In 1835, a laborer was digging in a field just outside the English seaside town of Margate. Suddenly, he hit an empty space in the ground and his shovel was pulled into the earth. After poking around the hole and discussing the situation with nearby townspeople, James Newlove, the master of the nearby Dane House School, volunteered his son Joshua to be lowered into the hole. They tied him to a rope, handed him a flickering candle, and lowered him into the void.
Joshua returned a short while later wide-eyed and astonished, shouting a tale of a magical and winding temple that had walls covered in beautiful polished shells. The townspeople, unsurprisingly, were a bit dubious at first. But they widened the hole and sent a few adults within. They found that Joshua wasn’t lying.
They discovered a winding subterranean grotto, complete with an altar chamber and rotunda. All said, it was 2000 square feet, and the walls were covered in mosaics, created from mussel, cockle, whelk and oyster shells. All told, 4.6 million shells adorned the walls.
Newlove senior, a local schoolmaster and aspiring businessman, realized the financial benefits that such a discovery might reap. He hurriedly purchased the land above the mysterious chamber and began to adapt it for visitors. In 1837, just two years after its discovery, the grotto opened to a curious public. But to this day, no one knows who built the grotto, or just as interestingly, why they built it.
Shell grottoes of this type were extremely popular in the Europe of the 1700s. Many speculate that this was built in that model after a local was witness to some on a visit to the mainland. Yet, this grotto stood alone in a field. It was not part of a large estate or even close to a house. Which, if you built such a place to share with guests, surely it would be located close enough to easily get them there.
And, more obviously, had the grotto been built in the 1700s then certainly there would have been some documentation or legend of its existence just a few decades later in 1835. After all, in order to get millions of shells in to this underground passage many local people would have to have been involved in their transport. Yet, the discovery was a complete surprise to everyone.
Another suggestion is that it was a smuggler’s cave. Nearly all of the shells are British, so perhaps it was made by locals to store contraband. However, no tunnels run to the sea or any other escape route. Plus, its doubtful that any smuggler would have spent so much time or money to decorate their hideout so extravagantly.
Other theories include a Roman temple, a location for dark-age rituals, or a prehistoric astronomical calendar. None of them have any substance to back up the idea either, however. There have even been séances held in the grotto to try and contact the spirits of the builders, such as the one from the 1930s above.
Vandals have written on several of the pieces over the years, which has itself become part of the grotto’s history.
Probably the most interesting theory was proposed by Mick Twyman of the Margate Historical Society – that the grotto was built by the Knights Templar or their associates sometime in the middle 1100s. He has suggested this after a painstaking measurement of angles inside the grotto and the way that the sunlight is projected in to the inside of the dome. The altar chamber captures the look of an early temple for Masonic rituals. Yet, like the others, this theory has no actual proof.
Carbon dating could be completed on the shells to at least get a date, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the grotto was built when the shells were created. In addition, it would only provide a date and possibly not any additional insight on the who or why. Plus, the grotto has always been privately owned and money can be better spent on restoration and maintenance than expensive testing.
We may never know why this incredible place was created or why it sat buried, silent, and alone underneath the earth for so long. But maybe that’s just part of what makes it so alluring.