An unexpected Sunday in Margate

Being a sunny day, last Sunday I decided to have a short drive and stop, one again in Margate, watching the sea and dreaming about my next cruise in December.

It’s hard to believe today, but Margate was once a small fishing village. ‘Meregate’ had a large, partly-12th century church of St John’s set on a hill and a track down to a cluster of houses round the harbour. But the 1730s brought a passion for sea bathing, sparking the growth of Margate as a fashionable resort. Hoys, or sailing vessels, later steamships and eventually trains all brought countless visitors down from London.

Margate is crammed with historic and architectural gems, and today Margate Sands, the pier and Droit House, an attractive little building at the beginning of the pier are as fine a sight as ever – especially in a sunny day of November

My Margate’s routine includes a walk on the beach, a stroll on the pier and a quick  visit the Turner Contemporary Gallery followed by a generous portion of fish and chips in a sunny spot on the promenade fighting the cold air and the smell of the winter.

This time a little sign and a flash back of some online research lead my steps to Shell Grotto, a Grade I-listed building, consists of a winding subterranean passageway, about 2.4 metres high and 21 metres in length, terminating in a rectangular room, referred to as The Altar Chamber and measuring approximately 5 x 6 metres.

The story goes that in 1835 Mr James Newlove lowered his young son Joshua into a hole in the ground that had appeared during the digging of a duck pond. Joshua emerged describing tunnels covered with shells. He had discovered the Shell Grotto, its walls decorated with strange symbols mosaic-ed in millions of shells. Is it an ancient pagan temple? A meeting place for some secret cult? Nobody can explain who built this amazing place, or why, but since its accidental discovery visitors from all over the world have been intrigued by the beautiful mosaic and the unsolved mystery.

The purpose of the structure is unknown, and various hypotheses have dated its construction to any time in the past 3,000 years. Hypotheses include: it was an 18th or 19th-century rich man’s folly; it was a prehistoric astronomical calendar; it is connected with the Knights Templar/Freemasonry.[2] No scientific dating of the site has been carried out.

A popular theory with some, who cite the popularity of follies and shell structures in the 1700s. There are lots of them dotted around the country, largely in the grounds of stately homes, and as a result of wealthy landowners having embarked on the Grand Tour and seen shell structures on their travels. But the land the Grotto lies under was farmland and as far as we know has never formed part of a large estate. So why would a rich man’s fancy be built under someone else’s pastureland?

Follies were built as a statement: look at how much money I have, look at how cultured I am, look at me! So, if they included shells, the more exotic the better! In general, they weren’t secret, hidden away places. And they weren’t built under a farmer’s field.

If the Grotto had been built in the 1700s is it possible that all knowledge of it had disappeared by the time of its discovery in 1835? The building of the Grotto would have been a mammoth task: the excavation of the passageways, transporting 4.6 million shells to the site, sorting those shells and enlisting enough labour to create the mosaic. How to do all this on rising open ground, next to a busy track without anyone noticing? Every towns person would have had to be in on the secret and not breathed a word about it.

Was the grotto a smuggler’s cave? There was certainly a good deal of smuggling going on in and around Margate but it’s impossible to imagine the Grotto being a useful hiding place. For one thing, it’s a fair distance inland from the coast with no tunnels extending to or from the cliffs, nor any providing entrance or escape routes to nearby houses. The idea that smugglers would bring their booty to an exposed field doesn’t hold water. And why decorate it with millions of shells?

After getting back to the daylight why not stopping in the little shop where the owners stock hundreds of products, some inspired by the designs in the Grotto, some inspired by the seaside and many inspired by, or made of, shells. The shells come in a wild variety of colours and sizes, with prices ranging from 10p to £90. I spent couple of minutes looking at an interesting range of jewellery, plus fossils, crystals and a small but perfectly formed selection of books from Shire and Thames and Hudson.

Since the first paying customers descended the chalk stairway debate has raged about the Grotto’s origins: for every expert who believes it to be an ancient temple, there’s someone else convinced it was the meeting place for a secret sect; for every ardent pagan, there’s a Regency folly-monger ready to spoil their fun. At first glance the Grotto’s design only adds to the confusion, with humble cockles, whelks, mussels and oysters creating a swirling profusion of patterns and symbols. A storehouse for the imagination, there are any number of interpretations; trees of life, gods, goddesses and something that looks very like an altar, to name but a few.

However, there’s only one fact about the Grotto that is indisputable: that it is a unique work of art that should be valued and preserved, whatever its age or origins.


(“Far From the Sodding Crowd: More Uncommonly British Days Out”, Robin Halstead)


~ by Leonard69 on November 19, 2017.

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