The Mysterious Shell Grotto of Margate

A mysterious shell grotto discovered in 1835. Nobody knows when it was constructed, who built it and what its purpose was. 

Why visit?

To experience one of the strangest places I have ever been to. And to spend half an hour in a rather beautiful place that nestles beneath a rather faded English seaside town.

The shell grotto is in the seaside town of Margate in Kent, most famously known for its connections to the artists JMW Turner and Tracey Emin. The Shell Grotto is well known locally and is sign posted throughout the town and located on Grotto Hill. Map.

THE LITTER-STREWN street which the grotto lies beneath did not seem to promise much mystery and intrigue on the rainy November day we visited. Hopes were not high of spending a magical half hour in a beautiful underground grotto adorned with shells. But once we descended into the grotto, the magic began. The atmospheric gas-lights have long since been extinguished, but the mystery of just how this place came to exist provides atmosphere enough. 
There are few man-made places that have no records about their history. But this place was a complete shock to the people of Margate when it was discovered. Such an absence of records makes you think the grotto just sprung into existence one day – the secrecy is quite enthralling. It is to the current owner’s credit that this place is maintained and marketed in a tasteful and unassuming fashion when its existence is as weird and unexplained as Stonehenge's! 

As you meander along the ‘rotunda’ to the ‘serpentine passage’ your eyes marvel at the ornate patterns on the walls and ceilings and you are struck by the incongruity of this place. It is now underneath a suburban street but in 1835 it was below grassland that was being dug over for a duck pond. A man- made grotto hewn out of the earth and decorated with millions of shells – why? If only time travel were possible.........

Although discovered in 1835, many theories think that the Shell Grotto may have been constructed in the 1700s and the sheer scale of the project all those years ago is mind-boggling. How the grotto was dug out, how all the shells were transported when the place is some distance from the beach is quite a mysterious feat. A true labour of shell love.

Some of the shell designs on the walls are reminiscent of the geometric patterns of Islamic art. There are also archways and columns that give a church-like effect. So it is no surprise that some people think it was built as a secret place of worship. 
Indeed, at the far end of the grotto is an ‘altar chamber’ named after the altar-like structure decorated with, yes, you’ve guessed it, shells. In this chamber, you will find exotic queen conch shells - a rarity in the grotto, for 99% of the shells used are found on the local beaches. These conch shells speak of ancient voyages to far away lands and add to the conundrum that is the grotto. Apparently there are 4.6 million shells in this place. You might pity the people who had to transport the shells all those years ago but spare a thought for the person who had to count them all!

Looking at the patterns is mesmerising, and spotting the tasteful graffiti was an unexpected bonus. Just who ‘Christie’ was is just one of the many mysteries surrounding the grotto.
Many of the shells are dulled with soot from the gas lights that used to illuminate the grotto, but this does nothing to detract from their earthy beauty. A few are shiny and bright from being touched by hundreds of hands over the years, and I became one more in a long line of shell-touchers.
There were other visitors to the grotto while we were there, but it was never busy, and some of the time we were alone, left to wander through the ornate passageways and stand under ‘the dome’, free to read into the elaborate patterns in whatever way we wished.

Rich man’s folly? Smuggling cave? House of worship? Who knows, and in a way who cares; part of the pleasure of this place is in not knowing. I hope that its true origins remain a mystery. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s mysterious. Oh, and it also has a ghost. If you like shells, mysterious places, and want to add your theory about its origins into the mix then this is the place for you.
Once you leave the grotto, there are some interesting displays upstairs that detail how the grotto was originally discovered and how carbon dating the shells is not, for now, a viable option – thus maintaining the mystery of exactly how old this place is. You can buy some shells in the very tasteful little gift shop or have a cup of coffee in the small, friendly cafe.

Outside, the rain was still falling and the litter still blowing along the pavement, but we left knowing that underneath this urban street, lies a little oasis of mysterious beauty. I like to think of the grotto ghost wafting along the twisting passageways at night, guarding the secret of why this place exists. 

Give her my regards if you visit and see her.

Useful links:
The Shell Grotto website

About the author:
Vicky Turner was born and raised in West Yorkshire in the UK but has gradually been moving South (via the East Coast of the USA) for the last fourteen years. She currently explores in Kent.