You thought you’d done it all. You’ve been to Peru, Egypt and China. You’ve meditated on hill-tops, fasted with gurus and listened to binaurally-balanced hemi-sync meditation CDs in the bath.
But you haven’t been to Margate. There you will find the mysterious Snake Grotto or Shell Grotto as it’s known to the uninitiated.
The Grotto’s discovery in 1835 came as a complete surprise to the people of Margate; it had never been marked on any map and there had been no tales of its construction told around the town. But James Newlove could clearly see the commercial potential of his find and he immediately set about preparations to open the Grotto up to the public.
The first paying customers descended the chalk stairway in 1837 and debate has raged about the Grotto’s origins ever since: for every expert who believes it to be an ancient temple, there’s someone else convinced it was the meeting place for a secret sect; for every ardent pagan, there’s a Regency folly-monger ready to spoil their fun. At first glance the Grotto’s design only adds to the confusion, with humble cockles, whelks, mussels and oysters creating a swirling profusion of patterns and symbols. There are trees of life, phalluses, gods, goddesses and something that looks very like an altar.
The most recent findings point to the Grotto functioning as a sun temple, the sun entering the Dome (which extends up to ground level, with a small circular opening) just before the Spring Equinox, forming a dramatic alignment at midday on the Summer Solstice and departing just after the Autumn Equinox, thus indicating the fertile season. The research continues!
However, there’s only one fact about the Grotto that is indisputable: that it is a unique work of art that should be valued and preserved, whatever its age or origins.
A blogger who has visited it says it is: visually stunning and this overlayed by their fantastic line in mythography; suggesting at the same time that the mystical symbolism rendered on the walls in the grotto links it to everything from a pagan worship site, a masonic temple and even drags Dan Brown’s weary Knights Templar into the picture (damn busy chaps they were). Their descriptions of the lavish shell patterns on the wall are lush and stunning – “…we see Phallic signs, a Fountain, ears of wheat, a palm branch, the ram’s horns, the snake panel, various winged solar discs, many flowers and other signs” [The Shell Grotto of Margate - An ancient underground shell Temple (no date)]
I’m packing my suitcase as I write this…