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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.