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Margate Shell Grotto

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by SophiesNotinKansas (subscribe)
I'm a London-dwelling northern lass who swapped the East End for Far East on the trip of a lifetime. I blog about food, travel, yoga and spirituality.
Published March 24th 2013
Kent's biggest mystery
Located deep underneath the streets of Margate lies one of England's most curious and unexpected of attractions - the mysterious Shell Grotto.
Margate, Shell Grotto
Margate's mysterious shell grotto

The grottos existence remained a secret until its chance discovery in 1835. Although reports vary, it is generally agreed that Mr James Newlove lowered his son Joshua into a hole in the ground when he was digging a duck pond. Joshua emerged and described how he had seen a secret grotto.
Margate, Shell Grotto
Going down into the network of tunnels

What he had stumbled upon was a network of tunnels whose walls were covered in shells - 4.6 million to be precise. These shells are beautifully and precisely formed into an array of wall mosaics incorporating mysterious imagery - hearts, flowers and pagan and astrological symbols. In total the mosaic covers 2,000 square foot and the network of tunnels leads into an ante chamber that is considered by some as secret temple.
Margate, Shell Grotto
Close up of heart detail

Historians are unable to confirm that the grotto was uncovered by James Newlove and his son Joshua and, after 180 years, it is possible that the story has become embellished over time. But the discovery is just the first piece of the puzzle in the mystery that is the shell grotto.
Margate, Shell Grotto
Standing under the skylight in the grotto

Nobody knows exactly when it was built or why and theories range from it being a secret meeting place, to a Victorian 'folly', from a pagan place of worship to a smugglers cave. The mystery of the grotto only adds to its appeal.
Margate, Shell Grotto
The mysterious 'altar'

With only two exceptions, all of the shells are native from Britain, which marks the grotto out as unusual. Other shell structures built by wealthy Victorians feature exotic varieties to show off how well-travelled their owners were. The shells tend to be local varieties like muscles, whelks, scallops and oysters and this only adds to the mystery... For in order for such a huge number of shells to be harvested and carried down under ground, almost the whole town would have been in on it. Was it a Margate secret?
Margate, Shell Grotto
Another detail of the mosaic's symbolism

The grotto has had may famous visitors over the years and has been a site for broadcasts - it had two visits from the BBC's Down Your Way in May 1948 and in 1986. There have even been seances conducted down in the gloom.
Margate, Shell Grotto
The colour the shells would have been before damaged by soot

Visitors are first given the background and history of the shell grotto in a small museum upstairs. They are then directed to a narrow winding staircase that leads down to the network of tunnels. A map is provided in order to help interpret the mosaics which include phalluses, skeletons and a 'tree of life'. The tunnels are lit by a lamp and there is some natural light that enters by way of a skylight in the ceiling.
Margate, Shell Grotto
The light shining from the skylight illuminates the shells

Although the shells have been discoloured from the soot of Victorian times the grotto was lit with gas lamps, it is still a delight to behold. Marvel at the sheer craftmanship of the shell work whilst pondering on the mystery of it's origins.
Margate, Shell Grotto
The shell grotto has always been a popular tourist attraction...

Such a remarkable, mysterious and unique sight, the Shell Grotto is a must for any day out in Margate. And to top off a surreal day out in this quintessential seaside town, visit the Mad Hatters Tea Rooms for afternoon tea.
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Why? One of the most unusual, unique and mysterious attractions in the UK
When: Weekends, 11am - 4pm
Phone: 01843 220008
Where: Grotto Hill, Margate, Kent, CT9 2BU
Cost: 3.00 for adults, 2.50 for seniors (over 60) and students, 1.50 for children (aged 4-16). Family ticket (two adults and two children) 8.
Your Comment
What an amazing place and some great pictures
by Ian Marshall (score: 2|116) 3427 days ago
How beautiful and mysterious.
by Lucy Graham (score: 2|283) 3427 days ago
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