Discover the Mystery of Margate Shell Grotto: England’s Subterranean Wonder

In 1835, a British man named James Newlove was digging a massive hole that was ultimately going to be a duck pond when his shovel struck something quite unexpected. A hole within a hole materialized. With great curiosity, James Newlove lowered his son into what appeared to be a sparkling cave. Newlove’s son reported that he had stumbled into a mysterious room decorated with shells.

Shell Grotto, Margate

Photo by Flickr

The Margate Shell Grotto in Margate, England, may be a wildly popular tourist destination, but its origins remain mysterious. Twenty-first-century historians are unsure if the structure was built by ancient Phoenicians, an eccentric 19th-century British aristocrat, or a secret sect of pagans that crafted a secluded place of worship. The land surrounding the Margate Shell Grotto has never been connected to a stately British home. Accurate radiocarbon dating that would reveal the time period in which the grotto was built has proven difficult and costly, due to the strange ‘fish-based substance’ that binds the grotto together.

Margate Shell Grotto

Photo by Flickr

In 2007, a subterranean cave with shell mosaics that have similar patterns to those in the Margate Shell Grotto was discovered under Palatine Hill in Rome. Historians believe that the Roman shell grotto supports the idea that the Margate Shell Grotto was, in fact, built by seafaring Phoenicians, who were known to have traded in the British Isles.

The distinctive Gothic arches that appear in the Margate Shell Grotto didn’t appear in Europe until the 12th century, which supports the hypothesis that the grotto was a folly—an ornamental space that was created by an aristocrat with ample resources simply for their own amusement. Even die-hard supporters of the folly theory can’t explain why such a structure would exist beneath a farm that was owned by a commoner.

For a small fee, visitors can explore the ornate halls of the Margate Shell Grotto. Over 4.6 million whelk, scallop, oyster, and mussel shells line the walls. Patterns that resemble flowers, animals, and even a human skeleton appear to grace the grotto. A small chamber with a skylight that allows sunlight to shine inside a shell-lined cavern supports the theory that the Margate Shell Grotto served some type of ceremonial purpose.

The origin of the Margate Shell Grotto is an intriguing mystery that may never be solved. If you love visiting beautiful, peculiar places that leave you with more questions than answers, a trip to the Margate Shell Grotto is an absolute must.

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