Margate Shell Grotto

Not a traditional garden in the lawn and flower style, but I’ve long been a fan of garden grottos (a passion inspired by a childhood gift of this book by Barbara Jones) so I have no problem in including Margate’s mysterious shell grotto in this tour – and if I need another excuse, just look at the plants commemorated along the walls…

… and the reminders everywhere of the power of nature…

It’s still a mystery who built the grotto. It was found in 1835 on ground owned by one Mr Newlove (apparently when they were digging a duckpond and the spade went in a little too deep). His small son was lowered down to investigate and came back with wide-eyed tales of tunnels and shells.

Over the years since, experts and enthusiasts have come up different theories as to who built the grotto:


… and some have even gone deeper in their research…

But either you can go mad trying to work out the truth (carbon dating won’t work because of damage by Victorian oil lamps) or you can give yourself up to the winding, dancing, swirling, unexpected magic of the place..

All the more extraordinary when you remember the entrance – a perfectly unremarkable residential street, apart from one giveaway clue…

It is like a dream. I think it’s supposed to feel like one. It felt feminine.

It felt as if I was dancing. It felt as if I was entering a conversation. It felt as if I could shut my eyes and wish for whatever I wanted – there is apparently a wishing shell there, find it and press on it and you can get whatever you want!

I didn’t find the wishing shell, but Sarah Vickery, owner of the grotto, made me wait (rather nervously) in one spot so she could move way to the whispering shells – although she was too far away for me to see her, I heard clearly every word she was whispering.

I surprised myself by the poem I wrote as a result of visiting the Grotto. It’s much more personal than my other garden poems, and yet all the things I was noticing – a conversation, the labyrinthian tunnels, birth, skeletons – are in here. The amazing mystery of creation!

For the Margate Shell Grotto

I told everyone I didn’t care,
so long as it was healthy,
but sitting on a bus one day
watching mothers and daughters
in the street turn to one another,
(how did I even know the relationship?)
I had to stroke my stomach,
every finger an appeal, and later,

when I held her through that first night,
tiny body settled in the crook of my arm,
I’d have turned myself inside out
so she could wear my skeleton as protection,
but we just carried on a conversation
begun long before either of us was born
and though I wanted to tell every happy
ending, could only whisper, you,

into her shell-like ear, had to trust
her to find the tunnel that leads past
the talking wall and on to the wishing
shell, the ray of light falling
like a perfect circle across her path,
and the fact that she didn’t know
how she’d got there, or even why,
was her mystery to unravel, not mine.

And here’s Sarah Vickery reading an extract about the Grotto by the Victorian novelist, Marie Corelli after her visit in 1896.

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