The Mysterious Shell Grotto in Margate

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In the old seaside town of Margate, in the English county of Kent, not too far from the town’s harbor, is a mysterious underground cavern with 70 feet worth of winding passages. The passages are about 8 feet high and they lie no less than 6 feet underneath what appears to be a typical English neighborhood with houses and gardens. Who built them and for what purpose is a mystery. Even more fascinating is the effort that was undertaken to decorate the walls and ceiling of this mysterious grotto with millions of seashells.

The grotto was discovered, as the story goes, by Mr. James Newlove in 1835 when he was digging a duck pond. When Mr. Newlove’s shovel broke through the ground, he sent his young son Joshua down the hole to explore. Minutes later Joshua emerged and described to his father the strange discovery they had made. Word about the Shell Grotto came as a surprise to the people of Margate because no one had heard about it before. Neither there were any tales of its construction. As the news spread, scores of eager visitors descended upon Mr. Newlove’s property, which was when James Newlove began to see the commercial possibility of his find.

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Photo credit: Martin Hearn/Flickr

The Shell Grotto lies entirely underground, and can be entered by a short flight of steps that leads into a serpentine tunnel roughly hewn out of the chalk, which in turn leads to the grotto. The passages of the grotto with its over-arching vaults are covered in rich mosaics of varied design, all made of shells. There are shells of mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, oysters and more, all of which appear to be locally sourced. It is estimated that there are 4.6 million shells in the grotto’s walls and ceilings.

No radio carbon dating has been done on the shells, because the private society who owns the grotto is unable to foot the bill. Besides, the society was advised that dating would require large samples from the grotto to mitigate chances of dating repairs as opposed to dating the original construction, which would damage the structure, and since the grotto was listed by the English Heritage as a Grade I building, the society decided, its preservation was far more important than its investigation.

With no proper scientific study, it’s impossible to say when the grotto was built. So there are all sorts of theories, the most popular one is that the grotto was built by some eccentric wealthy individual for no specific purpose, possibly in the 1700s, a time when follies and shell structures were common. There are several examples of such “useless” buildings around the country, found in the grounds of stately homes and wealthy landowners. Others believe that the grotto is much older because of the complete lack of historical records of its existence and construction, which would have been, they argue, a mammoth task, sure to attract the attention of the neighbors. A story such as this would have been impossible to be forgotten in a mere hundred years.

There is also evidence that the grotto was repaired multiple times. In a 2009 survey, five mortar samples were sent off for analysis and each one was found to be different, which can only be explained by successive repairs.

Regrettably, the present status of the grotto is not very good. The passages were lit by gas lamps for far too long, causing the shells to blacken from soot. By the time the gas lamps were replaced by electric lighting, in 1932, many shells had already lost their original color and shine. Then there is the problem of water leakage. Humidity inside the grotto has damaged the shell mosaic. The problem was greatly exacerbated when the garden over the grotto was concreted over, resulting in even more water seepage.

The Shell Grotto is currently looked after by a non-profit called The Friends of the Shell Grotto.

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Photo credit: Kotomi Creations/Flickr

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Photo credit: Alastair Campbell/Flickr

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Photo credit: shellgrotto.co.uk

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Photo credit: diamond geezer/Flickr

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Photo credit: Ben Sutherland/Flickr

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Photo credit: G Travels/Flickr

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Photo credit: Kotomi Creations/Flickr

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Photo credit: Toby Bradbury/Flickr

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Photo credit: Simon Lee/Flickr

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Photo credit: Simon Lee/Flickr

Sources: shellgrotto.co.uk / Wikipedia

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