“…I want first of all…to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact – to borrow from the language of the saints – to live “in grace” as much of the time as possible…”
Those words above are from one of my favourite books, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Although that book was written in 1955, it’s still alive on the page today. And in my heart.
Maybe it’s something to do with the timelessness of shells?
I’ve been thinking about this because on Thursday I spent the afternoon at the Margate Shell Grotto, and although there is a mystery of the date this magic place was created – 1700′s, Roman times, on maybe in the mid 19th century when it was rediscovered – it still has the power to awe and silence visitors (well, this one anyway!)
My visit was part of my garden journey. Although not traditionally a garden, the grotto sums up everything important about the project – the way gardens (or garden buildings such as grottos and follies) are now seen as the very essence of Englishness and yet contain influences from all over the world; that the best ones are sources of wonder – for both the creator and the visitor; and just importantly, they are the containers of brilliant obsessive passionate life affirming stories.
The Shell Grotto is now owned privately by the lovely Sarah Vickery, but was only discovered by accident in 1835 when a certain Mr James Newlove lowered his young son down a hole that had appeared in the garden of his home in a suburban Margate street. His son came back to the light chattering about tunnels decorated with shells, and so the grotto was found. It’s open to the public now, and its unprepossessing home is definitely part of its charm.
I must admit that by the time I reached Grotto Hill, I’d given up on the grotto really being as magic as people said.
How wrong could I be?
So who built it?
Well, that’s the million dollar question, and one Sarah quite rightly says that she’s not too bothered to know the answer to in case it limits the mystery. The obvious solution – carbon dating – won’t work because of the oil lamps used in Victorian times, so over the years, people have tried to find out about the original builders in every way you could imagine.
As with all the gardens I’ve visited so far, I tried to forget everything I knew about the history of the garden and stood in the middle of the main room of the grotto to absorb what I could of the Spirit of the Place.
Luckily I didn’t feel the ectoplasm crawling down my back that some of the seance ladies in the photograph above claimed to experience. Or, more disappointingly, find myself communicating with a handsome Phoenician soldier. Instead, and to my surprise, what I came up with was a dance. This is partly because of the shells spiralling up to the light…
… the exuberance of the patterns leading your eye round the corner…
… the twists and turns of the corridors…
and the surprises that make you stop, and then start again…
I can’t recommend a visit highly enough.
There’s a grace about the grotto that you won’t forget, and to continue Anne Morrow Lindberg’s quote that I started this piece with … “By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony…”