One of England’s most mysterious attractions, the Margate Shell Grotto is a bizarre underground cave that is (possibly) up to 3,000 years old. The walls in the Margate Shell Grotto are covered in beautiful mosaics made up of over 4.6 million seashells. This is off-the-beaten-path at its best. Margate is easily accessible by train from London, and the journey takes around 90 minutes.
Margate is an adorable seaside town that has been in the process of revamping its image, as well as adding new attractions to draw in visitors. The Turner Contemporary Museum is the newest kid on the block, and has been opened to rave reviews from art critics and visitors alike. Although Margate is a small town, its sandy beaches and nostalgic charm have been drawing people to its shores for centuries. T S Eliot escaped to Margate after a nervous breakdown and wrote The Waste Land in a shelter on the beach. “On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with nothing./The broken fingernails of dirty hands./My people humble people who expect/Nothing.” Although it wasn’t exactly a glowing review of Margate, Eliot’s famous poem is forever linked to this town on England’s southeast coast.
The Shell Grotto wasn’t discovered until 1835, before this date there is no record of the place existing. The thing I found truly mesmerizing is that scientists have been unable to ‘date’ this mysterious cavern. With all the technology in the world, they have estimated that the grotto was built somewhere between 200-3,000 years ago. Yeah, that really helps narrow it down. As inconceivable as it is that they have no idea when the Shell Grotto was built, (I suspect they have never had the resources to bring in a true expert on the subject) this strange fact only adds to weirdness of the place. They say that carbon dating of the shells is impossible because of the contamination from Victorian gas lighting soot and that the ‘glue’ used to affix the shells to the walls is equally inconclusive, but has been likened to Roman cement.
When you arrive at the property it looks like every other dilapidated building in the area, but don’t let this deter you! As you walk inside you are directly in the visitor’s center and gift shop where you can purchase your ticket or buy tacky souvenirs. With ticket in hand, you can descend into the humid cavern below. I am telling you, it is fascinating. There are multiple tunnels, a room referred to as the “Altar Room” , and a beautiful dome on the ceiling that lets in the sunlight and has been linked to the solar calendar. Every inch of space is covered in seashells, colorful patterns depicting suns and trees and various other intricate designs. Although the shells have lost much of their original hues, you can still very much sense how incredible the Shell Grotto must have looked when it was first built. The lighting in the grotto makes it difficult to take pictures, but honestly you won’t need them to remember this fascinating site.
Several theories have been made trying to determine WHY the Shell Grotto was built in the first place. I imagine that collecting almost 5 million seashells couldn’t be done by one person in a lifetime, let alone arranging them into spectacular designs on the Grotto walls. Theory one suggests that the Shell Grotto was once a Masonic Sun Temple from the Middle Ages, built by Roman soldiers. Theory two operates under the assumption that the Margate Shell Grotto was simply built for a wealthy landowner. During the 1700’s in England, it was a popular pastime for the wealthy to create seashell structures as part of their estates. They would then tour them on their travels around the country. The problem with this theory is that the location of the Margate Shell Grotto was never believed to be part of an estate, and was located in the middle of a pasture. Also, why would they have hidden something that was built to be shown off? The point that clenches it for me is how do you explain that the site wasn’t discovered until 1835? Transporting 5 million seashells, sorting them, creating the mosaics, not to mention digging the site itself. It would be difficult to complete such a huge project without the neighbors catching on. I am partial to theory one, as you walk through the grotto it feels mysterious, ancient, and magical. I don’t think you would get the same feeling from a rich man’s playroom.
Admission to the Margate Shell Grotto is only £3. I think the place is worth much more. Victorian novelist Marie Corelli wrote about the Margate Shell Grotto, “[i]f the curious and beautiful subterranean temple … existed anywhere but at Margate, it would certainly be acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world”. I can’t help but agree with Ms. Corelli. The Margate Shell Grotto is one of my favorite places I have ever visited, its obscurity and raw beauty are a true wonder of England.
This post on the Margate Shell Grotto is part of my Visit England project. Check back every week for new and interesting places that I visit around England. Be sure and subscribe to The Fly Away American so you never miss a post and follow on Facebook and Twitter.