The Shell Grotto opened as a visitor attraction in 1838 yet very little is known about it prior to that date. Today local legend continues to debate whether it was originally built as an ancient temple, a meeting place for a secret sect, a smugglers cave or a wealthy mans’ folly – and following my visit, its purpose remains ambiguous (though I would like to believe it was commissioned by an idiosyncratic family as a whimsical cavern for their children). Unusually for Margate it is located inland; away from the beach, Turner Contemporary, Old Town, and Tudor House, but is well sign posted. The grotto lies just two metres below a residential garden, and is 104 feet long. It is punctuated with archways, a rotunda encouraging visitors to explore in either direction, a stunning dome where the shells glisten in natural light, and culminates with the Altar Room where the only non-local shells (Caribbean conches) can be seen. Somewhat frustratingly, it is difficult to describe my visit without contradicting myself… whilst the grotto itself is wonderfully eccentric and fantastical, it left a lot to be desired in a “museum” sense and offered little in terms of interpretation or explanation. Although there is a small orientation room before entering the grotto, the layout feels clumsy and cluttered and despite being keen to learn more about its origins and history, I found myself skipping this room as trying to make sense of it was quite hard work. However, once inside the grotto all is immediately forgiven and forgotten as the intricate floor to ceiling mosaic of approximately 4.6 million shells is absolutely breath-taking! Regardless of whether you believe in religious or cult symbolism, the delicate patterns made from regional cockles, muscles, whelks, limpets, oysters and razor clams is astounding and well worth the humble £3.50 adult entry fee.
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