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This Ornate Subterranean Passageway. It Was Discovered in 1835 Whilst Digging a Pond

Jack Beckett

Margate’s Shell Grotto is an ornate subterranean passageway with walls and roof covered in mosaics made entirely of seashells. It was discovered in 1835 in the county of Kent in South East England when the head of the nearby Dane House School, James Newlove, was digging a pond into the ground.

The shell Grotto was discovered in 1835. Author: Barney Moss CC BY 2.0

The shell Grotto was discovered in 1835. Author: Barney Moss CC BY 2.0

While he was digging, he discovered an empty space below the surface and he made a remarkable discovery. He lowered his young son Joshua into the hole and he found this astonishing underground palace decorated with treasures from the sea. After the accidental discovery, Newlove installed gas lamps to illuminate the ornate passageway and three years later he opened the grotto to the public.

How it came to be originally built remains unexplained. Author: Simon Lee CC BY 2.0

How it came to be originally built remains unexplained. Author: Simon Lee CC BY 2.0

 

The Altar chamber looks like an early temple for masonic rituals. Author: Ben Sutherland CC BY 2.0

The Altar chamber looks like an early temple for masonic rituals. Author: Ben Sutherland CC BY 2.0

The shell decoration consists of roughly square panels, each containing a specific design or motif. The total number of shells used to make all of the mosaics is approximately 4.6 million. The shells used at the Grotto were mussels, whelks, limpets, cockles, scallops and oysters, all of which are edible.

 

The Grotto is similar of the construction of early tin mines in the region. Author: Kevan CC BY 2.0

The Grotto is similar of the construction of early tin mines in the region. Author: Kevan CC BY 2.0

The passageways are about 2.4 meters high and 21 meters in length, terminating in a rectangular room, referred to as The Altar Chamber, which measures approximately 5 x 6 meters. The Grotto has traditionally been divided into five named sections, The Entrance Passage, Dome, Serpentine Passage, Rotunda and the Altar Chamber.

Shell Grottoes of this type were extremely popular in the Europe of the 1700s. Author: Ruth Johnston CC BY 2.0

Shell Grottoes of this type were extremely popular in the Europe of the 1700s. Author: Ruth Johnston CC BY 2.0

The purpose of the structure is unknown, and various hypotheses have dated its construction to any time in the past 3, 000 years. According to Treehugger, speculation over who made the cave ranges from ancient Phoenicians and Romans to members of an 18th century secret society to a wealthy Victorian wanting a folly, a fashionable statement at the time.

A number of the shells have been vandalised over the years by visitors. Author: Ruth Johnston CC BY 2.0

A number of the shells have been vandalised over the years by visitors. Author: Ruth Johnston CC BY 2.0

 

Some have suggested it to be a hoax, even though there is no evidence of excavations at the time. Author: Tim Herrick CC BY 2.0

Some have suggested it to be a hoax, even though there is no evidence of excavations at the time. Author: Tim Herrick CC BY 2.0

The Grotto is a Grade I listed building and is open to the public. Because there is no definitive explanation or history, the Shell Grotto is considered by many to be Kent’s greatest mysteries.