As far as offbeat tourist attractions go, Margate's magnificent Shell Grotto takes the cake. This 2,000-square-foot underground lair features a network of passageways with their walls completely covered in seashells - a jaw-dropping 4.6million seashells to be exact. The most amazing thing about it? No one knows when or why it was constructed.
According to popular belief, the Shell Grotto was first discovered in 1835 by James Newlove, who owned the garden above the grotto. It came as a complete surprise to the residents of Margate as there were no records of it ever having been constructed. In 1838, Newlove opened its doors to the public and it quickly became one of the city's most popular attractions.
To this day, no one is quite sure who built the Shell Grotto, why it was built and when construction took place. One theory claims that it was a simple "rich man's folly." Indeed in the 1700s, it wasn't uncommon for British families of nobility to have shell-covered rooms of this type.
But generally, the rooms were decorated with exotic seashells that came from faraway lands, and were a means of showing off the person's wealth and worldliness. By contrast, Margate's Shell Grotto features almost 100% local seashells like mussels, whelks, oysters and cockles - not very exotic. Plus, it would have required an extraordinary amount of manpower and effort to construct. It seems odd that there would be no record or memory of its construction among townspeople.
Others say that the Grotto was a smuggler's cave or a secret meeting place, or perhaps a clandestine storehouse for pirates. And yet another hypothesis is that the Shell Grotto was an ancient religious site dating back to the Roman or pre-Roman era. Indeed, the space features numerous pagan symbols and shapes as well as an altar that seems to indicate some kind of ritual worship.
We can speculate all we want, but chances are we may never know the truth about the Shell Grotto - and that seems to be the way the locals like it. This strange, mysterious and beautiful place has captured our imaginations and is likely to do so for generations to come!
Travel Tip: Note that starting from 28 October, the Shell Grotto reverts to winter hours (Fridays and weekends it's open from 11am to 4pm).
Throughout the Year
Entry to Shell Grotto
United Kingdom CT9 2BU