Way back in the 1980’s the writer of this blog was taken as a child to see the Shell Grotto in Margate. The uncomfortable memory has lingered on over the years, from the dark and dank atmosphere to the genuinely scary vibes and general sense of run-downness. The prospect of returning to the subterranean pit did not thrill, however on descending into this hidden place again last week we were frankly awestruck by the sight that greeted us. The dripping, musty-smelling experience of the childhood visit was spirited away by a clean and welcoming ambience that tempted us in to see more. Looking a little more into its late 20th-century history, we discover that the Shell Grotto became Grade-I listed in 1973 and was put onto the Buildings at Risk register in the 1990s due to severe damp issues. Thanks to the joint efforts of English Heritage and the Friends of the Shell Grotto a 5-year conservation programme was set up to address the water damage and more.
Walk around the streets of old Margate and you will soon come across the Shell Grotto, tucked away at the bottom of Grotto Hill. The early 20th century building was repaired and spruced up by the Friends of the Shell Grotto, who have been fundraising and paying the grotto the attention it deserves since 2008. Inside is a warm welcome, a mini museum, all sorts of fascinating information, a little gift-shop and even a tea room. Once you’ve paid your very reasonable entrance fee – £4.50 for adults, £2.50 for children, concessions available – down you go. Immediately upon walking along the North Passage and into the Rotunda, you see that the walls really are adorned with millions of shells arranged in beautiful shapes and patterns. Straight away you start to marvel how the Grotto came about and how old it could be.
The Shell Grotto was discovered in 1835 by the owners of the garden it sat under, imagine that! Luckily, they realised its aesthetic and historic value and set about making the grotto accessible to the public. Ever since, it has attracted visitors, from Victorian and Edwardian holiday-makers, to the 1970s and 1980s where it had seen better days, to the 21st century rejuvenation which is bringing interest from far and wide. Viewing some 4.5 millions shells intricately arranged over 104ft of underground cavern walls is a treat for the eyes. Add in that the date of its construction remains unknown and that historians have no definitive answer as to what its original purpose even was, and our imagination is piqued.
On the walls of the ciruclar pathed Rotunda and winding Serpentine Passage are a series of detailed panels each with its own stylised images created from hundreds and hundreds of shells. The images appear to be alluding to all kinds of ancient symbols that conjour up the Neolithic, Ancient Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Pagan, Christian, Hindu, the list goes on. Could it be that whoever laid out these shells so neatly and purposefully was attempting to bring cultures together and connect us with our past?
Joining up the Rotunda and Serpentine paths is the Atrium. Pointing skywards in ever-decreasing circles of carefully arranged shells opening out to a skylight. It lets in an ethereal brightness that lends itself to the otherworldliness so many notice when spending time down there. Coupled with the undeniable eeriness of the more enclosed Altar Chamber at the end of the pathway it becomes an almost sacred, worshipful place, which has not escaped others. On the East Wall of the Altar Chamber, which was bomb-destroyed in WW2 and more recently rebuilt, is a life-sized mural of a seance photographed there in 1930. The image is startling and powerful and the more curious of us start to speculate about spirits, covens and cults (as well as marvelling at the fantastic hair-dos and dress-coats worn by the clairevoyant ladies.)
Whatever you end up making of it, if you stay at a Beeches Holiday Lets rental the Shell Grotto in Margate is a must. It will give you a sense of the interesting history of the Isle of Thanet beyond the seaside. Some visitors pair it up with a visit to the Margate Caves, an equally interesting underground mystery. What a fascinating place Thanet is!
Photos published with the kind permission of the Shell Grotto, Margate.
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