February 06, 2009

Margate Shell Grotto

 first three pictures (July 2009) 
courtesy of Emma Jane Falconer  

Shells and pebbles are among the materials used by people who create art environments. England has a number of shell decorated sites. In that country shells are also favourite as decoration in follies, singular architecture rich people from around 1700 on would commission to be constructed on their estates.

This weblog is not about follies or about mysterious places in Europe. It is about artistic creations made by non-professional artists. The Margate Shell Grotto for sure is an artistic creation, but who created it?

The discovery of the decorated cave

The site has underground passages and rooms, it has a large dome, and all walls are decorated with shell mosaic, altogether some 190 m², 4.6 million shells.

And it is unknown who made this, why, and when.....

Some say it is a folly. However, the land where the site is situated never was part of an estate. Before 1835 when the grotto was discovered by accident, nobody knew about its existence, which also is an argument, because follies -and their owners- are meant to be admired and talked about.

The discovery of the site was announced to the world in 1838 by local schoolteacher James Newlove, who told a daily newspaper that it happened after a gardener's shovel sank into the depths, after which upon further investigation the cave was found. But probably his son Joshua already knew about the cave from 1835, because he and his friends already played in the entrance passages of the cave.

James Newlove must have heard something about this from his son, because before 1838 he bought the piece of land under which the cave was located.

The map below dates from 1821 and the arrow, added later, points to the current location of the cave, which the old map makes no mention of.

picture from the Grotto's FB page
A few weeks after the report in the newspaper, the grotto was opened to the public.

Twyman's theory

An interesting theory about the history of the grotto was presented by the late Mick Twyman, who was related to the Margate Historical Society. He measured the lay out of the decorations in the dome in relation with the passage of the sunbeams that enter the dome through the small circular opening in its top, which made him conclude there was equinox-compatibility around 1141 (if this is abracadabra to you, here is an explanation of the precession of the equinox).

This might be an indication of the time the grotto was decorated. The patterns in the mosaic made Twyman suppose this site was a hide-out or temple of the Knights Templar.

The link to Twyman's article is no longer available on the official website of the Shell Grotto (and it is not available elsewhere too) since the management of the Grotto prefers not to take sides with regard to the various theories about the Grotto's origin and adheres to "we do not know".

picture courtesy of Jessica Straus

Theorizing about the grotto's origin goes on. Take a look at an article by Megan Manson (April 2014) on the Patheos.com website.

Preservation of the grotto

In 2008 an association Friends of the Grotto was formed to promote the survival of the Grotto as a unique historical monument.

The Grotto is classified and British Heritage has co-financed a conservation project. The first phase began in 2009 and focused upon preventing that rain water would penetrate the soil above the grotto and damage the decorations.The next phase started autumn 2011 and included repairs and cleaning of the shell mosaics.

The Margate Cave

Not far from the Shell Grotto, there is another grotto, called Margate Cave. This one, however, since 2006 is closed for the public because of safety problems. The history of this cave is also rather mysterious and curious. The future of this cave as a touristic site is uncertain, because of a plan to build a housing complex close to it.
Documentation/more pictures
* Website of the Margate Shell Grotto
* Wikipedia
Shell Grotto group on Flickr
* Shell Grotto on Facebook
* Shell Grotto's page on YouTube

* A video (2017, 1'13") by Culture Trip, from the Grotto's Facebook account

first published February 2009, last revised May 2023

Margate Shell Grotto
Grotto Hill
Margate, Kent, South East England, UK 
can be visited, daily in summer, weekends in winter

1 comment:

  1. Wow ! How do you find these places Henk ?!? One would think there would be local legends that would account for who and why places like this were built... ? I'm going to need a long stretch of vacation soon to start visiting some of these places you have dug up... keep them coming... I am hooked now, can't wait to see what is going to appear next on your blog.