In 1835, while attempting to dig a duck pond, a man named James Newlove and his son Joshua discovered a peculiar hole in the ground. When Joshua crept down inside he entered over 70 feet of winding underground passages at the end of which was a much larger chamber and, within that, something that resembled an altar.

All of the walls were covered in an exquisite tapestry of shells, since found to have been stuck there with an adhesive that is based on gypsum and volcanic elements. Over four million cockle, whelk, mussel and oyster shells formed various patterns of mosaics, with images of the Tree of Life, phalluses, gods and goddesses, the horns or a ram, a three-pointed star, as well as the sun and the moon.
Mr Newlove soon decided to tap into the commercial potential of such a dramatic find, and by 1837 the first paying visitors arrived – and with them the debate commenced as to origin of the caves. 

Some people thought they must have been an ancient pagan temple, some the home of a secret sect, while others were entirely convinced that they must be some Regency folly.  But such follies were built on wealthy estates and Mr Newlove’s grotto was discovered beneath common farmland. And then, there is also the fact that had the grotto been constructed during the 1700’s then surely some record or map would remain – not least with regard to the enormous industry involved in excavating the long passages and creating all the shell mosaics. And yet, there was no local knowledge regarding the grotto’s existence.

In 1999 English Heritage commissioned an investigation, its only conclusion being that the grotto was unlikely to have been built during the Victorian period. Carbon dating was attempted, but failed owing to the build up of soot on the shells from the use of many oil lamps during Mr Newlove's tours. 

Later, in 2001, Mick Twyman of the Margate Historical Society tried to unravel the enigma. He observed that just before the arrival of each spring equinox, the sun enters the underground realm through a dome with a circular opening that acts like a pinhole camera. As the season goes on the ball of light reflected on the temple walls grows larger and continues to move over certain ‘lines’ or bars in the shells, as if a solar calendar. At midday on the summer solstice, the light resembles an egg that glows in the belly of a mosaic snake. At that point it is reflected up into square apertures built above the grotto’s three distinct passages – and that light is then bounced down to shine on the altar that is built within the 'temple' chamber. 

By the use of these phenomena and complex mathematical calculations Twyman was able to show that, allowing for a ‘creep’ of 1% in the Equinox angle that occurs every 72 years, the construction date for the grotto would have been around 1141 AD.

The VV also discovered an article that Twyman wrote in which he has linked the temple to the medieval Knights Templar, claiming that it would have been used for Masonic rituals –

with a keystone over the entrance arch and its altar having everything required for Royal Arch Masonry...while mosaic design centres cleverly supply the basis for Masonic symbols, such as the Compass and Square, Star of David, Pentagram and Hardoian Tetrahedron, a symbol of great significance to the Templars and Cabbalists. ..There are also four panels which have above them the ancient God symbol of the three rays of heavenly light. Beneath one of these sits the Pleiades constellation, while the second has a Tree of Jesse surmounted by a tiny rose – another symbol of the virgin – and the third an ‘x’, which I believe to be the cross isolated from the banner of the Paschal Lamb, symbol of the Baptist.'

Well, whatever you think about the above, the fascinating research goes on and, meanwhile, the Grotto has given Grade 1 listed status. And although it remains in private hands it can still be visited today.
More information can be found on the Grotto's official website.

For more posts on the Margate Shell Grotto, please see ...



MOST PECULIAR: Secrets of Victorian London

For all who love Victorian London, Lee Jackson has written an alternative guidebook revealing many secrets from the capital's nineteenth century. Think street signs, stink pipes, turrets and toilets - and many other pointers to a world that many think is lost.  But it isn't - and Lee Jackson has made the film below to introduce you to this world - and hopefully to persuade you to join Unbound and found the publication of this splendid book.



In the VV's novel, Elijah's Mermaid, two children in landlocked Herefordshire create a small grotto beside a stream in the hope of luring a mermaid to come along and live there.

Such an idea is not original, for there are some locals who still say that the sight of a mermaid in Herefordshire is very far from fantasy.

Back in 1848, when the river Lugg near Marden Church was being dredged of mud and sludge, the workmen discovered an ancient bell ~ the sort of bell that was often used when a church was connected with a saint when, according to Celtic tradition, such bells were considered sacred too.

The Marden bell can now be seen in the Hereford museum. It is thought to be Welsh in origin and to date from between AD 600 - AD 1100.

As you will see from the image posted above, it is not of a circular construction, but made of two separate sections of metal which are then attached together. It looks like a cow or sheep bell.

These bells were often 'enshrined' in ornately made iron casings, though if there was one for the Marden bell, to this day it has never yet been found.

The Marden bell is thought to have been created in honour of Saint Ethelbert ~ the king who became a martyr when beheaded by King Offa. His remains were then buried at Marden.

At the time there were many rumours that Ethelbert's spirit haunted the place and, as a sign of repentance, King Offa ordered that a church should be built on the site of the dead king's grave. He also ordered the construction of the nearby Hereford Cathedral, to which Ethelbert's body was eventually removed, becoming a place of pilgrimage.

Many miracles are said to have taken place during the body's journey there. And, in Marden, from where it was exhumed, a well sprang up within the Church where it still remains in the western nave.

It is not known how the Marden bell came to be submerged in the River Lugg. But the myth of the mermaid who lived there predates its Victorian finding. Old timers say that she seized the bell when it was accidentally dropped, immediately dragging it down to the bottom of the river bed. At the time a local wise man said that the bell could be retrieved again if a team of twelve white heifers wearing yokes made of yew wood were somehow attached the treasure ~ which could then be pulled out of the water. But, the deed must be done in silence. If not, then it would always fail. And so it did when one of the men present at the ceremony forgot himself and cried aloud: 'In spite of the all the devils in hell, now we'll land Marden's bell.' 

This outburst woke the mermaid who hung onto the bell with all her might before dragging straight it back down again, keeping it hidden from human eyes until the nineteenth century.

But, even to this very day, it is said that ghostly chimes are sometimes heard from the depths of the river bed ~ as if the mermaid rings it still.