The small English town of Margate sits along the far eastern tip of Kent, across the English Channel from the French Port of Calais. Hidden underground, the magnificent Shell Grotto of Margate held its secrets of the past, until it was discovered in 1835. Approximately 4.6 million shells line the walls, ceilings, an altar, and a dome that opens to the sky. The entire grotto is covered in symmetrically-balanced and geometric shell work. However, nobody knows why or when this grand work of art was built, or by whom.
You are lead into the grotto by walking down a serpentine passageway which opens up to several chambers with curving walls, archways, supporting columns and a dome, all decorated in sea shells. The focal point of the grotto is an alter for what use can only be guessed.
The 2000 square feet of mosaic panels, created from mussel, cockle, whelk and oyster shells mainly have a celestial theme featuring stars, but their is heavy symbolism for life and death. For example one panel shows a womb with an umbilical cord and another a skeleton.
A horizon line runs through grotto. Historians believe the area below the line represents earth, and above the line is heaven. The panel called “The Womb,” does not have a horizon line, and some believe the womb-shaped mosaic represents the merging of heaven and earth. The anatomical imagery also symbolizes the power of the female, which appears to be one major theme of the grotto. Some even theorize that women designed and built it.
The main room at the end of the winding passage contains the Altar Chamber, also covered with shells. This is the Altar Chamber. A half moon niche forms the altar itself. At the back of the niche, there is a shell mosaic of the sun. Below the altar is the moon. The dome in the grotto has an open top and lets in light at an angle. On the Summer Solstice the light shines directly on the alter. Surely not a coincidence.
First discovered in 1835, apparently by accident, the purpose of the structure is unknown. and various hypotheses have dated its construction to any time in the past 3,000 years. Hypotheses include it was an 18th or 19th-century rich man’s folly, a prehistoric astronomical calendar and may be connected with the Knights Templar/Freemasonry.
Whatever its origins, to stand in the Grotto is to submerse yourself in an underground realm of spirituality and stillness.
From the book, Far From the Sodding Crowd: More Uncommonly British Days Out:
“In the next six months, unless your soul is utterly dead, you will have a dream set here.”