A is for Amazing: The Shell Grotto in Margate

Luckily, I didn’t need to rack my brains too hard for something amazing, because I came across something that fits the description just two days ago.

On Sunday myself, Mr IT, ArtyDaughter, ConstructoBoy and my Mum celebrated Mother’s Day with a trip to The Shell Grotto in Margate, Kent. It’s been on TV a few times and you may have seen it on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces programme. It was featured in the 2012 Christmas Special which you can watch here on the Channel 4 website. So why does it qualify as Amazing?


Photo: Isobel Runham
Photo: Isobel Runham

Firstly, there’s the sheer scale of the achievement. The Grotto is 104ft long with a rotunda, a dome and a passage leading to a room nicknamed the altar chamber (sadly a WW2 bomb partially destroyed this area). As for the time it must have taken; wow. Every surface apart from the floor is covered with a variety of shells in intricate patterns, and there are a staggering 4.6 million shells remaining in situ, although some have become detached over time or have been stolen by souvenir hunters. The floor, which may have been decorated too and/or made of marble, has been removed at some stage and this has damaged the bottom of the walls.

Grotto section

Some sections have also been renovated over the years, though when and to what extent is unknown – which leads us to the second ‘Amazing’ qualification.

Nobody knows when, why or how the Grotto was constructed, or who by. Notice I don’t say ‘nobody knows for definite’, because researchers aren’t even anywhere near a definitive answer; the evidence is too scarce. There are a number of hypotheses, but the one that seems most likely is the one that’s probably hardest to prove.

The Grotto is Grade 1 listed and has been open to the public since 1838; restorations done before its opening and for many years after were poorly recorded or not noted at all. It was supposedly discovered in 1835, although even that date – and the circumstances of its discovery – aren’t rock solid. Was the Grotto discovered when house foundations were being dug? Was a small boy sent down the hole to investigate?

Grotto Altar Room

Before 1838 there are no recorded mentions, documents or maps relating to the Grotto. An 1821 map of Margate shows that the area above the Grotto as an open field, but not far from building expansion. Had people have been constructing something on this scale around this time (not to mention importing millions of diverse shells), surely someone would have noticed. It would have taken months, if not years, of work.

Was it built by the Knights Templar? Did a local aristocrat order it built? In a field they didn’t own, telling nobody and leaving no documentation behind? Did someone go to such extreme lengths to build it merely as a Victorian tourist attraction – and not bother to generate any publicity about it during construction? And if it had been recently constructed when it was (re)discovered, why did the people responsible not come forward and take the credit for a remarkable achievement? The iconography of the Grotto is also completely incompatible with Victorian follies and continental shell grottoes of the period.

After our visit – which filled my head with many more questions than answers! – I picked up a copy of ‘The Enigma of the Margate Shell Grotto’ in the gift shop. Published in 2011 by  Martyrs Field Publications, this is the most recent examination of the evidence. Patricia Jane Marsh discusses each of the Grotto construction theories, analysing them against a specific set of criteria. She makes no judgements herself, but her analysis does point to the Phoenicians as the most likely builders. The Phoenician Goddess Tanit may have given the Isle of Thanet its name, and the Phoenician God of the Underworld, Melqart, may have given Margate its name.

Patricia is a historian and linguist. Her discussion is enlightening and rigorous but also an accessible, fascinating read and I highly recommend it if you want to find out more. You can buy it directly from the publisher here.

The A to Z Blogging Challenge

Yes I know it’s stupid, but I’d forgotten that the A to Z Blogging Challenge starts tomorrow.

  • I knew it started on 1st April when I signed up for it sometime ago.
  • I knew – vaguely – that April 1st was tomorrow.

I’d just not managed to put all the information together. Life has been too hectic – where did April come from?

When I somewhat impetuously signed up, I decided to go with a theme and I’d found a great A to Z points on a writer’s website. A website I now wouldn’t be able to find if I was looking through a magnifying glass at a large scale map that had ‘website you looked at’ marked up in fluorescent green with a giant arrow pointing towards it.

So I’ve had to cast my net elsewhere. I found a great A to Z list of adjectives on this website: http://www.ecenglish.com/learnenglish/lessons/a-z-descriptive-adjectives, so each day I will take one of these adjectives, pick something from my life/the news/ literature/the world that I feel fits the description and then: discuss.

To give you an, er, exhilarating taste of what’s to come, here’s the list of all 26. See you back here tomorrow for… something Amazing!


I’m back! M to S

For various reasons I’ve not been able to blog daily on this challenge as I expected – for one thing, I had 10 days in Scotland without internet access!

Therefore I Must Cover the rest of the Alphabet in Just 2 Days. Eeeek.

So prepare yourself for a whistle-stop tour through the first things that pop into my head concerning these letters…

M – M is for marriage, of course, because I spent this morning on the equally fascinating occupations of writing reports and watching the Royal Wedding (yes, simultaneously. I’m sure the reports will be fine….). The trees in the Abbey were a lovely idea and the bride and groom looked genuinely over the moon. Good on ’em, I say. Despite having been married myself for nearly 19 years (OMG! How did THAT happen?), I’m not an out-and-out proponent of marriage; I don’t believe a piece of paper will keep you together, and in some circumstances I don’t believe it should, either. Staying with someone long-term is all about commitment, determination and accepting change in each other. I don’t necessarily think a wedding day delivers those things.

N- noise. The reason this leapt into my head – well, if you were sitting beside me, you wouldn’t need to ask. Constructo Boy turned 11 this week and he has his two best friends around for a sleepover. They are currently in the opposite room with Arty Daughter looking at aggravating videos on YouTube (currently they’re watching the one that repeats ‘We’re taking the Hobbits to Isenguard, to Isenguard, to Isenguard, We’re taking…’ ad infinitum.
It’s mildly amusing. The first three times.

O- Omar Sharif. You see? Literally, honestly, the first thing that leaps into my head. Now I’m stuck, because I know nothing about Omar Sharif, except that he’s in Lots of Things. Oh, and he was fantastic in the hilarious The Parole Officer (which everyone should see).

P – pennies. Ooh! What can I learn about them? Just scanned the Wikipedia article (thanks, Wiki, I’m proud to donate to you!) and offer these two paragraphs that caught my attention:

Old English versions of the word penny are penig, pening, penning and pending; the word appears in German as Pfennig, in Dutch as penning, and in West Frisian as peinje or penje. These words are thought by some to have common roots with the English word “pawn”, German Pfand, and Dutch pand, words which mean “a pledge or token”.[1]

The penny was introduced into England by King Offa, the king of Mercia(from 757 until his death in July 796), using as a model a coin first struck by Pepin the Short. King Offa minted a penny made of silver which weighed 221?2 grains or 240 pennies weighing one Saxon pound (or Tower pound—equal to 5,400 grains—as it was afterwards called), hence the term pennyweight.

Q – oh no, I have a dilemma. Two of Terry Pratchett’s random thought particles entered my mind at the same time: Queen and quiz. Well the Queen was looking chipper at the wedding today, although personally I would never dress in yellow unless I was threatened with torture. She wasn’t wearing matching shoes, perhaps feeling (correctly IMHO) that yellow shoes were a step (ho ho) too far. But the beige shoes did clash. Sorry, your Majesty.

As for quiz, Wikipedia says:
The first appearance of the word is from 1784 and means an odd person. This sense survives today in the word “quizzical”. It was also used in the term quizzing glass, a common accoutrement of British Regency dandies. It later acquired a meaning of to make fun of, or to mock. How it acquired its current meaning of a test is unknown, but that sense did not appear until 1867 and then it was in the United States.

The OED2 has a citation from 1847 where the word appears: “She com back and quiesed us”, which could be a clue to its origin. Quiz as a test could be a corruption of the Latin Qui es, meaning “Who are you?” American Heritagesays it may be from the English dialect verb quiset, meaning to question. In any case it is probably from the same root as question and inquisitive.

There is a well-known myth about the word “quiz”, which says that in 1791 a Dublin theater owner named James Daly made a bet that he could introduce a word into the language within twenty-four hours. He then went out and hired a group of street urchins to write the word “quiz”, which was a nonsense word, on walls around the city of Dublin. Within a day, the word was common currency and had acquired a meaning (since no one knew what it meant, everyone thought it was some sort of test) and Daly had some extra cash in his pocket. However, there is no evidence to support the story, and the term was already in use before the alleged bet in 1791.[1]

I’d not heard this myth. Fascinating!

R – rabies and rats. Strange but true; these seemingly disagreeable subjects are both mentioned in my light-hearted story, Pop, which appears in the 100 Stories For Queensland. How can this be true, I hear you cry. Buy the book and find out, I reply! And donate money to a great cause at the same time 🙂

S – Scotland. I love Scotland. I don’t love the journey there – not when we’re stuck in the everlasting roadworks near Scotch Corner, or the ones (rife in Scotland at the moment) that last for miles and require you to go at 40 miles an hour for no apparent reason. But I do love the journey up through the Cairngorms to Braemar (via Glenshee and the A93), then on to the in-laws. The only things that ruins Scotland’s beauty, for me, is that darn tendency of theirs to build everything in shades of grey. Lighten up, oh ye architects and builders of Scotland! Some of your houses really are blots on the landscape.

If you’ve survived this far – congrats. You have tomorrow to look forward to – T to Z!

D is for Daughter

I thought today was the perfect day to blog about my daughter, although she doth protest 😉

I refer to her as Arty Daughter because she is…arty. She is a very talented artist who doesn’t have enough faith in her own ability. Her DeviantArt account is here (on DA she is TheDarkfellProject) and although she has protested that she’s ‘only uploaded one piece of her art to her online gallery and it’s nowhere near her best work’ (exhibit A, below) – I’m still posting the link because she is someone to keep an eye on (particularly if manga and graphic novels are your thing), and also because She Is My Daughter & Very Talented.

We often talk about what inspires us, and even though superficially art and writing seem very different mediums, it’s surprising how often we have similar problems, ideas or sources of inspiration.

She also deserves a pat on the back for listing me on her DeviantArt profile as her favourite writer 🙂 Cinders, you shall  go to the ball.

The Creepy Way To Create A Character

I say Creepy, because it may seem slightly stalkerish to some of you. I am, however, just leading your metaphorical horse to water. You don’t have to let it take a drink… 🙂

In Louise Doughty’s excellent book A Novel In A Year (which may or may not help you write a novel in a year, but will definitely give you a lot of excellent advice, strategies and inspiration), she often presents her readers/writers with a situation to thrust a character into (even if it’s not one they envisage being in the completed novel), or to write about a time a particular situation happened to them, such as: having an accident, getting lost, feeling trapped (emotionally or physically), being of a different nationality from your own, being a character from the past, and being an inanimate object.

Of course, these exercises are designed to generate plots and characters, and she then helps you assemble this generated material into a novel. I found those chapters fascinating and incredibly useful (Big Respec’, Louise). And it’s sparked my own ideas on ways to create a character – or to get to know an existing one better.

My Writing Idea of the Day is:

Make your Character walk in your Shoes
(because actions speak louder than words)

Walk your character through your day (or even week). Lterally, if you want; think about your character wearing your shoes! Would they? Imagine your character living through your day. Would they be good at your job, more or less patient with your children/ mother/ dog/ boss? Would they have gone for coffee with that friend? Would they walk the children to school or drive? Bus or train to work? Would they remember to send that birthday card as you did, or are they forgetful/ lazy/ inconsiderate? Would they be a blogger or do they not know their Mac from their PC?

Or perhaps walk them through days in the lives of people you know. I have a female friend who is a bouncer. This wouldn’t be every woman’s cup of tea, but what kind of woman is prepared to do a job like that? (One who is also a black belt in Karate, if you must know!).

Look out your window – is your neighbour off to a club or their work? Would your character be there too? Karate or WI? Or both? And if you have no idea where your neighbour is going, use your imagination – where could they be going, why, and would your character be likely to be there too? Asda or Waitrose? Deskbound or a landscape gardener? Would they have waited patiently in that traffic jam or would road rage have taken over? What might have resulted if they had lost their rag?

Now prepare for boredom.

My uneventful day: Took son to school, spoke to Mum on phone, emptied & refilled the dishwasher, tweeted, revised opening of my novel, researched readability score/reading age of a few novels using MyNovel software, had text conversation with my boss and agreed to increase my hours, drank tea, coffee and a double chocha mocha, ate a chicken and coleslaw sandwich, picked up the post, did some more writing, emptied the bins, went to village shop to buy chicken, bread and fruit juice cartons, collected son from school (delivering two papers from my daughter’s round on the way), spoke to my black-belt friend and another who runs a natural beauty products company, filled in a school form to say yes, son & I would love to go to the Royal Wedding barbecue at school, emailed Techy Husband holiday dates, spoke to Arty daughter when she got in, spoke to Techy husband when he got in, deleted 4 spam comments awaiting moderation on this very blog, read a few other blogs, spent ages converting file type & reformatting text of the work newsletter so I can put it on the work website (which I run), dispatched my family to karate (yes, they go to classes run by black belt friend!), and then wrote this post.

Now your answer may be similar, or completely different – but ask yourself:

What did your character actually DO today?


A to Z Challenge: Come Hither To Feed Your Brain

Yes! It’s here! The challenge 800+ bloggers (many of them writers) – and their hangers-on (sorry, followers) have been waiting for. It’s….


DAY ONE. Brought to you by the letter – A.

Last night I was pondering my first post. I enjoy the quirky randomness Google can bring to the proceedings, and thought I’d see what the hits were for…a. All by itself. Excluding hits for the same/ very similar things, the first 5 were:

  1. A (Wikipedia article) – an article all about the letter A.
    “the first letter and vowel in the basic modern Latin alphabet. It is similar to the Ancient Greek letter Alpha, from which it derives.”  So now we know.
  2. Youtube – including ‘Noah takes a photo of himself every day-‘
    Well I had to look that one up, my writer’s curiousity was burning like, like… a chicken curry that’s being ‘kept an eye on’ by a 14 year old (bitter voice of experience). Now I suspect I may be late to the party here, but that intriguing sentence in full is: “Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years. ”
    Yep, that’s right, it’s a 5 min 46 sec video of photos that Noah Kalina has taken of himself, every day, between January 11, 2000 and July 31, 2006. Noah is a photographer from Brooklyn. To see the photos individually (perhaps a good idea, the video is quite fast and makes you feel seasick!) go here. He is still taking a picture, every day, of just his head and shoulders – boy, there’s a book in there somewhere!
  3. A dictionary of slang  http://www.peevish.co.uk/slang/a.htm
    The first entry in this fascinating dictionary is abdabs: noun Terror, the frights, nerves. Often heard as the screaming abdabs. Also very ocassionally ‘habdabs’ [1940s]. This site is well worth a visit – great stuff!
  4. HTML a tag
    a is an anchor tag in HTML. This is not interesting unless like me you like to walk on the wild side and play with your HTML. ‘Nuff said.
  5. The world’s rubbish dump: a tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan – An article from The Independent
    This is a genuinely interesting article from 3 years ago about ‘A “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean’. Back in Feb 2008, it covered ‘an area twice the size of the continental United States’. I’ll be looking this up later to see what’s happened to it since.

I can only hope you find this randomness as  interesting as I do. Or perhaps, like Elizabeth Crieth, I’m just ‘interested in too many things’ – this is what her careers guidance person told her at school! Doread her excellent post on ‘composting’ your mind. This in particular is sterling advice: “I’d encourage every writer, or would-be writer, to cultivate a compost heap in her mind. Learn something new every day, even if it’s only a bit of trivia or some Believe-It-Or-Not oddity. Read widely. Talk to people. Ask questions.”

Hear hear, Elizabeth!