In the seaside village of Margate in Kent, there’s a secret hidden at the top of Grotto Hill, beneath the garden of Belle Vue Cottage—the Shell Grotto, seventy feet of winding passageways and rooms underground whose walls are completely covered in over four million shells. The shells form an array of mysterious designs, from flowers and suns and what some believe may be the Celtic tree of life, or portrayals of gods and goddesses. The Grotto was discovered in 1835, when legend has it that the owner of the cottage was digging a duck pond in his garden. No one knows who built the Grotto or why, but theories abound. Some claim it was a pagan or Phoenician temple (a Grotto was discovered in Rome with similar shell mosaics), while others think it was built by a rich lord in the 18th or 19th century to show off his wealth, and some connect it to the Knights Templar or Freemasonry. Whichever theory you believe, it’s currently a Grade-I listed building, with conservation programs under way to keep it intact in the face of humidity and to recreate some of the missing parts of the mosaics. Visitors are welcome to tour the Grotto and stop by its nearby giftshop, filled with sustainably-sourced seashells and goodies such as jewelry, fossils, crystals, and books. And if you want to support the Grotto’s conservation, you can join the Friends of the Shell Grotto trust, or sponsor a recreated mosaic in the name of a loved one. It’ll get marked on the maps of the Grotto—a love forever marked in the shells.
The Shell Grotto
Grotto Hill, Margate, Kent
Open Wednesday-Sunday 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM (for November 2021)
Tickets £4.50 per adult, pre-booking advised.
Photo credit @shellgrotto