Darkness Itself II

That England is populated will always come as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents. Islands are either from before or for after humankind. [1]

What luck to be lured underground by darkness itself in the London suburb of Chiselhurst. What luck to sink beneath the surface at that time so that I might fall out of time itself. There was an agency attached to that experience – I’m sure of it – and it is this agency that is responsible for what has occurred since. Alternatively, perhaps this agency comes from now, or some indeterminate future, making sure of its existence by impregnating the thoughts of today through the recently experienced. Somehow, this sounds more plausible… Either way, I am sure that desires do not naturally dovetail like this through coincidence alone.

My original post, exploring the (per)plexing ahistory of Chiselhurst Caves was surprisingly well received. There was certainly something there too, in the writing, but I felt that others were more aware of it than I was.

In the weeks since my trip underground, despite no longer being a student, I have been lurking in a postgraduate seminar once a week where the subterranean has become a central topic of consideration.

This was not something I had anticipated. I have felt like each thought had in class was struck in relief by my recent excursion, which has continued to unfold within and without myself.

I have recently found myself underground once more.


The first introductory session of the postgraduate seminar drew the attention of the class to Freud’s account of humanity’s three narcissistic wounds. Freud wrote in his own Introduction to Psychoanalysis:

Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realised that our earth was not the centre of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. But man’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavouring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psycho-analysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind that they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently and to support it by empirical evidence which touches every man closely.

What if, it was argued, it is not psychoanalysis but geology that forms our third narcissistic wound – geology, which has endeavoured to prove to the human ego that we are not the master of our own lands, which have existed long before us and will exist long after. Freudian psychoanalysis has always borrowed its terminology and analogies from geology. The unearthing and excavation of traumas from deep within the psyche – Deleuze & Guattari’s “destratification” most obviously – echoes the geological study of tectonic plates.

This analysis, when considering England’s subterranea at least, is further complicated by those spaces that our collective consciousness has long since forgotten that we created. Chiselhurst Caves are, as was previously pointed out, not caves at all but mines, and the forgotten purpose for which the mines were created has led to the indexical nomenclature slipping from the man-made into the God-given.

An even more mysterious subterranean structure can be found a mile inland from the Kentish coast in the heart of the seaside town of Margate. There, just two metres below street level, lies the Shell Grotto.

Here, there is no question that this underground world is man-made. It has been a tourist attraction since the early 1800s and the single-room museum that proceeds these mollusk catacombs is far more honest about its history than Chiselhurst Caves but it is all the more occulted for its honesty. Their mystery is far more genuine.

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The room is home to various ornaments and documents, chronicling the Grotto’s prevalence as a local curiosity. Advertisements detail the decorative features of the Grotto once highlighted to exacerbate its eerie nature in the minds of visitors. A list of aesthetic, affective and scientific adjectives on one poster reads like a Deleuzo-Guattarian cut-up.

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A short history of the grotto, framed behind plexiglass, begins:

When the Grotto was discovered in 1835 it appears to have been a surprise to the people of Margate; there is no anecdotal evidence that anyone remembered its construction, or indeed knew of its existence. It is not marked on any maps that pre-date its discovery and we have yet to find any documents at all which refer to it before 1835.

Given the time-hopping nature of its folly-like appearance, the origins of the Grotto are, it seems, anyone’s guess. Once again, the subterranean becomes a shadow space out of time.

Proceeding down a spiral staircase, your feet quickly meet a stone floor, worn into such grey and unassuming oblivion that it is only the sensation of solidity underneath your feet that informs the mind it is there at all. This sensation is no less intensified by the distraction of the captivating walls that soon surround you.

With a surprising gradient, the walls are soon taken over by millions of shells. Discoloured, broken in many places, the sheer volume of their number is nonetheless awe-inspiring.

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The entrance to the Grotto – the short “North Passage” – opens out, if only marginally, to the Rotunda – a spherical corridor in the centre of the Grotto which, on the far side, reaches up to a dome through which daylight streams somewhat ineffectively.

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How could this space be constructed underneath an otherwise unassuming neighbourhood without anyone noticing?

Despite this mystery, the story of the Grotto’s discovery is surprisingly well-documented:

The earliest reference to the discovery in an article in the Kentish Gazette of 22nd May 1838, announcing its forthcoming opening as a public attraction. The circumstances are described simply, referring to a gentleman having recently purchased Belle Vue Cottage and making alterations which involved excavating a few feet. During this operation the workmen were impeded by a large stone and, on the landowner’s direction, an examination followed, resulting in the discovery.

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By 1885, when the popular late 19th-century fiction writer Marie Corelli related the story as told by her Grotto guide, the account had been expanded to include a workman losing his space down the hole (where the Dome now is) and a boy being lowered into the void to retrieve it.

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“…the void…”

…once again invoking the noumenal quality of subterranean darkness itself.

The account of the Grotto’s history continues:

At the time of the discovery, Belle Vue Cottage (now Rose Lodge on Dane Road) was operating as a private girls’ school run by James and Arabella Newlove, in conjunction with Dane House Academy, a boys’ school (now the Mulberry Tree pub). The Newloves’ youngest son and daughter, Joshua and Fanny, aged 16 and 12 respectively in 1835, often also figure in tales of the extraordinary find. Fanny was interviewed in the 1890s by Algernon Goddard, who went on to buy the Grotto. He recounts:

“An old lady, the daughter of the Schoolmaster, tells how her brother Joshua found out these underground interests before they were known to his elders, and how he opened a way into it by removing blocks of chalk, and then crawling along the passage. She and some of the girls also used to creep in, with candles on their necks, but it was without the knowledge of their father, whow as a strict disciplinarian. One day her brother overheard two gentlemen talking to his father who was merely a tenant, and who proposed to take 21 years lease of the place. “Don’t lease it Newlove! buy it outright!” So the lease which had been prepared was thrown aside, and the property was purchased.”

We have the unsigned lease from February 1835, which may lend this story some credence. Fanny subsequently named the gentlement, two near neighbours, as Captain Jeremiah Easter of The Wilderness and Chateau Belle Vue and Maurice D’Acosta, Gentleman, of Lausanne House. Perhaps their advice indicates some prior knowledge of the Grotto? She also says that the Grotto was “in an unfinished state” when it was discovered and that her father employed a man called Stephen Wales, a bricklayer, to finish it. We think Wales enlarged the North Passage and added the shellwork niches for lamps. Maybe that was the extent of his input… with no detailed description of the Grotto at the time of its discovery, the amount of work undertaken remains open to speculation.

The esoteric nature of the Grotto has even opened the demographic of potential speculators up to those entranced by the occult and the paranormal.

At the far end of the Grotto lies a more open space – no more than two by four metres squared – one wall of which collapsed following a bombing during the Second World War. The replacement wall now in its place features a near-life-sized photograph of a séance that took place in the Grotto in the 1930s, although there is no information offered as to what the mediums were able to discover.

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Other speculative histories are shared elsewhere:

Was it a temple… a secret meeting place… a folly?

While Greece was home to the earliest grottoes, Renaissance Italy saw them surge in popularity as a device to add authenticity to neo-classical villas. This fashion spread across Europe, reaching Britain in the 1600s, and taking hold with a vengeance in the 18th century, with the wealthy returning from their Grand Tours and commissioning extraordinary shell houses and grottoes.

In a country littered with the remains of frivolous architectural statements it is easy to assume that the Grotto must be some kind of folly. The site of the Shell Grotto, though, did not fall within the grounds of a large estate and many find it hard to imagine a wealthy landowner electing to have an expensive flight of fancy constructed underneath pastureland. In secret.

Is it ancient… Medieval… Georgian?

Those who believe the Grotto is devotional argue that the shells are not arranged in mere patterns but convey complex symbolism – but the symbol you see depends on whether you favour the Romans, the Cretans, the Phoenicians or the Knights Templar as your Grotto builders. Others prefer to imagine that the Grotto was home to the immoral activities of the Hellfire Club. It’s also possible that the Grotto went through several phases of development. It’s been suggested that it may have started out as a dene hole (a small mine for extraction of chalk) with the decoration added in a later century.

The space is fascinating and its possible histories more than stoke the imagination, but the question remains: what geological humiliation is this? A man-made cavern with a footpath measuring no more than a few hundred metres, decorated with some 4.6 million shells.


The discovery of the Grotto was timely, with the 1830s being the time of German Romanticism and the poetic fascination of European poets more generally with the Great Outdoors – both mountain-climbing and caving, but also a fascination with the technological advancements of mining occasioned by the Industrial Revolution.

Recounting the Romantic obsession with mining in his essay “The Mine: Image of the Soul”, Theodore Ziolkowski notes how mines were, for the Romantic poets, emblematic of the human condition. He lists countless examples of geological phenomena which signal the alchemic combination of the mysteries of the deep past with the cutting edge of contemporary science; of the organic and inorganic, with many pondering the question: what cosmic agency occasions the production of stones and minerals? (Are shells, too, not strange objects somewhere between the organic and inorganic – the outer husks of the once-living that we consider more alike to precious stones than mortal remains?) Ziolkowski writes: “The mine in the German Romantic view is not simply a cold dark hole in the ground; it is a vital, pulsing place into which man descends as into his own soul for the encounter with three dimensions of human experience: history, religion and sexuality.” [2]

If Shell Grotto was once a mine for the purpose of acquiring chalk, it seems fitting to turn this hollow space into a place for occult worship. Ziolkowski continues:

The descent into the mine of the soul can lead not only to knowledge of history but to that sinful knowledge that produces anguish. Although Novalis was primarily concerned with mining as an image of history, he was fully aware of the ancient ambivalence concerning mining as a profession. From classical antiquity through the eighteenth century, thoughtful men had often been contemptuous of mining because, they argued, it encouraged avarice, vanity, and violence. In the Metamorphoses Ovid reproved those wicked men who, not content with the wealth on the surface of the earth, dig into its bowels to uncover with the wealth on the surface of the earth, dig into its bowels to uncover forbidden treasures, bringing forth destructive iron, gold, and their inevitable consequence, war. [3]

The sea, whilst far more inaccessible at this time, surely mirrors this conflicted image of the human soul. The wars provoked by industrialised fishing and the search for oil are similarly romantic and immoral in European consciousness. Shell Grotto is a strange comingling of the two: the romance of the sea and the mine combined to create a particularly potent space of spirituality and mystery.

Just as the Romantic image of the mine persists, the atmosphere of the Shell Grotto as the subterranean, occulted heart of Margate leaks out onto the surface even today.

Above ground, I decide to play the seaside tourist and indulge in a £3 pot of raw cockles. Walking towards Margate’s new cultural centre – the Turner Contemporary gallery, apparently built on the site of J.W.M. Turner’s old lodgings where the sea view inspired many of his most famous seascapes – I am greeted by a hastily written graffito declaring that “YOU HUMANS ARE DESTROYING THE EARTH”.

These cockles would later have their revenge as I spent much of that evening, head in bowl, on the bathroom floor.

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Evacuating my stomach of its contents in a nauseated delirium, my mind kept returning to the Shell Grotto, the final resting place of more than a million cockle shells. The humiliation of that subterranean excavation had followed me above ground.

At the entrance to the grotto, mounted on the wall, there is a more recent shell-adorned fresco demonstrating the colours that have now faded from the aged shells on the grotto walls.

Prior to this lavatorial ungrounding, I found the Grotto’s aesthetic entropy called to in an exhibition of the sculptural works of Jean Arp and his writings that punctuated the walls of the Turner Contemporary:

…everything is an approximation, less than an approximation, for, on rigorous examination, even the most accomplished picture is a filthy, wart-infested approximation, dry magma, a desolate landscape of lunar craters.

What arrogance is concealed in perfection.

Why strive for precision and purity if they can never be attained? I now welcome the decomposition that sets in as soon as a work is finished.

[…]

Dust and insects are equally zealous destroyers. Light fades colour. Sunshine and heat produce blisters, make the paper peel off, cause the paint to crack and crumble. Moisture breeds mildew. The work decomposes and dies. [2]

Following Arp’s lead, the enduring life of this occulted space, dedicated to the pre-industrial spectacle of mollusk-death, persists.

I’m moved by Arp’s series of rock formations, each titled Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest.

I wish I was encountering them as the artist had intended.

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Back outside, for all the gallery’s drawing on the violent expressionism of Turner, it is also difficult not to see the whole of Margate in Arp’s entropic, discolouring light.

The once vibrant neon beacon of quaint coastal hedonism that is Dreamland now looms darkened over the seafront. At night, only the letters D-R-E are visible.

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Detritus, not counting that fished from the bins by ravenous seagulls, lurks in all corners as a town that has succumbed like so many others like it to its post-industrial faltering and the remnants of human despair and soul-numbing are everywhere. (Although, unlike the towns and cities I am more familiar with on England’s northeastern coast, a number of high-end fashion retailers someone continue to exist here – obscenely, juxtaposed against a decaying Woolworth’s and various other nondescript former retail properties, tanning salons and betting shops.)

Elsewhere, popped balloons released skyward for the recently deceased litter the seafront. There is a sick efficiency to the proximity of fatal cliffs to so many struggling communities. How many Turner-inspiring vistas are now accompanied by signage that share the contact details of the Samaritans?

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Back inside the Turner Contemporary, Tracey Emin has capitalised on such depressive efficiency by choosing to exhibit her famous piece, My Bed (1998), alongside a number of Turner seascapes – “a readymade installation, consisting of her own unmade dirty bed, in which she had spent several weeks drinking, smoking, eating, sleeping and having sexual intercourse while undergoing a period of severe emotional flux.”

There is a sense that Emin has only chosen such a combination as part of a wider mission of self-aggrandisement – she has previously chosen to have My Bed installed alongside paintings by Francis Bacon and William Blake – and I was more irritated than moved by the juxtaposition in situ. However, on reflection, maybe it is more apt than I had initially wanted to give her credit for.

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Back in my room, just off the seafront, I find a pair of binoculars placed on the windowsill. I’m unsure what they are for. Unless bin-diving seagulls are your thing, there is little bird-watching to be done.

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I look out on a car park, Turner Contemporary’s jagged outline barely visible in the distance.

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From the bedroom, I look out for boats grazing along the horizon but they are few and far between.

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As the sun begins to set – much earlier in the day than I am used to as winter has crept quickly over the southeast coast – I go for a walk, binoculars in hand, ultimately unused.

The sunset is more extravagant than any I have seen in recent memory. I’m overcome by a fondness for this town. Turner rightly remarked that “the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe” but what a shame they don’t last. Their colours fade and the Shell Grotto’s faded occultism is more potent now than any other time of day. To spend the night there would surely be a horrid but wonderful thing.

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[1] Gilles Deleuze, “Desert Islands” in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (London: MIT Press; Semiotext(e), 2004), 9

[2] Theodore Ziolkowski, “The Mine: Image of the Soul” in German Romanticism and Its Institutions (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1990), 32-33

[3] Ibid., 37-38

[3] Jean Arp, On My Way: Poetry and essays, 1912-1947

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One thought on “Darkness Itself II

  1. Pingback: Darkness Itself III: Whitstable Flesh – xenogoth

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