Seaside postcard: Shell Grotto, Margate The last thing you expect to find underneath the streets of Margate is a mysterious shell-decorated chamber of indeterminate origin. Indeed, back in 1835 this was the last thing that local man James Newlove expected to find beneath an unmarked field on the outskirts of town. So he bought up the field without telling anybody why, and within a couple of years members of Victorian society were paying good money to troop down into this newly discovered cavern to marvel at its unexplained wonder. Believe it or not, despite science and carbon dating and all sorts of modern stuff, even 160 years later nobody's quite sure when (or how) this underground anomaly got to be here.
Newlove's field has long been built over, so the Shell Grotto now resides between rows of Victorian terraces up an anonymous sidestreet. From the outside all you see is a bland concrete shopfront (is it a curry house? is it a hairdressers?). Ring to enter and family life inside will stop for long enough to let you in. Shell-covered gifts, new age goodies and the Eighth Wonder café await, but maybe on the way out, OK? Pay your £2.50 (everything in Thanet is so reasonably priced compared to London) and pass through into the ante-room named the Mystery Museum. The name is perhaps overhyping things - this is no more than a few cabinets of local paraphenalia plus a wall of laminated speculation regarding what you're about to see next. Down the steps. Mind your head.
The initial roughly-hewn passage is nothing special, but then come the shells. All four and a half million of them, crammed into a grotto less than 70 feet long. The first feature is a circular rotunda, whose inner and outer walls are completely covered with mystical patterns made from carefully-arranged nautilus, scallop and conch. There are rosettes and swirly curves and astrological symbols, and it doesn't take too much imagination to decide that some of them definitely represent *ahem* reproductiveorgans. Round the bend the walls rise up to a shell-rimmed dome through which a patch of daylight intrudes. Next there's a wiggly serpentine passage decorated with yet more mysterious symbols, both fertility and otherwise, leading downward to the final rectangular chamber. This looks like a place of worship, of sorts, with an arched recess on the far wall and a grid of designs constructed from yet still even more shells. Except on the far wall, that is, which was destroyed by bomb damage in WW2. No problem, the other surfaces are impressive enough.
I was fortunate, some would say, that my visit coincided with the presence of the grotto's greatest champion and expert - local historian Mick Twyman. He'd been doing some "measuring up" in the morning, hunting for angles and distances in the orientation of the patterns, but he couldn't resist giving an impromtu tour to the few of us present. Mick believes that the temple dates back more than 2000 years and is pagan in origin. Look at this, he repeatedly exclaimed, pointing out several 82° solstice angles and an imaginary line representing the 2012 Celestial Conjunction. My fellow visitors nodded in amazement as he pointed out one supposed astronomical coincidence after another. How many hours of daylight are there at the winter solstice? Yes, eight, and that's the same as the number of patterns in this subdivided square! What does this squiggly line look like? Yes, a jaguar, and that means that the builders must have visited South America where they worship jaguars! I was sorely tempted to chip in and express my naked cynicism at Mick's increasingly outlandish claims, but he was a master showman and my fellow visitors would have looked at me like I was an ignorant fool.
My money's on the shell-cave being an encrusted decorative folly, previously lost to recorded memory, and not an ancient celestial calculator imbued with cryptic mystic meaning. I mean, this is Margate we're talking about, for heaven's sake. But whatever the case, however wrong one of us is, this is still a fascinating subterranean attraction.