Dene Holes and the Shell Grotto

March 4, 2007 at 10:20 am (Dene Hole, Margate, Shell Grotto)

I have been reading about dene-holes recently. These are chambered excavations into ground chalk, often found on the edge of farmland, around Kent and Essex.

Perhaps the most famous of these is found in Margate – where unsurprisingly a great mystery has accreted around the Shell Grotto. This is a place I had long wanted to visit – ticking all the boxes as it did – not least beacause it is a privately run museum rather than a ghastly Local Authority administered morgue with the soul siphoned from it and replaced with ‘interactive exhibits’ Modern curating labours under the misapprehension that the museumgoer gains more from pushing buttons on a broken perspex display board than looking at a 19th century cabinet full of moth-eaten taxidermy and handwritten labels.

I’m afraid to disappoint you, but there is no rotting taxidermy at the Shell Grotto, but that’s the only disappointment there – it is visually stunning and this overlayed by their fantastic line in mythography; suggesting at the same time that the mystical symbolism rendered on the walls in the grotto links it to everything from a pagan worship site, a masonic temple and even drags Dan Brown’s weary Knights Templar into the picture (damn busy chaps they were). Their descriptions of the lavish shell patterns on the wall are lush and stunning – “…we see Phallic signs, a Fountain, ears of wheat, a palm branch, the ram’s horns, the snake panel, various winged solar discs, many flowers and other signs” [The Shell Grotto of Margate – An ancient underground shell Temple (no date)] – but undiscernable to the eye of the casual observer as the Wikipedia entry states… “the abstract nature of the designs make these suggestions rather subjective”

Before mention is made of the Roman and Jutish occupation of Gillingham, a few words must be said about the local deneholes. These are subterranean chambers of various types, cut out of the chalk, and are mostly found in those parts of Kent and Essex which are situated on or near the banks of the Thames and Medway. The word itself is probably a derivative of the Old English ‘den (hole or valley), though some consider that it is a corruption of ‘Dane,’ and believe, accordingly, that the hole’ were dug in order to hide goods away from the Danish invaders.

Most of the deneholes consist of a narrow vertical shaft in the earth, which widens out into a large spherical chamber cut out of the chalk, so that the whole, in section, is not unlike a huge flask in shape. Of this type of denehole there are at least three in Gillingham, all situated in the wood which lies at the bottom of the Darland Bank, at Speke’s Bottom.

There is, however, another and more complicated type of denehole, and of this kind there is a fine example at the top of Twydall Lane. This type is entered by either a vertical or a sloping shaft, from the bottom of which tunnels radiate and lead to chambers cut out of the chalk. The Twydall Lane denehole is such an interesting example of these peculiar underground workings that a full account of it is well worth while. (Reference should be made to the plan facing page 19).

The denehole was discovered by Mr. Harlow, in 1931. He noticed a subsidence of the soil at the spot marked C, and on clearing away some of the earth he discovered avertical shaft from the bottom of which a tunnel opened out at D. This tunnel was blocked: so, after having noted the direction in which it ran, he drove a shaft at E, and the entire denehole was then laid bare. The roofs of the chambers and the tunnels were about nine feet from the surface of the earth, and the entire denehole had been cut out of solid chalk. The marks of the tools which had been used could still be seen on roofs and walls: these marks were small grooves about two inches in length and a quar:er of an inch in breadth. Another interesting feature was that in all the chambers, at an average height of about three feet from the floor, a stratum of flints had been laid bare. The denehole was disappointingly devoid of evidence as to when, or for what purpose, it had been constructed.

At F a large heap of flints in an unworkcd state, was found; and at G there were two skeletons. These crumbled into dust on being touched; but Mr. Harlow kept one of the
teeth, and it was later established that this was a sheep’s tooth, but it was impossible to date it. A curious feature was that at points A and B niches were found. These were
about nine feet in height, but did not reach to the surface of the earth. The shafts did not start from the floor of the chamber, but had been commenced at a height of two feet. It is impossible to say for certain the purpose which these ‘niches’ fulfilled: but as the shafts were blackened with smoke, they may have served as chimneys for torches or

None of the deneholes which have so far been explored has yielded much evidence from which either the date or the purpose of construction may be inferred. It has been found that the marks on the walls and roofs must almost certainly have been made with horn or bone picks. This would date the deneholes back to pre-Roman times, at least: but it is impossible to date these underground workings with any degree of accuracy. It is equally impossible to state with certainty the purpose which they were meant to serve.

Many archaeologists incline to the view that they were intended for the storage of grain, in times when marauders were frequent: but other solutions of the problem must not be discounted. For example, it is possible that some deneholes were nothing more than flint-mines. It is quite feasible that the underground chamber laid bare at Lower Twydall by the chalk quarrymen, was, a denehole: and this chamber undoubtedly contained primitive implements, as has been seen. In this case it is likely that in origin the deneholes go back to very ancient times indeed. The Twydall Lane denehole contained both sheep and flints: and it may be that here is a clue to the problem of what these holes were used for. It is possible that some were dug for flints, while others were dug for storage purposes, and even for refuge. In other words, no one simple solution will probably fit all cases.

A History of Gillingham (Kent) by Philip Rogers (1947)

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