Welcome to our first installment of “Mini History Mondays” where each Monday we’ll present a mini history lesson or a bit of trivia about something that has sparked our interest during recent travels. This week’s mini lesson revolves around the Shell Grotto in Margate, England. But this week’s Mini History Monday might have been more aptly named “Mini Mystery Monday”. Here’s a quick video to pique your interest:
My fascination centers around the unknown origin of the grotto. Even the exact year and discovery of the underground cave is disputed. Was it a farmer? Or local school children? Was it the farmer’s son or the school master’s son who first climbed into the hole? The only written records recount the cave’s opening to the public in 1837. No written records regarding the cave exist before this point.
You’d think in today’s age of carbon dating and scientific know-how, we’d at least be able to peg a century to the construction of this grotto. Again, no such luck. Best guesses range anywhere from the late 12th to early 18th century.
Ancient solar calendar? Pagan temple? Secret meeting place for Masonic rituals of the Knights Templar? Folly of a local wealthy family? Smuggler’s cave? I’m just going to throw aliens and mermaids into the list of possibilities.
I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor—you know, the simplest explanation is most likely to be true. So, obviously, I lean towards some bored, wealthy aristocrat wanting to show off his wealth with an elaborate, ornate shell grotto. Why he’d put it underground, I’m not sure. Maybe he had kids and knew everything in an underground cave is just more fun?
Turns out there’s also a fascinating history of similar “follies” in 18th century England. A folly is simply a building or structure created solely as decoration. Such elaborate displays of extravagance became popular in the gardens of early 18th century estates across England and parts of Europe. An excellent local example is the Gothic Folly at Wimpole Hall outside Cambridge. It was built in 1768 to look like ruins of a medieval Gothic castle. Other similar English follies of the time period were constructed to look like Egyptian pyramids, Chinese temples, Roman ruins, and more.
Shell adorned grottoes were also popular around this time. Some excellent examples include the Pontypool Shell Grotto in Wales. This above ground shell grotto can still be toured today. The structure was built in 1784 and the shells were believe to have been placed in the early 1800s. There is also a crystal grotto and small shell house in Painshill Park (Surrey) that date back to the mid-18th century. In addition, records indicate there were many more in and around London to include a shell grotto in Carshalton Park, Alexander Pope’s shell temple grotto in Twickenham, a shell grotto boathouse at Wanstead Park, and a shell grotto at Hampton Court House.
Such elaborate shell follies weren’t only an English obsession. Similar artificial grottoes were common in France during the time period, and a particularly unique piece was created in Germany at the end of the 16th century. Within the Grotto Courtyard (Grottenhof) of the Munich Residenz, a Bavarian palace, is an elaborate shell grotto. Destroyed during Allied bombings during WWII, German townspeople came together after the war to reconstruct the entire structure based on photos taken before the war. According to legend, when the grotto and fountain were originally created in the 1580s, red wine flowed from the shell mermaid‘s breasts.
Based on the outlined history above of similar follies throughout England, this theory seems to make the most sense. But there is one big problem with the theory. Records indicate the farmland the shell grotto was found beneath has been farmland for hundreds of years. There is no record of the land every being part of a wealthy estate.
So for now, the mystery remains. We’d love to hear your thoughts or conspiracy theories. Can you give this grotto a more fascinating origin story?
(For a more detailed analysis of Margate’s Shell Grotto, check out this paper from the Kent Archaeological Society.)