Rumour has it that back in 1835 a labourer carrying out the day’s work, digging out a duck pond, hit a hollow spot with his spade. There in Margate, a sea-side town in East Kent, England, was no knowledge of an underground cavern and so the curiosity hit the masses. What could be down there?
Joshua, son of a school teacher, Mr James Newlove, volunteered to go find out. He was lowered through the small opening, and he came back with unbelievable news. Right there, beneath Margate’s land was an underground palace adorned with heaps and heaps of … Sea Shells!
The locals planned to see the whole thing for themselves and more missions inside the caverns discovered a passage, a rotunda, and an altar chamber decorated in different patterns made with sea shells. These shells included scallops, mussels, whelks, limpets, oysters and cockles which are found locally on the Margate shore. The flat winkle shell, however, was also used in many locations, which is a stranger to the home coast and must have been brought in from afar.
The land was bought and reclamated by Mr. Newlove (smart man) and opened to the public as the “The Shell Grotto, Margate“. It remains a popular tourist destination to this date, and now enjoys the presence of a cafe, a gift shop and a museum. But no one has been able to ascertain the history of the Grotto.
The shells are arranged in different, sometimes extremely intricate patterns, prevalent among which are star and sun shapes. The structure has vaulted ceilings as well as altar-like spaces, which give the grotto an air of religious significance.
What’s more profound is the use of a large number of shells, close to a million, that happened to be extremely expensive in the 1700s, and therefore, a preference of the wealthy. It is, therefore guessed that the grotto must have been built by a man of riches. In its prime, the grotto must have looked like this, radiant and lusturous from the fresh shells, as projected in this recreation:
Scientific interventions have not been possible to confirm the history and archeology if the Shell Grotto, mainly due to financial shortcomings. It is one of the reasons why many rumours and conspiracies exist to the nature of the Grotto’s existence. Carbon dating could identify the age of the shells, and put an estimate to the grotto’s lifetime as well, but the Margate Grotto’s officials claim other conservation work is far up on their to-do list than is finding out the grotto’s historical emergence. Visitors from the 20th century, however, didn’t shy away from leaving their mark.
‘Till such time as they find the means, the Grotto enjoys its mysterious status and continues to be visited by history and mystery fanatics alike.