The Shell Grotto is a unique underground passage, about 22 meters, located in Margate, a seaside town in East Kent, England
Why is it unique? Because it is a 70-foot underground winding passageway, painstakingly decorated with around 4,6 million seashells. Who created it and why, are questions that so far have not found a convincing answer, although many believe it is a 2000 year old temple with ancient origins.
Locals claim that the Shell Grotto was discovered by chance in 1835 by James Newlove and his son Joshua. It all started when James sent his son to dig a duck pond. When the boy came back out, he told his father about this wondrous underground tunnel covered entirely in seashell.
When the stunned father saw with his own eyes the strange discovery of his son he decided to take advantage of it and make some money. He installed lamps to illuminate the interior of the tunnel and two years later the cave opened to the public. (Reports on the discovery vary, and some suggest that Newlove and his children were aware of the grotto for some time before announcing its existence to the world.)
The Grotto’s discovery in 1835 came as a complete surprise to the people of Margate; The opening came as a big surprise to the inhabitants of Margate. Nobody had the slightest idea about the existence of the mysterious tunnel as the place had never been marked on any maps. The first paying customers descended the chalk stairway in 1837 and debate has raged about the Grotto’s origins ever since.
Unfortunately the gas lamps used to light the cave in Victorian times have rendered radiocarbon dating almost entirely useless in dating the age of the cave. Other methods have been used in an attempt to date the cave but so far they have proved fruitless, and an investigation into the mortar used to affix the shells to the wall was only able to conclude that it was “fish based.”
Because of this lack of a fixed date of creation and because the designs look vaguely Eastern, speculations over who made this cave have ranged wildly from Phoenicians over Romans, Templars to 18th and 19th century mystics and magicians. Most likely it was created in the 1700s by one of the many Eastern-influenced secret societies of English gentlemen.
The grotto is a small place, and easy to miss, in a neighbourhood that obviously has known better times. So, alas, has the grotto itself, and it is listed as an endangered structure. At the back of the small entrance building which there is a small souvenir shop and cafe, and a modest exhibition on the history of the grotto. From there one descends a narrow stairway, and finds oneself in a passage, with a few niches decorated in shells.
Once through the new entrance a narrow S-shaped passageway leads to a chamber with a central column, and this is where one can grasp the charm of this man-made cavern. The walls and ceiling have been covered in literally thousands of shells, in intricate patterns which look like trees, flowers, men, and more.
At the end, there is a shaft upwards, letting in the sunlight, and said to function as a solar clock/calendar. A further S-shaped passageway leads to a rectangular room, which had its vaulted ceiling and part of its wall destroyed in the World Wars.
While some have suggested it to be a hoax – even though there is no evidence of excavations at the time – there are some archaeological reports remarking on the similarities with the construction of early tin mines in the region; but with no definitive explanation or history, the Shell Grotto is Kent’s greatest mystery.