350 – The Grotto

In 1835 James Newlove dug a pond in the back garden of his Margate home and stumbled upon something very special. He tore into the ceiling of what came to be known as the Shell Grotto, an underground cavern decorated with myriad seashells arranged in ornate patterns by a person or persons unknown–whoever had mined the grotto had long since disappeared.

In time Newlove opened the grotto to the public. It’s still open to this day, though his gas lamps have been replaced with electric lights and the postcards on sale in the souvenir shop are slightly glossier today than they were back then.

The cave is beautiful: the patterns are intricate, mesmerising and perhaps a little unsettling. Somebody created this place without ever revealing its purpose. Is it a temple? Does it mark the final resting place of an as-yet undiscovered body? If Newlove hadn’t decided to dig a pond for his ducks to paddle in it might still have been hidden today. Who knows how many other shell grottoes out there stashed safely beneath our feet?

I’m fascinated by the word ‘grotto’. Its meaning isn’t exactly exciting–in simple terms, it’s a cave used by people–but it appeals to that little-boy-lost inside me, who once upturned chairs and draped blankets across them, making dens in his grandparents’ front room. The lane to school was a grotto, after a fashion. Trees rose sharply at either side, their roots forming natural barriers holding back the land from sliding, their branches making a canopy that allowed light through only in freckles. Walking along it was perilous: it wriggled in the gloom, hiding cars travelling both ways, allowing them to be seen only at the last moment. Mostly this was nature’s doing, but the ground was worn tarmac and every once in a while it would open to a farm gate, or a wall cobbled together by peoples from the past.

Many of the caves we visited on the moors were grottoes, were tribes hid from the cold long before they built stone huts and standing stones, the remains of which can still be found across Dartmoor. Remnants of their lives had already been excavated from the grottoes on the tor-tops, but there were signs of modern men: left litter and letterboxes for those in the know to find and collect.

At other, grander caves–like those at Kitley, and Kent’s Cavern–archaeologists have found evidence of stone and bronze age people dwelling there, along with the remains of impossibly exotic prey–elephant, hippo, hyena, cave bear–that have no right being in the sedate British countryside.

Both Kitley Caves and Kent’s Cavern were show caves. For a fee a guide escorted parties underground to marvel at the architecture–natural and otherwise–hidden in the bowels of the earth. The paths were well lit and roped; guests were ominously warned not to tread away from the designated areas, both for their own safety and the preservation of the site. Over the years the two places have merged into one glorious subterranean network in my head. I can’t tell the stalactites I saw in one cave from the stalagmites I saw in the other, but I remember seeing one of each breed of dangling rock stretched agonisingly close to one another, and marvelling when I was told it would be centuries more before the slow dripping deposited enough minerals to close the gap. In the future, when there would be flying cars and robot playmates, these two stone fingers that had pointed at each other for so long would finally touch. There’s something magical about that happening, let along it happening so far below the surface where it might never be seen.

Other rooms in this underground network has grandiose names–the gallery, the organ room–where this or that rock formation echoed something more familiar to surface dwellers. Sometimes stalagmites rose in clumps like mushrooms; in other chambers the floor and ceiling peeled away in a vast, echoing bubble. Differently coloured rock strata formed marble-like swirls on the rock walls, an effect accentuated by the coloured light cast by lamps installed in nooks along the way.

The tunnels always dug further than we’d be allowed. They’d burrow on while we were turned back–’For your own safety’, you understand–and I’d wonder what lived in the darkened far reaches where no tourist guide dared to tread.

At this end points the guide would ask the party to be quiet so as to hear dripping water, underground streams and our collective breathing echoing from wall to wall. Then, perhaps, he’d throw a switch and cut the light, and we’d be plunged into darkness so complete it only dwells in the heart of the world. Those seconds of total darkness seemed to last hours. The guide only turned the lights back on when people started hooting nervously, hopeful that someone nearby would respond, so they’d know they weren’t alone in the dark.

In 2000 Kitley Cave shut its door to the public. Kent’s Cavern still accepts tourists, enticing them in with ghost tours and specially themed expeditions at Easter, Halloween and Christmas. Their website currently advertises ‘Christmas in the Caves’ tours. at the end of which youngsters following Mother Christmas through the grotto meet Santa Claus and receive a gift.

Santa’s Grotto. Is there a more mellifluous phrase in the English language? Is there any other phrase that conjures such warm feelings and thoughts? I can talk about the magic of Christmas ‘til reindeer learn to fly but ‘Santa’s Grotto’ says everything I need to say. For children the world over, a trip to Santa’s Grotto grants more spiritual fulfillment than any religion ever will. Religious faith is a peculiarly personal thing, but no major religion lets its adherents meet the deity they worship. For kids, meeting Santa in his grotto is like touching the face of God.

And what a god! Larger than life, jollier than jolly, his eyes twinkling, his beard a thicket of silver, he’s the prize at the end of a labyrinth of wonder. They weren’t Father Christmas himself–they were his helpers, silly–but being somewhat smaller and far less cynical, when I was queuing outside the grotto they might as well have been the real deal.

Each grotto had its own signature magic. The Co-Op grotto was Plymouth’s most popular by far. The queue space outside snaked back and forth to a doorway hung with metal ribbons. A TV mounted above kept kids occupied with cartoons–a necessity if visiting on weekend in mid-December, when the town centre was filled with parents treating Co-Operative House like a creche.

With his usual quiet aforethought, my dad took my sister and I straight to town from school. In the early evening there were few other children out Christmas shopping and so we never had to queue for long. We’d arrive at the Co-Op while it was still light outside and follow bootprints drawn on the shop floor and up the escalators to the toy department where Father Christmas lived.

Every year the routine was the same and every year the grotto was in the same place: right at the top of the store. But through those streamers anything could be waiting for us. I remember them as a doorway into a world of fairy tales and nursery rhymes where stories were bought to life in mannequin tableaux, voice-overs, animatronics–I remember them having the budget and grandeur of a Hollywood special effects masterpieces.

At the end of the warren, Father Christmas sat on his throne. If my parents were having a good year, we’d get a toy paid for from Father Christmas’s sack. If not we made do with a photograph–which stood in a frame on the television for the rest of the season–and a badge that told the world we’d seen Santa at Co-Operative House.

Dingles, being a classier breed of department store, hid its Santa’s grotto in the basement. More expensive and a more up close and personal experience than the factory floor in-and-outs of the Co-Op’s grotto, Father Christmas’s grotto here was a workshop or log cabin where the only gimmick was the big man himself. He spoke with a Nordic accent (as far as I remember) and chatted a little with every boy and girl before choosing a parcel for them based upon their character and–of course–whether or not they’d been good that year.

Other grottoes–such as the ones in various garden centres dotted around the city limits–were similarly cosy. There were no visual effects here” just an old man in a ragged costume, pressed between two fir trees with a child on his knee.

I’ve left the best grotto ‘til last. It’s as treasured a Christmas memory as any I’ve ever written about.

Above my school, in the garage of an otherwise unassuming suburban house, a parent had built his children a grotto.

It begun as a Christmas project, a mechanical hobby in the corner of the lounge. In 1978 Frank Clemmens built a plastic sleigh track for his baby daughter Julie. It wasn’t much to look at: just a toy, endlessly looping, but over the next couple of years he added a ski slope to it, then a castle, and then he found his project had grown so big he had to move it outside to the garage.

The grotto grew more ambitious with every passing year. Frank developed multiple windows, each with its own festive theme. His attractions tapped into the nativity story and other traditional Christmas fare but also the fads of the time: the Clemmenses had two daughters and Care Bears featured heavily.

By 1987 the grotto featured a model replica of the entire village. It became ever more intricate, having coin and button-operated features like jumping frogs and carousels. The mechanical aspects were controlled by train sets, washing machine motors, bicycle chains–whatever Frank could get his hands upon.

It was open to the public; I remember visiting it both with my class and at night, just the four of us driving to the Clemmens house, our breaths frosty in the air. I felt like an intruder, entering this sacred house without the owner’s explicit say-so. We’d taken pocket change with us and used it copiously; Frank donated every penny he made to local charities and posted newspaper clippings of himself handing over cheques beside the grotto window.

My sister and I were the right age to appreciate this marvelous, humble feat of engineering. We were also lucky that we got to see it at all.

Frank shut the grotto down in 1987. After finding videos of it on YouTube I wrote to thank him for the wonderful memories his hobby gave me. Sadly, the grotto has long since been disassembled; all that remains of it are a couple of the plastic Father Christmases (which now travel the world as Geocaching ‘bugs’) and a painted backdrop in the garage. In an old article about the grotto I once wrote I hoped he still had all the pieces in storage, to some day be reassembled. Sadly, I know now this isn’t the case.

I can’t remember when I last went to a grotto. I’ve grown too old, too unwilling to explore. Caves off the beaten path frighten rather than intrigue me. I’m an adult now; I’ve stopped building dens.

Yet Christmas brings so many memories with it, it’d be remiss of me not to mention the grotto. Those places–underground or otherwise–so distant, the rest of the world might as well not exist. Whether shaped in lights or seashells, sometimes it’s the absence of a thing that makes us appreciate everything we have.

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