An island of sheep by Kent’s apple-blossom shore
In spite of the industrial spread of Sittingbourne, this is still very much the coast of the Garden of England, where the Kentish orchards become a sea of blossom in spring. Across the muddy channel of the Swale is the Isle of Sheppey, whose name means ‘Sheep Island’ in Anglo-Saxon, and which is still rich farmland, with plentiful bird life, despite the busy container-ship and car-ferry port of Sheerness at its north-west tip.
A tiny church built on a low mound above flood level looks down on a small, round-ended dock where sailing dinghies moor. The Romans gathered oysters in Halstow Creek, and in the Middle Ages monks from Canterbury bred the ancestors of today’s Romney Marsh sheep.
Deadmans Island provides a link with a sinister past. After the Great Plague of 1665, ships coming to London from foreign ports had to put plague suspects aboard quarantine vessels, called lazarettos, anchored off the island. Those who died on board were buried on the island.
The Isle of Sheppey, on which Queen- borough stands, is separated from the Kentish mainland by a channel called the Swale, and linked to it by the impressive Kingsferry Bridge, opened in 1960. The bridge has four corner towers, which house mechanism that lifts the whole centre section vertically when a coaster needs to pass beneath.
Queenborough is now by-passed by the juggernauts and cars making for the harbour at Sheerness, but it still has traces of its former status as an important harbour town, notably in the 18th-century Guildhall which juts into the High Street. The town was named after Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, who built a castle on the site to guard the northern end of the Swale – an important sea passage in the days when ships stayed as close to the land as possible. The High Street ends at a small esplanade, with a long causeway from which boats can be launched at most states of the tide.
The north-west tip of Sheppey is largely hidden behind the high wall of Sheerness dockyard, laid out in the time of Charles II and now a flourishing container and car-ferry port. Much of the town consists of Victorian housing for dockyard workers.
In 1797 Sheerness was the scene of the notorious Nore mutiny, when sailors of the Nore Command rebelled against the inhuman conditions in which they lived. Though the mutiny was quelled, it focused attention on the sailors’ plight, and led to a general improvement in their conditions.
A DIARIST AND HIS DOCKYARD
Best known for his rumbustious diary of life in Restoration London, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) held office as Charles lis Secretary of the Admiralty. He carried out naval reforms and initiated new ship building; a superior referred to him as ‘the right hand of the navy’. One of Pepys’s duties was to supervise the construction of the first Sheerness Dockyard in 1665, at the time of the second Anglo-Dutch war. He described the site as ‘a most proper place for the purpose’. Most of the present dockyard, however, dates from the early 19th century.
The sea defences of Sheerness have been strengthened by a massive sea-wall, built above the shingle beach, giving wide views across the Thames Estuary. Volunteer lifeguards patrol at weekends in summer.
Below Minster village the land slopes down to a wide beach of sand and mud scattered with stones. To the east the beach is backed by steep clay cliffs, and the coast as far as Leysdown is noted for the fossils which can be found on the beach. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach at weekends and Bank Holidays in summer.
Rows of small holiday houses on unmade roads adjoin the village centre, clustered round the ancient parish church of St Mary and St Sexburga, one of the oldest places of Christian worship in England. In the Middle Ages the nuns of Minster Abbey – founded in the 7th century by Sexburga, widow of a Saxon king – used the north half of the church, while the parishioners worshipped in the southern section.
In the church is the tomb of Sir Robert de Shurland, who was Baron of Sheppey and
Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports during the 14th century. The carving on the tomb, showing a horse’s head rising from the waves, was used by R. H. Barham, author of the Ingoldsby Legends, as the basis for one of his narrative poems. According to the legend, a local witch prophesied that the horse would bring about de Shurland’s death. To prevent this, he cut off its head; but some months later he stubbed his foot on the skeleton, developed gangrene and died, so fulfilling the prophecy.
The abbey gatehouse, next to the church, houses a museum of Sheppey history.
The name ‘Warden’ means ‘watch-hill’ in Old English, and this north-east corner of Sheppey is an ideal spot from which to see ships approaching the Thames Estuary. The cliffs are subject to severe landslips, and the houses near the cliff edge are under constant threat. A rough road runs from the Point to the chalets and holiday homes of Warden and Leysdown on Sea.
From Leysdown a road, which soon becomes a track, leads to Shell Ness at the south-east corner of Sheppey. It was at Shell Beach, near Leysdown, that in November 1909 J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon (later Lord Brabazon) became the first British pilot to achieve a circular flight of 1 mile. Brabazon and other aviation pioneers are commemorated by a monument at Eastchurch, 3 miles west of Leysdown.
Grazing marshes, shallow pools and salt-marsh beside the Swale provide ideal breeding and feeding conditions for wildfowl and waders. The RSPB’s Elmley Marshes Reserve covers more than 3,300 acres, and is reached down a 2 mile track leading off the A249, a mile beyond the Kingsferry Bridge. As many as 10,000 wigeon, 4,000 teal and 1,800 white-fronted geese winter there, and breeding birds include redshanks, lapwings and shovelers.
Cars can be parked at Kings Hill Farm, about a mile from the hides which overlook the flooded lagoons and mud-flats. The reserve is open three days a week throughout the year.
The muddy Milton Creek winds its way into Sittingbourne, which was once a busy harbour town. Beside the creek, among warehouses, factories and reed-filled inlets, is the Dolphin Yard Sailing Barge Museum, which recalls the great days of the noble spritsail sailing barges that traded on the Thames and around the south-east coast of England.
The museum is housed in an old barge maintenance yard, and the buildings and relics on show include a spacious sail loft, a forge and a steam chest which was used to make timber pliable. There are also exhibits on the local brick and cement industries whose raw materials the barges once carried. The museum is open only on Sundays and Bank Holidays in summer, but visitors can often watch barges being repaired and restored in Dolphin Yard.
One of the prettiest towns in the whole of Kent, Faversham is well-loved and looked after by the people who live there. It has a neat white-painted Guildhall, with market stalls below its ground-floor arches; streets of fine Georgian and Tudor houses; two breweries in the main street; and a spacious creek that brings the river sights and smells within a stone’s throw of the town centre. The church has an extraordinary steeple of pierced and carved stone, which is Faversham’s most distinctive landmark.
Faversham was already a flourishing town in Saxon times, and an abbey was founded there by King Stephen in 1147. In later years it became an important centre for gunpowder-making, manufacturing much of the powder used in the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars; the restored chart Gunpowder Mills are open at certain times.
North of Faversham, a lane leads from Oare to the south side of Harty Ferry, a disused ferry across the Swale. Boats can be launched from the old ferry slipway, which is a continuation of the lane. The Saxon Shore Way runs westwards along the river wall to Conyer and onwards to Sittingbourne.
Three miles of sea-wall and foreshore from Faversham Creek round to the Sportsman Inn, a mile north of Graveney village, make up the South Swale Local Nature Reserve, run by the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation. In winter, the mud-flats attract large numbers of waders and wildfowl, including Brent geese, and the grassland beside the sea-wall is rich in flowering plants. The sea-wall walk is part of the Saxon Shore Way.
The Romans knew Whitstable for its oysters, and though the industry went into eclipse as the result of pollution and the storms of January 1953 it is now flourishing again. The harbour area contains the largest oyster hatchery in Europe. A dignified brick building proclaims itself the Royal Native Oyster Stores, ‘by Appointment to HM King George V, also to HM the late Queen Victoria’; this is in use each year during the Oyster Festival.
There is still more than a touch of the seafaring past about Whitstable, especially in the rows of weather-boarded fishermen’s cottages, and the rickety black-tarred boat sheds overlooking the sea. Below the seawall the shingle is banked against the wooden groynes by a strong tidal current. Just east of the harbour the Sports and Water-ski Club has a powerboat channel marked by orange buoys, which swimmers are warned to avoid.
The quiet resort area of Tankerton lies east of the old town, separated from it by a tree-covered hill, with a ship’s mast and a pair of cannon marking its highest point. Below Tankerton’s seafront houses, a wide grass bank slopes down to the shingle beach.
From Tankerton beach, a long finger of shingle, known as The Street, juts out into the sea. At low tide it is uncovered for more than half a mile or more, and is a favourite place for collecting shells. Unpredictable currents make swimming dangerous near it.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Boughton Moncheisea Place, 14 miles SW of Sittingbourne. Elizabethan manor. Weekends and Wed afternoons in summer.
Chilharn Castle Gardens, 8 miles S of Whitstable. off A252. Most afternoons in summer
Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre. Faversham Displays illustrating 1.000 years of history, in 15th-century inn Weekdays
Leeds Castle, 11 miles SW of Sittingbourne. Medieval Daily in summer,
Maison Dieu. Ospringe. near Faversham Roman artefacts. Weekends in summer.
Stoneacre (NT). Otham, 10 miles SW of Sittingbourne, off A20 15fh-cenlury manor house Some afternoons in summer