journey by Ox cart. The peaked arches and mosaic decor style is typical of Northern Africa as well.

  7. What an amazing place!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: