“…It was now proposed to go see the marine cave which is a large grotto, lately discovered, whilst digging a foundation for a wash house to a ladies school. This is very large and intirely (sic) composed of shells found on the Kent coast, arranged in the most singular and elegant patterns. The walls are divided into compartments and everyone is differently ornamented. The shape of the cave is a circular passage around an immense pillar. The entrance is a Gothic doorway. About the middle is a dome which rises very much above the arch of the other part of the passage, and it was by the falling of the earth through this dome that the Grotto was discovered, exactly in the state of preservation as it is now shown. The date of the work and the ingenious person who did it are both a profound mystery, as there is no record of it in any of the Kentish Chronicles. Here and there in the compartments are some magnificent pieces of spar, which glisten like diamonds by the reflection of the candles which light the cave. Since it has been known a circuitous passage has been cut into the rock to descend into it, and at the farther end a large room has been excavated and similarly ornamented.”
19-year-old Lucy Sophia Daniell (1824-1903) recorded in a diary her impressions of a trip she made from London to Paris in 1844 with her mother and two younger sisters. From a non-conformist family, she later married Henry Keyworth, schoolmaster and Church of England clergyman. The above extract from that diary records her visit to the Shell Grotto in Margate on Saturday afternoon, 7 September 1844, which happens to be the first known record of a visit here.
Lewis Carroll visited in 1870 writing in his journal “The day before we left I took Mrs. Bremer and children to see ‘the grotto’ (a marvellous subterranean chamber, lined with elaborate shell-work, supposed to be three hundred years old)”.
For me the most intriguing aspect of the grotto is the symbolism of the patterns of shells which have been interpreted in many ways. One theory is that it represents the journey of life, from birth in the north passage walking life’s path around the Rotunda with flowering forms, creatures and maybe the odd phallus, into the Serpentine Passage with more signs of the journey of life, or gods and goddesses, the Tree of Life, a skeleton, into the Altar Room with its stars, suns and moons representing the celestial afterlife.
From the Roman period, with revivals in Renaissance Italy and late Elizabethan and Jacobean Britain onwards grottoes for pleasure were decorated with mosaic, shells and other materials. Renaissance gardens often had elaborate iconography and Francesca Colonna’s 1499 tale, The Dream of Polyphilus, a hero’s search for self knowledge in a classical landscape, inspired several allegorical gardens incorporating a journey to represent the visitor’s spiritual journey through life to knowledge. Signs of the zodiac decorated the ceiling of an indoor grotto constructed for William Cecil in the chamber of Theobalds house dating from the mid 1580’s (the earliest currently known English grotto). Tunnels or excavated rooms or natural caves were made into grottoes in gardens and Alexander Pope’s Grotto of about 1720 at Twickenham on the banks of the Thames had a tunnel leading to a shell temple. It was much visited and admired in the 18th century. This grotto seems to combine elements from many such sources and probably does date from the 18th century, but it seems likely to keep its mysteries.
Shell houses and Grottoes by Hazelle Jackson