The Mysterious Underground Shell Grotto of Margate

CC BY 2.0. Keith Edkins

In 1835, in the county of Kent in South East England, James Newlove was digging a pond when he discovered an empty space below the surface of the ground. Upon further exploration he made a remarkable discovery, an incredible underground palace of sorts, decorated with treasures from the sea. Now known as the Margate Shell Grotto, the 104-foot long passage and large altar room are covered head-to-toe in seashell mosaic. In all, 4.6 million shells were used to ornament around 2,000 square feet of space, arranged in decorative patterns like some kind of Neptune-meets-Marie-Antoinette fantasy suite.

Shell grotto

pam fray /CC BY 2.0

Shell grotto

Emőke Dénes/CC BY 2.0

What We Know About the Shell Grotto

Opened to the public two years after its discovery, nobody has ever been sure just how old the creation is and who was responsible for making this shrine to the sea. The 19th-century gas lamps used to light the way unfortunately rendered radiocarbon dating useless, according to Atlas Obscura. Other dating methods have turned up nothing.

Speculation over who made the cave ranges from ancient Phoenicians and Romans, to members of an 18th-century secret society to a wealthy Victorian wanting a folly, a fashionable statement at the time. I’ve yet to see anyone suggesting it was the eccentric pursuit of a secret seashell-loving craftsperson – but the grotto’s discovery wasn’t much earlier than when the French postman, Ferdinand Cheval, began building his folk art wonderland, Le Palais Idéal, not far away in France. Naïve art and architecture were not unheard of at the time.

Shell grotto

Keith Edkins/CC BY 2.0

Regardless, almost two centuries later and the shell-lined chambers still hold tremendous appeal – the unanswered questions hardly matter. There is so much beauty in the use of found objects, and that those found objects were crafted by Mother Nature and the sea. Decorating with materials used in their natural state is really not such a common practice in contemporary western decor, and that’s a shame. Instead we’re more likely to rely on mass-produced coverings and accoutrements made from modern materials – in which manufacturing and synthetic chemicals are employed, and in which we lose an opportunity to connect with the wonder of things as they are found in the wild.

So in my design fantasy, I line some walls in swoops and arrays of seashells – but would that be practical or even doable? And importantly, how would said materials be ethically sourced, something that should never not be considered.

Shell grotto

Simon Lee/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Learning From Ancient Shell Decorating

As gorgeous as shells are and as much as people may want to have them on display (or, uhm, line their walls with them) they are also really important for keeping sand in place. They also serve as the raw material to create more sand as they’re crushed by waves and tumbled by wind. Shells with creatures harbor food for birds and fish, and the scavenging and filtering performed by certain mollusks help cleanse waters. Many places in the United States don’t even allow the collecting of shells. It's all too easy to rob an ecosystem of the parts that keep it thriving.

That said, the shells used at Shell Grotto were mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops and oysters – all of which are edible. Which brings up another point ... could we be decorating more with castoffs from the food system? There are efforts to use agricultural waste for a number of applications, but discarded shells are a whole different animal, so to speak. Americans eat roughly 2.5 billion oysters every year; that’s 5 billion half shells! While there are some restaurant recycling programs for oyster shells, if you add in the other discarded shells from seafood that has been consumed – the mussels and scallops and clams, and even the cockles and whelks of the grotto – we’re talking a lot of shells. While there are plenty of uses for discarded shells, most importantly of which is returning them to restore oyster beds, still tons of them end up in the trash.

Maybe we could take some design cues from the mysterious creator of a secret cave by the seaside in England, where the use of unprocessed local materials – possibly even trash after eating – could serve as inspiration for a modern approach to decor? Creative recycling at its best ... seashell grotto folly, anyone?