The Mysterious Shell Grotto of Margate

Thirty-five miles north of Dover, a 40 minutes drive, one can find the English town Margate in Kent – a coastal town with 57,000 inhabitants and a proud maritime history. Since 1760 Margate has been a favorite holiday destination for many Londoners for its sandy beaches. In the course of time, there have been some violent fires that burned down some of the historic buildings. In the middle of the last century, the fierce fighting between different groups caused the coastal town to fall somewhat into oblivion.

Although the site does its best to have the look of a fashionable holiday resort, it is a typical English seaside with faded glory. Along the promenade you will find hotels, fish ‘n chip shops and the clocktower. The tower was built in 1887 in honor of the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria. Further to the port you will find a bronze statue of the shell lady – a figure based on souvenir dolls, made ​​of shells. This lady represents Mrs. Sophie Booth, the landlady of painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) who lived on the sea side in her home. Turner is known for his paintings of seascapes. This house is now a museum for contemporary art.


What makes Margate special is the presence of a mysterious grotto. The grotto lies under houses with gardens at no more than two meters depth.

The word grotto originally comes from the Italian word grotto, in Latin crypta. Caves or grottos can be formed artificially or naturally. In natural formation, limestone (calcite) solves in carbonated water. If this happens you will often find stalactites there.

Caves have always played an important role in human history. They have been used as shelter or as a place to honor. In, among others, Lascaux (France) the beautiful rock paintings prove that. In the ancient Roman Empire, grottos also played an important role. The oracle of Delphi spoke in a grotto and the largest and oldest cemetery near Rome was found in one. In Homer’s Odyssey, a grotto had a key role when Odysseus defeated the cyclops Polyphemus. Plato used the grotto in an allegory for his views on the human condition and to explain human knowledge in relation to reality. Even today there are grottos where people venerate. For instance the cave of Massabielle in Lourdes where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Bernadette in 1858.

From the 16th century onwards people created grottos in Italian and French gardens. Decorated with fountains, waterfalls, water nymphs, precious stones and shells they were used as baths, chapels or theaters. It is known that there are about 20 to 30 grottos of this type in England. However, it is surprising that the town of Margate, in a distant corner of Kent, has two (The second grotto: the Margate caves have been closed since 2004 due to safety and health risks.)

The shell grotto

In 1835, the local school principal James Newlove wanted to build a duck pond in his garden. While digging, his shovel disappeared into an opening underneath a displaced capstone.

He lowered his son Joshua on a rope to retrieve the item. Upon returning the boy spoke of tunnels full of shell decorations.

To facilitate access to the cave a horizontal access was dug and the grotto was first opened to the public in 1837. The dark corridors were lit by gas lamps. The entrance Newlove used is now closed by a blind door. The current entrance is on grotto hill, a street that clearly has had its day. The grotto is privately owned but is on the list of buildings of architectural or historical interest by English Heritage.

What makes the shell grotto of Margate so mysterious is that there is nothing known about it. We do not know when the grotto was built, by whom and for what purpose. That much time and effort is spent is clear from the decorations that you find in there. More than 4.6 million seashells, spread over 21 meters in length (over 600 m2) mosaic of shells, decorate each piece of the wall and ceiling of the grotto. Since the discovery in 1835 people have speculated about the true meaning of this place.

By descending a few steps from a pub you enter a room where the history of the grotto is told. From there you can enter the grotto through the new entrance, the only corridor that is not decorated. This corridor is 2 ½ meters high and more than 1 meter wide and comes out in two tunnels leading to the roundabout. Where the two tunnels of the roundabout get back together there is a dome of one meter diameter, containing an opening to the outside of 40 centimeters. This is the original hole in which James Newlove dropped his shovel. From the dome, a winding corridor leads to the altar room. Immediately upon entering you see the altar. The eastern wall and ceiling were severely damaged in 1940 during a bombardment.

The walls of the grotto are divided into sectors and each one has a specific topic. Many of the designs may be interpreted in several ways. Sometimes, the design is reminiscent of Indian or Egyptian designs. With a little imagination you can create a turtle, a crocodile, trees, flowers, gods, goddesses, a sun, a moon, the tree of life, trumpets, a three-pointed star and even recognize a phallus. You will, however, find no symbols referring to Christianity.

Ninety-nine per cent of the shells that were used in the Margate shell grotto (e.g. mussels, oysters, clams, whelk, razors and limpet) are from shellfish that occur along the English coast. Only in the altar room one can find some exotic shells from the Caribbean, such as the pink wing horn. In earlier times it must have been a beautiful, colorful place, but nowadays the shells have a dirty and drab appearance. That is due to the use of the gas lamps in the past that left a layer of soot behind on the shells. Cleaning with water would have a devastating impact and one stresses now on conservation.

Some panels have some sort of medallion. These were made above ground and later fastened on the wall in the grotto. Approximately 100 of these medallions are gone because visitors took them as souvenirs. Unfortunately, the documents with graphics of the original decorations were lost in the relocation of the library of Margate. The route one navigates through the grotto could be a symbol for a lifetime: the entrance is your birth, you walk the path of your life and the journey ends at the heavenly afterlife.

Illustration of the many symbols and decorations. Created by the previous owners Nellie and Conan Shaw.

How old can the grotto be?

Researchers have dated the grotto everywhere from prehistoric to Roman and Ancient Phoenician to the 18th century!

Because of the poor and dirty condition of the shells, it is almost impossible to determine the exact age of the cave with radiocarbon dating. Because traces of the use of tools is absent it is not possible to investigate the age of the grotto accurately.

There have been several different samples taken of the mortar with which the shells are mounted on the wall. It showed that several compounds had been used, mostly based on fish-like material known as Roman cement.

According to locals it is most logical that the grotto dates from the time of Queen Victoria. At that time fishing for shellfish increased to such an extent that there were enough shells left as a byproduct to use as decoration. Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901. That would mean that the shell grotto was probably built less than 100 years before the rediscovery in 1835, without anyone remembering that. In a village there are always oral traditions of huge construction projects such as the grotto would have been.

However, until the opening of the shell grotto in 1837 no one was aware of its existence. The arch construction of the ceiling might indicate creation in the 14th century. This construction however, is not chosen for its architectural design, but for practical reasons. A flat roof would bring a collapse hazard. The argument that the grotto may have been built after 1600 because they did not use wheelbarrows before that year to bring the carved limestone to the surface is not credible.

The claim that the cave originates from the Phoenician period would seem far-fetched. The highlight of this civilization was based in what is now Lebanon and Syria and was between 1500 and 400 BC. The Phoenicians were known as excellent sailors and are responsible for our use of the alphabet. However, the town of Margate is the most easterly point of Kent. This part of Kent was formerly separated from the mainland by the River Wantsum and is called Isle of Thanet. The name Thanet comes from the Phoenician goddess Tanit. Often depicted as a stylistic figure which shows great similarity with an Ankh.

Early June 2013, ​​the Society of Wessex archeology announced that at Pegwell Bay (5 miles from Margate) an old cemetery was found with bodies dating from the early Bronze Age (ca. 1500 BC). In those days, the deceased were usually cremated and it was not customary to bury them. Could this be a cemetery of the Phoenician navigators? (Source: the Daily Mail, June 5, 2013)

What is the purpose of the grotto?

Was the grotto used as a temple by old pagan religions or as a meeting place for a secret society? Oriental motifs found on the walls of the grotto have led to speculations about Phoenicians, Romans, Knights Templars, mystics and magicians. The fact is that no one really knows why the shell grotto was built. Some obvious statements however can easily be refuted.

It is not logical that the grotto was used as a dungeon as some have suggested. Dungeons clearly do not need beautifully decorated walls and ceilings.

The grotto was also not used as a quarry. There are other, more obvious places to acquire limestone and quarries are not excavated in the shape of arch structures.

It also can not be true that the grotto was used as a smugglers cave. They certainly use to smuggle a lot in this region. However, the grotto is situated on a hill too far away from the sea. There would be tunnels that run to the shore and at least one escape tunnel. They are not there. A repository for contraband would not need to be decorated so beautifully.

Throughout the whole of England you can find so called Follies. These are useless structures with no other purpose than decoration and displaying wealth to the outside world. After 1700 A.D. the rich built arbors and grottos near their stately homes, which were richly decorated, often left with shells. The shell grotto was built on what was once farmland and no one could perceive the wealth because it is underground. The theory of  a Folly therefore does not make sense.

That the cave was used as a place of worship is obvious. At the end of the hallway is an altar. The roundabout might have played a major role. In several World Religions running or walking concentrically is common to get in touch with the gods. The Dervishes dance endless laps to get in ecstasy and thus get closer to God. The Bible tells us the story of the people of Jericho needing to walk seven rounds around the city to bring down its walls. Muslims walk seven rounds during their Hajj around the sacred stone of the Kaaba in Mecca to be elevated. Was the roundabout in the cave also walked around as a way of getting in touch with a higher power?

Researcher Mick Twyman of the Margate Historical Society thinks that the grotto might have been built in the 12th century. He explains the link between the grotto and the temple knights. During his research, he did not let himself be distracted by the possible significance of the designs in the shells. He just looked at the size and construction of the grotto itself. He came to his conclusion by carefully measuring the angles in the grotto and observing the position of projected sunlight on the dome. On June 21st at 12:00, the light that is passing through the dome looks like an egg that reflects on the belly of a mosaic snake. Then the light is reflected by square openings in the top of the cave that directs the light to the altar in the rectangular altar room. Can there be a link to the Mayan culture who allowed, in the construction of Chitzen Itza, the serpent to descend along the steps of the temple on the exact same day and time?

Between March and October (the fertility season according to the Ancient Celts) the projection of sunlight on the dome might have been used as a sundial. Based on this phenomenon and complex mathematical calculations, taking into account the changing angle of the equinox every 72 years, Twyman calculated that the construction of the grotto must have taken place around 1141 AD.

According to Twyman, the designs in the cave show references to early Masonic rituals. Above the entrance to the altar room was a cornerstone and for performing Royal Arch Masonry (an initiatory degree in Freemasonry) they needed an altar. Masonic symbols such as compass, square, star of David, pentagram, tetrahedon, panels with symbols of Ancient Gods like the two heavenly light rays and the Pleiadian constellation can be found in the grotto.

During my visit to the cave I had a strong feeling that a female power was worshiped in the cave. The fact that shells resemble a womb reinforced that feeling. During my research for writing this article, I noticed the resemblance between the 8-pointed star (an important symbol in several cultures, associated with creation) as it occurs repeatedly on the walls of the grotto in Margate and the star of Ishtar, the goddess of Mesopotamia (or known as Inanna in Sumeria) that represents fertility, love, war and sex. Ishtar is also associated with the planet Venus. Could it be that the opening in the dome was used to observe the planet Venus to determine the correct time of worship?

Who created ​​the grotto and for what purpose will always remain unclear. It is clear that the designer must have been highly trained and must have had knowledge of other cultures to merge in patterns made of millions of shells. Every theory concerning the grotto is based on wisdom hidden in the design. If the builder had no other goal than speculation, conjecture and controversy, his mission is accomplished.

The Victorian novelist Marie Corelli blamed the lack of recognition for the shell grotto to its location “as the special and beautiful underground temple was found in anywhere else than Margate, it would certainly be recognized as one of the wonders of the world.”

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