The Mystery of the Margate Shell Grotto
In 1835 a labourer was digging a field just outside the English seaside town of Margate. His work was interrupted when he thrust his spade in to the soil and it vanished into the ground.
The master of the nearby Dane House School, James Newlove, was made aware of this strange event. He volunteered his young son, Joshua, for the task of being lowered, candle in hand, in to the void via a length of rope When Joshua was pulled back to the surface his wide-eyed tale astonished everyone. He told of a magical temple adorned in shells, hundreds, thousands… millions of them. All told, 4.6 million.
When the hole was widened enough for adults to enter they too witnessed the wondrous contents of the winding subterranean passageway, complete with an altar chamber and rotunda.
Newlove senior, a canny schoolmaster if ever there was one, was first to consider the financial benefits such a discovery might reap. He hurriedly purchased the land above the mysterious chamber and began to adapt it so that visitors might enter – for a small charge of course.
In 1837, just two years after its discovery, the grotto opened to a curious public. Yet to this day debate rages about it origins.
How it came to be originally built remains unexplained. However, the 2000 square feet of mosaics, created from mussel, cockle, whelk and oyster shells have provoked a multitude of explanations none of which have been confirmed with any total surety.
Shell grottoes of this type were extremely popular in the Europe of the 1700s. Many suppose that this was the result of a local bigwig embarking on the Grand Tour and returning with a desire to recreate a highlight of his or her European expedition. Yet although this is not without the realms of possibility, the land above the grotto never formed part of any large estate, which is where you would expect such an extravagance to be positioned – close enough to the big house to easily chaperone curious guests to its confines.
Moreover, had the grotto been built in the 1700s then there would have been some vestigial local memory (or legend) of its construction. In order to get millions of shells in to this underground passage many local people would have to have been involved in their transport. Yet the discovery in 1835 was a surprise to all – no one stepped forward with any explanation.
It has been suggested that the grotto was a smuggler’s cave – almost all the shells are British and so it could have been a hideaway made by locals for stolen and contraband goods. Yet this idea doesn’t hold much water either. Although near to the sea, the waves remain stubbornly a number of miles away and there are no tunnels from coast to ‘cave’. Plus with a distinct lack of an escape route any smuggler would have been mad to hide their booty here – not to mention the fact that they would have had to spend more of their time decorating the place than doing any actual smuggling. So, it’s a no to that theory as well.
Could it be a Roman temple? A remnant of dark-age rituals? A prehistoric astronomical calendar?