Margate Shell Grotto, Margate
Margate is a town in the throes of attempted gentrification, hoping to shed its tacky image with a new art gallery and renovated heritage theme park planned for 2011. Yet little is made of an existing attraction which is little known but simply astonishing. I can’t help but echo the Victorian novelist Marie Corelli who blamed its “plebeian” location for a lack of recognition:“[i]f the curious and beautiful subterranean temple … existed anywhere but at Margate, it would certainly be acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world”.
The Shell Grotto was discovered in 1835, prior to which date there are no maps, records or any indication of its existence, whomever may have created it and why they hid it again. It remains a mystery, with estimates of its age varying from 200 years to 2,000 year, with guesses ranging from it being a Masonic Sun Temple from the Middle Ages, to having been created by Roman soldiers. It has proved impossible to carbon date the shells due to contamination by soot from Victorian gas lighting. The material used to attach the shells, too, has been unable to shed any light but is similar to Roman cement, and seems to have been used to affix the shells while still alive.
Regardless of its origins, the Shell Grotto is an incredible place. 4.6 million shells cover almost every available space, their natural colours now covered in a patina of black and grey. Victorian damage is visible not just in the lack of colour, but in occasionally visible antique graffiti marking the shells. Finding shells with 19th century names and dates only adds to the Grotto’s charm.
A lengthy tunnel leads to a circular Rotunda passage, from which a further tunnel leads to a rectangular room known as the Altar Chamber. The images in the Grotto are open to interpretation although religious and ritual interpretations are the most common, with most seeming to pertain to fertility, birth, death and the sun. At the centre of the Grotto is a dome open to the sky which recent research has found to function as a solar calendar, forming a dramatic pattern at noon on the summer Equinox. While the mystery surrounding what ceremonial uses the Grotto may have once held are fascinating, the Shell Grotto stands alone, and would be no less intriguing if it were simply what it also appears to resemble, a work of outsider art.