Friday, August 28, 2009

The Shell Grotto or Why I Love Research

So, today’s post was going to continue my series on seaside resorts. I thought Weymouth or Bournemouth, but initial research pointed to Margate as a more interesting story. London visitors sailed down the Thames to Margate on the Kentish coast. The town was so popular that by 1816 they had more than 40 bathing machines working the surf. The artist JMW Turner spent many years there and very likely based his spectacular paintings on the scenery. Yes, I was all set to write about the beauty of Margate, when I stumbled across something even more interesting.

The Shell Grotto.

The Shell Grotto of Margate is shrouded in mystery, from its origin to its rediscovery in 1835. Some say that the Newlove children discovered it while playing and kept it a secret until their father figured it out. Others claim the father stumbled upon it while digging a new duck pond. Either way, the Newlove family was the first to recognize it for something magical.

The Shell Grotto lies deep in a chalk hill: more than 70 feet of winding, branching passages leading to an oblong chamber. The walls and roof are completely covered in strange symbols made of mosaics of more than 50 different types of sea shells, nearly 5 million of them at last estimate! Some of the pictures have been attributed to Indian, Egyptian, and Eastern influences.

And no one in Margate had any idea it was there.

No maps record its location. No legends detail its origins. No scientist has been able to discover what glues the shells to the walls. Because Mr. Newlove lit his treasure trove with Victorian lanterns, the soot embedding the shells prevents scientists from estimating the age using carbon dating.

Some claim it’s an ancient temple, but the symbols don’t match up with similar temples found in the British Isles. Others claim it was a rich man’s folly, but the land was never part of an estate and no one remembers it being built, so that’s unlikely. The most recent theory is that it was built by the Knights Templar in the 1200s and was first used in Masonic rituals. Seems to me that theory is cropping up a lot, though (National Treasure and DaVinci Code, anyone?).

Whoever built the Shell Grotto, for whatever purpose, Mr. Newlove knew a tourist attraction when he saw it. He opened the Grotto to the public in 1837, and it’s been fascinating people from all over the world ever since, even nineteenth century researchers like me. And now I have yet one more thing to add to my list of “Wonderful places I want to see in England someday.”

I also have a bit of a dilemma. Only two people commented on last Friday’s post on Bartholomew Fair (too much summer going on???), and both of them have already won fans! So, next Friday I will draw two lucky winners of a Nineteenteen fan. Comment, and you could be one of them. This is your last chance in our August giveaway!


Cassandra said...

Can I put my name in to win a fan? Please and thank you!

Regina Scott said...

Your name is in the hat, Cassandra! Thanks for commenting!

Melanie said...

A fan would be lovely! :D

The Shell Grotto sounds absolutely intriguing! I've never heard of it before. Research is a lot of fun, sometimes.

millysdaughter said...

Can I be entered please?
I would adore a fan!

Rachel said...

LOL I would love to win a fan! Your blog is great :)

Dara said...

Oh wow! That's beautiful!

Perhaps it dates back even farther--maybe to the Roman occupation? It could explain the Middle Eastern type symbols.

Now I'm gonna go do a bit of history hunting about this :) I'm intrigued!

Catherine A. Winn said...

This was fascinating! Like Melanie, I have never heard of it before.

Addie said...

That sounds really cool! I know I've already won a fan, but I just had to comment!! It would be interesting to see where it actually came from.

ChaChaneen said...

Wow, I've never heard of this place either! You always have the best stuff to share!

And yes, it has been a busy summer. But my summer hiatus is over now, back to blogging full time again and it feels fresh and new.