Alyson Hunt, An Unrecognised Memento of the Past

One of several plaques dedicated to Charles Dickens in his favourite holiday resort of Broadstairs, Kent.

The link between geography and genius is a moot point. Every country, county, city, town and village lauds their links with celebrated artistes from history no matter how dubious or remote the connection, marking their traces with plaques asserting that they lived here, stayed there, performed nearby, were born in the vicinity and created their best work inspired by this place. In recent years this slightly eccentric British tradition has become of interest not just to local history groups and passing tourists but to a wider academic audience utilising demographic plotting to question not just where creative inspiration arises and is fuelled but also why and how. Studies such as the Postcard Project not only aim to place the author, but to ask why they should be placed, who gains from this and how this makes us feels as individuals when we visit such places. To travel to a marked spot, a house, a gravestone, even just to the plaque itself seems something of a pilgrimage, a specially organised excursion to a recognised memento of a particular past. Yet there must be millions of ordinary everyday places that these famous geniuses passed through, taverns where they ate, theatres where they were entertained, streets on which they travelled and landscapes they admired which remain unacknowledged. Celebrity tourism is a selective business; sites of inspiration and birthplaces of creativity are not inherently sacred places but are driven and designated by tourism boards, marketing trends and public interest and the sensation created by the visitation of such places is uniquely subjective according to the individual.

The rotund allows natural daylight to flood into the Grotto, turning the iridescent surfaces of the shells into tiny reflective mirrors.

And yet a chance visit to a local curiosity, a place I had last visited as a child and knew only as a somewhat obscure tourist attraction reversed this pilgrimage when it unexpectedly brought a well-known author directly to me, and only then by a fleeting reference in some publicity material in the attraction’s Museum Room. In July 1885 best-selling British novelist Marie Corelli[1] wrote an article entitled “One of the World’s Wonders” for Temple Bar magazine[2]which details her visit to “the magnificent and wonderful piece of ancient workmanship known as the “Shell Grotto”” in Margate, Kent. Discovered in 1834, the Grade I listed Grotto is lined with approximately 4.6 million shells mostly of local origin, which are set in intricate designs along the walls and ceiling of the 104ft long cavity. Consisting of a rotunda, altar chamber and several passages, the grotto opened to the public in 1838 and has remained open ever since, barely changing from the date of Corelli’s visit more than 130 years ago. To stand amongst the panels “richly emblazoned with designs in shells, […] exquisitely worked, […] some of them so small that one needs a microscope to judge the amount of patience, thought, and skill bestowed upon their arrangement” and see the same designs that Corelli records seems at once significant and superfluous.

Relatively few landmarks could remain so unchanged with so little investment and on such small scale as does the Grotto; though we might expect our ancestors to have viewed monuments and castles in relatively similar circumstances and condition to which they stand today, local curiosities under private ownership seem inherently more fragile and subject to changes in fashion and business acumen and therefore less likely to stand the test of time. This fragility, interwoven with the unknown purpose and origins of the Grotto create a strange atmosphere, like stepping back in time into another world of infinite possibilities, a novel in the making. The Grotto’s enigmatic status adds to this aura in that even to this day, who built the Grotto, when and why remains unknown. Various theories abound as to its raison d’être, including its construction as an eighteenth-century folly, a smugglers cave or even a druid temple. Corelli describes it as “a subterranean temple”, regarding it as an ancient relic possibly of Scandinavian origin. She is confident that its significance must surely soon be recognised by antiquarians and scholars and the mystery will be solved, a prediction which sadly still remains largely unrealised.

This circular design made from oyster, mussel, clam and winkle shells is typical of the distinct patterns and shapes which line the walls of the grotto.

“One of the World’s Wonders” appeared a year before the publication of Corelli’s first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, and was her first published article, earning her the princely sum of ten guineas[3] to put towards the impoverished household finances, her principal motivation for beginning her writing career. The article takes the style of descriptive journalism, written in the first-person as a cross-between a holiday account and the Victorian equivalent of a TripAdvisor review. Though her evaluation of the famous seaside resort of Margate is not entirely complimentary, lamenting the “vulgar flavour of shrimps [that] floats unbidden in the air” and “the looming figures of Jemima and ‘Arry” (common day-trippers), her esteem for the Shell Grotto is clearly evident. She describes the Grotto as “something that calls for recognition from students, antiquarians, lovers of romance and savants of all classes and nations; something that, just because it is at plebeian Margate, has escaped the proper notice and admiration it so strongly deserves”, recognising the same selective tourism which denotes the siting and visitation of a plaque as that which chooses which relics should be marketed and preserved. She bemoans the contemporary management and marketing of the place, complaining that it appears to be the same as any other “catchpenny” tea room selling shrimp teas and inflated prices. Her visit begins in a small underground room “a kind of shop, where views of Margate, shells, baskets and other trifles were on sale”, souvenir trinkets for the increasingly commercial market on whom she will later rely to buy her novels. Corelli’s wonderment at her first glimpses of the Grotto, “one of the most beautiful, fantastic, and interesting relics of ancient days that exists in England or anywhere else” suggest the impact that the Grotto has on her mind as an awe-inspiring  and unique destination and the importance she places upon the Grotto in its historical and geographical significance. Her designation of the Grotto as “an unrecognised memento of the past”, recognises a history without boundaries, a history littered with mementos on which meaning is retrospectively applied and of which she too will unwittingly be part, thanks to her later literary success. Not only is the Grotto unmarked by a plaque to commemorate Corelli, but it remains virtually forgotten despite the immense complexity of the construction, its longevity and the secrets it continues to hold.

The ubiquity of commemorative plaques is satirised in this humorous inscription, also in Broadstairs.

The connection with Corelli is of course secondary to the sheer brilliance of the grotto itself; I visited not for the chance to feel a connection with Corelli but to admire, be inspired by and enjoy the same views that she saw without even knowing of her visit. This was not a restaged house or a well-dressed set designed to make the onlooker imagine the creative atmosphere with the celebrity figure centre-stage but a naturally creative and thought-provoking space which raised more questions than it could answer. That Corelli visited here just before the onset of her dazzling literary career and received her first payment for work inspired by the Grotto is perhaps deserving of a plaque in itself, but to enter the Grotto is to really imagine how this might inspire the mind of a young imaginative romantic such as Corelli without feeling as if one should feel a particular way because of the literary connection. Placing the author does not always mean placing the imagination, and visiting a particular place does not always mean imagining the visitors that have gone before, famous or otherwise. I leave you with the words of a Victorian seaside guide by C.H.Ross: the Grotto “is either an absurd gimcrack make-believe, or one of the most extra-ordinary discoveries ever made. Which is it?” [4]

Related Posts

Sarah Olwen Jones, “‘Bringing the Carlyles to Life: Public Intimacies of a Chelsea Interior’”. December 3 2013.

Regis, Amber  “John Addington Symonds, Literary Tourism and the Colour of Venetian canals”. 16 July 2013.

Mathieson, Charlotte “Celebrating Dickens in 2012”. May 7 2013.



[1]A list of her works can be found on the Marie Corelli website

[2]Corelli, Marie. “One of the World’s Wonders.” Temple bar: with which is incorporated Bentley’s miscellany, Jan.1882-May 1898 74 (1885): 396-401. ProQuest. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

[3]Ransom, Teresa. The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli: Queen of Victorian Bestsellers. Ch. 1.

[4]Ross, Chas H. Margate and Ramsgate All About and Round About Them: A Gossiping Guide to Some Pleasant Places in the Isle of Thanet. Judy Office. London, 1882.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *