I was so excited to visit Lindisfarne Castle and the…
Isle of Sheppey – the forgotten island
This post has proved to me that ‘You cannot judge a Book by its cover!’ Taking a place by its first impression can be misleading, but by opening its pages and looking inside, there are beauties to be found.
Every part of England is beautiful. Is it not…? Are there any parts of the country which are not that impressive or attractive…? An area which is boring, plain and has nothing to offer? I doubt it.
Or so I thought until we visited Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent four years ago.
Bill warned me that Sheerness is not the most attractive place and he said he did not have the slightest idea why his brother bought a palace there many years ago. OK, it has train links to London which is fine but still…
At that point I neither knew nor understood why Bill was of such a poor opinion of the place. To my mind the whole of England is beautiful and seaside towns could only have a special ambience. Clear as day, isn’t it?
As we got to the bridge that takes you to the island, the penny started to drop… Plain landscape as far as the eye can see, but instead of grazing animals there were cranes, industrial areas and factories. Not something that would melt your heart… Never mind, the town is going to be lovely, so I thought. But as we walked in the High Street, I had to realise that apart from the classic seaside clock tower and some late Victorian houses the town has very little to offer and indeed my eyes that are always scanning to find beauty, struggled to find anything here. The pebbled beach did not appear too pleasant either with cranes and dockyard to the left, a Tesco behind and concrete promenade to the right… I had to admit that NOT every part of England is beautiful…
Sheerness itself has like many Dockland areas suffered from a lack of investment in the town and surrounding area. Many industries have disappeared leaving the town with little growth and prospect. However, with some financial assistance the town could once again thrive and return to its heyday.
A recent visit and investigation…
As it happened, we had to go to Sheerness again. Although we have been here several times since, on this occasion I came up with a plan: let’s explore the town and the island! I could not accept the fact that this island did not have anything interesting or hide any beauty.
To start with, what’s worth knowing about the Isle of Sheppey at all…?
- The island lies in the Thames Estuary and at the mouth of the River Medway.
- Sheppey is derived from Old English Sceapig meaning ‘Sheep Island’.
- During the Raid on the Medway in 1667 the Dutch sailed up on the Medway and captured the fortress at Sheerness. They occupied the island for a few days and this was the only instance since William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066 when a part of the country was lost to a foreign power.
- The Royal Navy Dockyards in Sheerness was founded in the 17th century.
- In the 18th century yellow-tailed scorpions arrived with a ship from Italy. The creatures quickly adapted to the colder weather and survived so the island is noted as the northern-most place to have an established scorpion colony. Their number is around 15 thousand and they only appear at night. During the day they rest in the rocks. (OMG and I was walking around in that area…!)
- Sheerness became a popular seaside resort at the beginning of the 20th century because the town had a low rainfall and high number of sunny hours plus it was close to London and could be reached by train or steam boat.
- There are approximately 200 shipwrecks around the island, the most famous being the American SS Richard Montgomery which sank in 1944 with explosives on board. Scientists warned that an explosion could occur if sea water penetrated the bombs. It would be one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions.
- There are three prisons on the island: HMP Elmley, HMP Standford, HMP Swaleside.
There is nothing interesting on the island, ha…? :)
Let’s start with Sheerness!
Sheerness is an old, seaside town born in the 16th century when Henry VIII ordered a fort to be built here to prevent enemy ships from entering the River Medway. In the above mentioned Raid on the Medway the Dutch occupied the island. After that the fortress was strengthened so that it could not happen again. The dockyard played the most important role in the town’s life during the centuries, therefore we started our walk from the dockyards. This is the UK’s largest port for motors and fruit and vegetables. Indeed, you can see the banana containers piled up.
The Naval Terrace brings you back in history… I can see captains and stewards living in this gorgeous Georgian terrace during the Victorian era, which was probably the most elegant place of the town and only they could afford living here.
To the left is Blue Town, which was the Old Town of Sheerness. Why is it called blue? Well, dockyard workers built wooden houses in this area and they painted them with navy blue paint stolen from the dockyard. The area burnt down in the 1820s and the town had to be rebuilt. As we walked along the old High Street, you could somehow see how life could have been here in the town’s hay days: seagulls screaming in the sky polluted by the steelworks, trams running up and down the street, dockyard workers going to work and elegant Edwardian ladies walking on the pier holding a parasol…
We then drove around the island but I was already happy because I was able to prove that even this island has heritage and history and it is actually quite interesting.
And some more was to come.
As we were driving around the island suddenly showed us its completely different face: instead of factories and cranes, we saw rolling hills, lovely fields with crops and sandy beaches. Villages were organised and neat and as anywhere in England, there are old churches here as well.
We stopped in Eastchurch so that I could make a photo of this lovely 18th century weatherboarded cottage. This is when I discovered a quirky monument opposite the church which commemorates aviation. The first Aero Club on the island was established in the early 1900s and in 1909 it was moved to Eastchurch which the Wright Brothers visited. During the Battle of Britain the Aero Drome in Eastchurch was one of the biggest bases of the Polish Air Force.
As we moved on, the Isle of Sheppey became more and more beautiful with its rolling hills and C Roads. I suddenly realised why people would come here for a summer holiday: it is probably not as crowded and expensive as other popular beaches in the UK, yet I am sure the sandy beaches here are too gorgeous on a sunny day.
The beach huts painted in different colours put a smile on my face and we had to stop to have a closer look. Although it was a windy and cloudy day, the beach looked good.
The southern part of the island is difficult to drive as it is mainly a nature reserve with many different types of birds living there. I would think this is the most beautiful part of the island… Having said that, the Elmley Nature Reserve offers different accommodations: from Cottage to barns and from log cabins to carts all equipped with luxury of course. I would love to stay here once – it must be great watching the sunrise in one of these accommodations.
I am not saying the Isle of Sheppey took my heart that I would love to relocate but surely I have no prejudice any longer. On the contrary: I am pleased we explored this island which too has its own beauty, history and heritage.
In case you would like to explore the island – I understand it is trendy these days to explore less trendy places :) – this is how you can get to the Isle of Sheppey:
- There are trains every hour from Victoria to Sheerness-on-Sea. You have to change and the journey takes around 1,5hrs.
- From St Pancras it takes a bit more, around 1,5-2hrs but the trains depart more frequently.
- By car take the M25, M26 and M20 and turn off at Maidstone towards Sheerness.
- You can get from Canterbury to Sheerness by train and the journey takes about one hour.
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