The Shell Grotto

Hidden underground, in the English seaside town of Margate is the mysterious Shell Grotto.

Margate sits along the far eastern tip of Kent, on the English Channel and across from the French Port of Calais. Within the town, buried in a small green hill, the magnificent Shell Grotto held its secrets of the past, until it was discovered in 1835.

And what a discovery!

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.

Entering The Grotto

The serpentine passageway

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.

There are 2,000 square feet of mosaic panels created from mussel, cockle, whelk and oyster shells. The panels mainly have a celestial theme featuring stars, but their is also 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. Inside the Altar Chamber, a half-moon forms the altar itself. At the back of the altar, there is a shell mosaic of the sun. Below the altar is a full moon.

Shell Grotto opening

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.

The Grotto’s Unknown Purpose

Discovered apparently by accident in Victorian times, the purpose of the shell structure is unknown. Various hypotheses have dated its construction to any time in the past 3,000 years. These hypotheses include the grotto was an 18th or 19th-century rich man’s folly, a prehistoric astronomical calendar, and may be connected with the Knights Templar/Freemasonry (given Margate’s close proximity to Calais).

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.”

Close-up of a panel

Images from and

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