I continued my tour of faded seaside resorts this weekend with a trip to Margate. We had intended to visit the new Turner Contemporary Art Gallery, only to discover that they are currently between exhibitions. So after a mooch around the gift shop, we were at a loss as to what to do – we’d already had our lunch, and the wind was strong enough to prevent us from walking along the front (although Robert was keen to see the shelter where Eliot wrote ‘On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing’). And then I spotted a flyer advertising the famous Margate Shell Grotto. The others were less enthusiastic about the prospect, it has to be said, but since we were in Margate on a blustery grey Sunday afternoon with nothing better to do, they went along with it.
I am a fan of a good grotto, as celebrated by Pope and Akenside. But my interest is not exclusively poetic; it stems from a fascination with caves and crevices and (especially) catacombs. Anything subterranean, hidden, possibly forbidden. A shell grotto has that extra dimension of obsession; the one in Margate incorporates 4.6 million shells, the leaflet proudly declaims. Shell grottos represent a single-minded and rather insane venture; they are without any real value apart from novelty – a kind of outsider installation art on a grand scale.
And it’s a great word, grotto, suggesting both “gritty” and “grotty”. I was excited to find this piece on the derivation of the term on Wikipedia:
The word comes from Italian grotta, Vulgar Latin grupta, Latin crypta, (a crypt). It is related by a historical accident to the word grotesque in the following way: in the late 15th century, Romans unearthed by accident Nero’s Domus Aurea on the Palatine Hill, a series of rooms underground (as they had become over time), that were decorated in designs of garlands, slender architectural framework, foliations and animals. The Romans who found them thought them very strange, a sentiment enhanced by their ‘underworld’ source. Because of the situation in which they were discovered, this form of decoration was given the name grottesche or grotesque.
And who wouldn’t want to visit Nero’s underground chambers?! Although as we walked up the hill, away from the sea and Margate’s small concessions to tourism, the streets became less appealing, grotesque in their own way. There were a few guys sporting neck tattoos and cans sitting outside a dilapidated cafe. There was a scappy, treeless park. My companions were even less certain, but no one suggested going back. We had come so far, a whole ten minutes from the sea front.
The Margate Shell Grotto is no doubt less grand than Nero’s digs, but impressive nonetheless. At one time the chambers would have been gas lit, which would have added to their eerie quality, but even with the few electric lamps, the grotto was wonderfully creepy. The other couple who had ventured there (possibly by accident, having rolled up at the Turner Contemporary as we had) were keen to show us the odd acoustic trick they’d discovered. The man made us stand under a dome with a small round skylight (a diorama of passing clouds, like a James Turrell), the only source of natural light, while he passed through the adjoining chambers, demonstrating his Mongolian throat singing abilities. The strange, disembodied noise caught in the dome, which acted as a sort of stereo speaker. In the upper display room was a black-and-white photo of a séance held inside the grotto at the turn of the century. The woman behind the gift shop counter introduced us to her three-legged Siamese cat. The place was a perfect fit for a sort of Aleister Crowley-type occultism, complete with capes and spells, and I wondered if Crowley had ever visited (after all, he ended up in Hastings, just further along the coast). Robert also reminded me of the Romantic fad for hermits, who would often hole up in grottos or follies. I wondered too if Eliot had wandered off the beaten track as we had, away from his solitary shelter on the front, and discovered that odd underworld …
photo courtesy of Amy Stein