Explore the Isle of Sheppey

On a whim recently, I went to explore the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary. I had not visited before. The Island is part of the Kent administration and had always struck me as rather uninteresting and dull. In reality, it was not. There is much to see and examine. Sheppey means ‘sheep island’ of which I saw many.

View from the Isle of SheppeyThe Island is separated from the Kent mainland by a stretch of water called the Swale. Entry and exit for vehicles is provided by a futuristic six lane bridge which is impressive. It towers above the water level to allow the passage of shipping. The view from the crest of the bridge can really hold the attention. On the south side of the island, the mainland side, much of the land is just marshland composed of London clay. The view from the peak of the bridge provides views of extensive offshore power provision and the rapidly expanding commercial port.

When I arrived I headed for the nearest town. My expectation of domestic conventional routine was sustained. The usual streets were just composed of contemporary houses providing the standard culture. Most of the inhabitants leave home every morning to work on the Kent mainland or further away to east London suburban regions. The commercial port on the west side of the island of Sheppey is very vibrant though and rapidly expanding. It was initially provided for the Royal Navy in addition to merchant shipping but the RN ceased to use it from 1960. The present day port is at Ridham which is part of Sheerness. It contributes much to the British economic process.

The Isle of Sheppey is fairly substantial. It covers about 36 square miles in the district of Swale. The density of population is quite low though and routine daily life seemed to carry on at a slower pace. It struck me that in the towns there were many places of varying religious worship to cover most faiths. I found that a little unusual. The primary town of Minster sported a very ancient and well maintained Abbey. The gardens and interior were being very carefully attended by some local people. Certainly worth a visit if you find yourself there. The Abbey appeared to be constructed perched on the most prominent point of the Island.

Minster AbbeyNeedless to say, the Isle of Sheppey would be difficult to escape from. There are three prisons on the island with the principal one located close to the town of Leysdown-on-Sea. I did not go to have a look as I went past it.

Sheppey was invaded by the Vikings in AD 835, and they have of course left their mark. There are one or two museums on the island, and they display minor exhibits from this time. Strangely, the Isle of Sheppey was invaded very briefly by the Dutch in 1667. We are quite wrong to claim that the last occupation of our country was in 1066. Perhaps the Island does not count as the mainland I suppose.

Shurland Hall near Eastchurch is a grade 11 listed building and is an interesting place to visit. It belonged to the long gone de Shurland family but is looked after by the authorities these days. It is secluded and very grand.

Leysdown-on-SeaThe principal industrial town on the Island of Sheppey is Sheerness. This is where most of the commercial activity from the port takes place. The port area is protected by a substantial fortress built in 1545. The vibrant activity taking place at the port does not seem to penetrate the domestic suburban areas. Visit the large Heritage Centre also here. Exhibits include aviation, WW1 history, maritime and island history.

There are roughly 200 shipwrecks scattered around the coastline of the island. One of them apparently was sunk during WW1 and is filled with explosives. Islanders have been assured many times that all is now under observation and the wreck has been declared safe.

Elmley Marshes are protected as a nature reserve. They provide a home ground for the largest population of Scorpions in Britain. They, apparently, offer no threat either.

The roots of aviation on the Isle of Sheppey are also quite strong. There is no aerodrome today but in past years there has been. Just grass or dirt strips I assume. The Brabazon Aero Club was close to Leysdown. The Short Brothers also operated from an aerodrome at Shellbeach on the marshland. Sheppey was also visited by the Wright Brothers in the early 20th century. They wished to locate a position for testing and demonstrations in Britain. Sheppey was also the starting point for the very first cargo commercial flight in Britain. It carried a pig in a basket strapped to a wing strut. There is an aviation museum in Eastchurch.

Leysdown-on-SeaInterested parties would maybe like to participate in a naturist reserve. It is between Leysdown and Sheerness. Open in the summer only I assume; a bit chilly for this time of year. The population of Sheppey is around 38,000 and the principal sailing club on the island organises regular round island races

PM Boris Johnson had great plans for a large airport just offshore from Sheppey until the coronavirus, climate change concerns emerged. It was to be a very substantial world-class airport. It will have to wait for a few years I think now until the aviation industry gets back on its feet.

The Isle of Sheppey offers many good coastal points to sight large cargo vessels as they navigate the Thames estuary towards the port on the island or onwards further to London. I found my visit interesting with many pieces of history to pick up on. Try it yourselves if you find you are going past it.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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