The mysterious shell grotto of Margate – Part 1
Thirty-five miles north of Dover, a 40 minutes drive, one can find the English town Margate in Kent - a coastal town with 57,000 inhabitants and a proud maritime history. Since 1760 Margate has been a favorite holiday destination for many Londoners for its sandy beaches. In the course of time, there have been some violent fires that burned down some of the historic buildings. In the middle of the last century, the fierce fighting between different groups caused the coastal town to fall somewhat into oblivion. Although the site does its best to have the look of a fashionable holiday resort, it is a typical English seaside with faded glory. Along the promenade you will find hotels, fish 'n chip shops and the clocktower. The tower was built in 1887 in honor of the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria. Further to the port you will find a bronze statue of the shell lady - a figure based on souvenir dolls, made of shells. This lady represents Mrs. Sophie Booth, the landlady of painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) who lived on the sea side in her home. Turner is known for his paintings of seascapes. This house is now a museum for contemporary art.
What makes Margate special is the presence of a mysterious grotto. The grotto lies under houses with gardens at no more than two meters depth.
The word grotto originally comes from the Italian word grotto, in Latin crypta. Caves or grotto's can be formed artificially or naturally. In natural formation, limestone (calcite) solves in carbonated water. If this happens you will often find stalactites there.
Caves have always played an important role in human history. They have been used as shelter or as a place to honor. In, among others, Lascaux (France) the beautiful rock paintings prove that. In the ancient Roman Empire, grotto's also played an important role. The oracle of Delphi spoke in a grotto and the largest and oldest cemetery near Rome was found in one. In Homer’s Odyssey, a grotto had a key role when Odysseus defeated the cyclops Polyphemus. Plato used the grotto in an allegory for his views on the human condition and to explain human knowledge in relation to reality. Even today there are grotto's where people venerate. For instance the cave of Massabielle in Lourdes where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Bernadette in 1858.
From the 16th century onwards people created grotto's in Italian and French gardens. Decorated with fountains, waterfalls, water nymphs, precious stones and shells they were used as baths, chapels or theaters. It is known that there are about 20 to 30 grotto's of this type in England. However, it is surprising that the town of Margate, in a distant corner of Kent, has two. (The second grotto: the Margate caves have been closed since 2004 due to safety and health risks.)
The shell grotto
In 1835, the local school principal James Newlove wanted to build a duck pond in his garden. While digging, his shovel disappeared into an opening underneath a displaced capstone.
He lowered his son Joshua on a rope to retrieve the item. Upon returning the boy spoke of tunnels full of shell decorations.
To facilitate access to the cave a horizontal access was dug and the grotto was first opened to the public in 1837. The dark corridors were lit by gas lamps. The entrance Newlove used is now closed by a blind door. The current entrance is on grotto hill, a street that clearly has had its day. The grotto is privately owned but is on the list of buildings of architectural or historical interest by English Heritage.
What makes the shell grotto of Margate so mysterious is that there is nothing known about it. We do not know when the grotto was built, by whom and for what purpose. That much time and effort is spent is clear from the decorations that you find in there. More than 4.6 million seashells, spread over 21 meters in length (over 600 m 2) mosaic of shells, decorate each piece of the wall and ceiling of the grotto. Since the discovery in 1835 people have speculated about the true meaning of this place.
By descending a few steps from a pub you enter a room where the history of the grotto is told. From there you can enter the grotto through the new entrance, the only corridor that is not decorated. This corridor is 2 ½ meters high and more than 1 meter wide and comes out in two tunnels leading to the roundabout. Where the two tunnels of the roundabout get back together there is a dome of one meter diameter, containing an opening to the outside of 40 centimeters. This is the original hole in which James Newlove dropped his shovel. From the dome, a winding corridor leads to the altar room. Immediately upon entering you see the altar. The eastern wall and ceiling were severely damaged in 1940 during a bombardment.
The walls of the grotto are divided into sectors and each one has a specific topic. Many of the designs may be interpreted in several ways. Sometimes, the design is reminiscent of Indian or Egyptian designs. With a little imagination you can create a turtle, a crocodile, trees, flowers, gods, goddesses, a sun, a moon, the tree of life, trumpets, a three-pointed star and even recognize a phallus. You will, however, find no symbols referring to Christianity.
Images © Annemieke Witteveen