Welcome to the
The Grotto's discovery in 1835 came as a complete surprise to the people of Margate and debate has raged about its origins ever since.
We attempt to answer some questions about the Grotto in our museum room, down the first set of stairs.
From here, there is a curving staircase, cut into the chalk bedrock, that takes you underground into the Grotto. Watch your step, mind your head and please be mindful of other visitors in this small and very delicate space.
Most importantly, please do not touch the shells.
the north passage
Sometimes called the Chalk Passage - for obvious reasons - this appears to have been the point of discovery.
"My brother found out about the underground place sometime before it was known," said Frances Newlove in an interview in 1893, recalling events from when she was aged 12. "He never dared to tell father. He found the chalk loose at one end of the passage ... and he opened it up by taking the stuff away, as it were in rough blocks. Then when the opening was wide enough, he crawled through and got into the Grotto. And so did I."
Frances and her brother Joshua lived in what is now called Rose Lodge on Dane Road, where their father, James, ran a small private school. James Newlove finally uncovered their secret and opened the site as a tourist attraction in 1838. Frances later inherited the Grotto and ran it for many years.
Below: The panel on the top was made to demonstrate the vibrancy of the original mosaic colours. It's based on the middle panel in the West Wall of the Altar Room, bottom.
Did you know...
David Bowie’s biographer Lesley-Ann Jones revealed in her book Hero that he visited the Grotto often; she believes his Blackstar album was inspired by this star panel.
As you enter the Rotunda, please proceed to the left.
There are approximately 4.6 million shells in the Shell Grotto. With very few exceptions, they are humble native British shells, something that marks the Grotto out as unusual. Other shell structures are typically worked with exotic shells, used not only for their decorative value but also to demonstrate that the owner was wealthy, educated and well travelled.
The most frequently used shells throughout the mosaic – mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops and oysters – could have been found in North Kent bays.
The Grotto was lit with gas lamps for nearly 100 years and, while this would have created a magical atmosphere, it has left the shells covered in carbon deposits.
You pass under The Dome next - look up to see the sky. As unlikely as it seems, the Shell Grotto lies largely under a residential garden at a depth of less than two metres. The Dome itself is covered in a vented skylight to help with ventilation, and in recent years a natural turf roof was added over the tunnels on the advice of English Heritage, to allow the chalk to ‘breathe’.
This is where our resident ghost is said to hang out. She's called the Blue Lady and the original 1930s painting is in the Museum Room.
the serpentine passage
The tunnel to your left takes you into the Serpentine Passage, sometimes called the Hearts Passage, because of the many symbols lining the walls. Most of the designs in the shells can be interpreted in a number of ways - our map gives you some examples of this.
One of our most popular panels is a small one on the right just into the Serpentine Passage. This early 1920s postcard shows it referred to as The Skeleton, and this name has endured, despite some of the key shells being lost over the years.
the altar room
According to Grotto legend, this room once had a barrel-vaulted ceiling also covered with shell mosaic. This was apparently removed some time in the 1800s. The only evidence for this can be seen in the two corners of the room where the mosaic survives, and the square corner becomes concave – perhaps the beginning of the vault.
Frances Newlove recalled: “When my father wanted a few rooms more than were in the corner house, he built the extension, over that chamber. It was roofed over by the chalk before, and we took the chalk away, and laid joists for a floor across it, and covered it in with a plaster ceiling.”
The Newlove's extension was destroyed by a bomb during World War II, taking a direct hit at midday on 19 October 1940. It took with it the East Wall of the Altar Room which was completely destroyed. This bare wall is home to a poster, changing frequently due to the damp nature of the space. The current image is of a seance, held here in the Altar Room in 1939.
Did you know...
On 28 September 1870 Lewis Carroll brought his new acquaintance Mrs Bremer and her children - whom he had met at Fort Parade in Margate - to see the Grotto. The author described it in his diaries as "a marvellous subterranean chamber, lined with elaborate shell-work”.
Here's the East Wall before its destruction - complete with gas lamp! The fragments that survive are in the Museum Room. Note the curved corner, still visible in the surviving two corners and indicative of a vaulted ceiling.
leaving the grotto
On your route back through the tunnels, turn left at the Dome to see the North side of the Rotunda. As you leave the Dome, look up at the ceiling of the Rotunda. We believe this area was the site of some unrecorded cleaning experiments during the 20th century and, while the carbon deposits look to have been successfully removed, the shells have lost their colours and are largely white under the soot. This can happen to shells over a period of time - they often take their colour from their source of food.
The North Passage will take you up to ground level and back to the real world!
We hope you have enjoyed your visit and found this brief tour interesting. There's much more information in the Museum Room, and elsewhere on this website.