On a suburban street away from the seafront in Margate is a mysterious place of unknown age and origin. The Shell Grotto, on Grotto Hill, is a subterranean passageway discovered in 1835 decorated in 4.6 millions seashells. These shells are arranged in ornate mosaics combining floral motifs within the walkways and more geometrical patterns within the ‘alter room’ at the end of the tunnels. The mosaics are made from a variety of different shells including locally occurring mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops and oysters. The bulk of the ‘background to the design is however made of flat winkle, rarely found locally and in closest abundance near Southampton. This adds to the intrigue of the origins of the grotto – multiple theories circle from being a pet project of a Victorian dandy to millennia old religious site, with Freemasonry in between.
The passageway meets centrally as a circular portal to the sky, lined with layers of shells spiralling to the light.
The passageways end in the rectangular ‘alter room’ where shrine like plinths are decorated in geometric and star shaped mosaic designs.
Along with the Grotto itself, the adjoining gift shop is well worth a visit. Shells of all kinds are available, along with sea themed gifts, jewellery and homeware.
The Shell Grotto is one of the most serene and magical places I’ve been to; the intricacies of the mosaics would make this a top tourist attraction if it was in one of the country’s major cities – it’s existence is almost unbelieveable. I can’t think of a better way to spend £3.50!