Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Shelling out for the underground

Margate, on the northern coast of Kent, is an unusual place. On a sunny day, and they do occur, the beach around which it is set presents an appealing arc of sand, along which a glittering sea laps, attractively. To one side, the striking Turner Contemporary art gallery - a modern addition to the waterfront, and an attempt to trigger wider investment - draws the eye and a lot of visitors who, but for its existence, would probably have come nowhere near this otherwise somewhat dilapidated seaside town.

This is partly because, behind the gallery and seafront, lurks Old Margate. Bits of it, without question, are attractive and interesting, and blue plaques record the home of John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jacques (whose birthplace is also marked, here), and the building where Eric Morecambe and his wife held their wedding reception. Other parts of Old Margate are, regrettably, more problematic. Like many British seaside towns, with the rise in package flights to sunnier climes, Margate suffered from the decline in "traditional" seaside holidays, and its descent towards (if not downright into) borderline poverty is etched on its crumbling buildings and neglected spaces.

Walking away from the sea front, past buddleia-bedecked derelict sites awaiting money or inspiration, or both, the atmosphere, whilst not exactly threatening, is nevertheless somewhat less than welcoming. All towns and cities have their slightly unloved, but ultimately utilitarian, areas and Margate is hardly to be blamed for appearing to have more than its fair share of them. Nevertheless, the further from the sea we walked, the less sensible the plan that we had seemed to be.

Eventually, the road we were seeking came into view, and we turned left, climbing up a sloping and otherwise entirely residential-looking street. A little way up, on the right hand side, was the entrance to the building we were looking for, if "building" is quite the right word. We had arrived at the "Shell Grotto", an underground passageway, in essence, lined with shells; an exceedingly strange attraction, in an extremely unlikely location.

After paying our entrance fee, we wandered into a small back room, which contained background information on the grotto, such as it is possible to ascertain, which does not appear to be much. For example, one of the signs posed the questions, "Why was it built? When? Who by?" and answered them concisely with, "We don't know."

Descending a small stairway at the back of this room, we found ourselves in the grotto proper. A shell-lined circular underground corridor with an arched roof leads to a small atrium with a domed ceiling, through which daylight enters. Beyond this, a further passage gives access to rectangular room known somewhat sensationally as the "altar chamber", one end of which is blank cement, a testament to bomb damage from the Second World War.

As with a lot of the Grotto, definite information is sparse, so whether it was part of some religious temple, or just somebody's crazy whim is impossible to say; the grotto appears to have been discovered (or, at any rate, its existence made public) in 1835, but other than that, the rest is largely speculation, including just how old it actually is. Whatever the reason, date or individuals behind its creation, it remains an arrestingly odd place, and definitely worth a visit. Just don't go expecting to learn anything very definitive, other than perhaps what it is like to be in a shell-lined tunnel underground.

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