Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Margate and the Shell Grotto

Along the coast from where our parents live is the Kentish seaside town of Margate.  Made not quite famous by those cockney knees up singers Chas'n'Dave, Margate is one of those towns that used to be the place to go, with its Victorian Royal Sea Bathing Hospital from 1706, but that now has seen better days.  I have some family in the area, so remember going there as a child.
Unlike most of the coastline here, it does have sand rather than pebbles, which always helps to draw in those looking for a bit of UK beach time, and it still has the children's swing boats which I remember being somewhat bigger than it turns out they actually are.

Of course the real draw of Margate for me was Dreamland.  Tame by today's standards, Dreamland was the place to go for fairground rides.  It's Scenic Railway ride was quite basic really, but as one of the first wooden roller coasters built in 1920 and possibly the only remaining ride that has no brakes on the track and so still needs a brake man to ride on the train, it is now a grade 2 listed site.  There is a project to reopen it as a heritage fairground, but that seems some way off yet.

Like many of these seaside towns, Margate lost some of its appeal when people started to head further afield to be sure of some sun with their sea and sand.  It got a bit down at heel, with shops closing up and a reputation of being a bit of a trouble spot.  They are working on that now, but again there is some way to go.
Retro shops have started popping up close to the seafront, and Mary Portas has chosen it as one of the towns where she will help rejuvenate the high street.  It even has its own art gallery now, the Turner Contemporary, perhaps in part at least because that Tracey Emin hails from round here.
But we visited Margate on this occasion to check out one of its older attractions - The Shell Grotto.  No one really knows who built this underground grotto, when or why, but it was discovered underneath someone's house back in 1835 and opened to the public three years later.
Venturing under the cellars of this very normal looking property in the back streets of Margate, you find a passage that goes around in a circle, and then along a short corridor to a little chamber.  It is only 104 foot long in total, but all along the route, the walls are covered in shell mosaics.  Whoever put them there must have had incredible patience as there are around 4.6 million shells stuck to these walls.

They are put on in a panel design, with each panel having a different central pattern.  With some of them it is fairly clear what they depict, such as fleur de lis, a tree, or flowers; others require a little more imagination.  Someone at some stage has had a go at interpreting the panels, coming up with skeletons, phalluses, turtles, canoes, and gods amongst other things.  We could see how they got to some of them, but struggled with a few.
So what was this place?  One suggestion is that the end chamber was a chapel, and that this was some kind of secret place of worship.  Another idea is that this was a smugglers passage, though that seems a bit unlikely as it is quite a way inland, has no apparent connection into other passages, and you would think that the smugglers would have little need of such elaborate decoration!
Personally, I think my mum might be on to something with her theory that someone had a relative with a mental illness and an artistic leaning, perhaps a form of autism.  Being that the done thing back then was to lock such people away in institutions, they may instead have hidden them down in the cellars and given them barrow loads of shells to keep them occupied.
Whoever did it, and whatever their reasons, it is certainly very impressive.  It has become rather dirty over time, largely due to the use of oil/gas lamps to light it up years ago, but that doesn't really matter.  It is quite nice though that they have created a replica panel using the same type of shells to show what the colours would have looked like originally.

It is not somewhere that anyone is likely to travel that far to see, but it is worth a visit if you are in the area.  And there is a very friendly cat in the shop and tearooms upstairs.
Since drafting this blogpost, it has been reported that Margate has made the Rough Guide top ten 'must see' worldwide destinations for 2013, alongside places like Dubrovnic.  Much as I can see that Margate is working to improve itself, I had to laugh.  I do think that Margate has something to offer, but there is still a long way to go before I would actively recommend it as a 'world destination', let alone a 'must see'.  Quite honestly if I turned up in Margate on that basis, I would feel pretty let down.  I'm not saying don't visit it, but let's be realistic about what it has to offer please!  It does rather put me off trusting a recommendation from Rough Guide in the future.

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