Today we have a special mystery: a strange sacred underground passage of great beauty which was constructed by unknown entities for unknown reasons. Shell Grotto in Margate Kent is an underground passage constructed entirely of seashells (or, I should say, the walls and ceilings are entirely lined with shells). The passage is 2.4 meters (8 feet) high and 21 meters in length (69 feet) and terminates in a 5 x 6 meter (16 foot by 20 foot) chamber colloquially known as “The Altar Room.” The entire complex is hewn out of the native chalk of Kent and extensively decorated with vaults and decorative mosaics made of local mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters (although winkles from as far away as Southampton.
The complex was “discovered” in 1835 and has been the subject of much speculation ever since. Some people assert that it was a prehistoric astronomical calendar (?), a special space for Templar or Freemasonry ceremonies, or an 18th century nobleman’s folly. The first mention of it in the press is from 1838, announcing its forthcoming opening as a public attraction. My own hypothesis is that the grotto is a Victorian attraction.
Originally the shells had their vibrant natural colors, but after long exposure to flickering Victorian gaslights they had blackened and faded. Fortunately, Shell Grotto is protected as a Grade I listed building of special historical and cultural interest (although no archaeologists seem particularly interested, which reinforces my “Victorian tourist trap: hypothesis). Whatever its provenance, Shell Grotto is certainly impressive. It is estimated that the builders, whoever they were, employed about 4.7 million shells to make the complex. Their initiative and hard work have paid off: Shell Grotto has a mysterious oceanic splendor and beauty all its own. The enigma of its nature only adds to its picturesque (but haunting) charm.