It sounds like the start of a quintessential English fairytale: a father lowers his son into a hole that appears in the back garden while the pair are digging a duck pond. The boy emerges hours later, describing a labyrinth of tunnels painstakingly layered with millions of shells in mosaic formation - cockles, limpets, conches, whelks, mussels and oysters.
She sells sea shells by the sea shore. Author image.
This is the true story - so far as we can tell - behind the 1835 discovery of Margate's Shell Grotto. And, at last count, there were 4.6 million shells making up this underground wonderland. When the Grotto's subterranean splendour opened its doors to the public three years after first being discovered, it came as a surprise to the people of Margate. It had not been marked on any map of this seaside town on the east coast of England, and there were no records of its construction to be found.
What lies beneath this unassuming entrance? Author image.
Margate's most famous tourist attraction remains as much of a mystery today as it was when a curious father and son downed their shovels that day. There are many theories about how the Shell Grotto came to be. Some say it's an ancient temple, others reckon a smugglers' den, still others an underground cathedral, a secret sect's hideout, a rich man's folly, a fanatic's dream.
Located a mere two hours' drive from London, the Shell Grotto is well worth a visit. (Perhaps make a day of it by stopping off to visit Canterbury en route.) It lies largely underneath a residential garden at a depth of less than two metres and is sparingly lit by gentle artificial lighting as well as natural skylights. Despite the grubby appearance of some of the shells (apparently from carbon deposits left by gas lighting in the past) it is impossible to wander through these elaborately decorated tunnels and not be struck by both their beauty and complexity.
Shell jewellery for a natural touch. Author image.
Above ground, there is a charming (and often crowded) gift shop which sells shells of all every shape and hue, trinkets, mirrors, sculptures, quirky souvenirs and artisan jewellery. A small coffee shop also offers refreshments for those who'd like to linger just that little while longer.