What is now a country park was originally one of the sites of the large gunpowder making industry in Faversham, Kent. It was a huge industry, employing hundreds of local people over several sites in the area over a period of 300+ years. Faversham is on a tidal creek on the north Kent coast and was an established port before the gunpowder industry began. One of the earliest gunpowder mills in the town was established in the 16th century at the head of Faversham Creek and became known as the Home Works. In 1760 the government took over control of the Home Works to form the first Royal Gunpowder Works but following a serious explosion some procedures were moved to the Marsh Works, further away from habitation. The Home Works stayed in government ownership until after the Napoleonic Wars when John Hall & Son. of Dartford obtained the lease and in 1854 the company also acquired the Marsh Works.
It is thought that the Oare Gunpowder Works was started in the late 17th or early 18th century by Huguenot refugees. This area to the west of Faversham was ideal for gunpowder making, with its woodland (to provide protection from possible explosions) marshland to grow alder and willow for making charcoal and streams for producing power from water; it is also near the coast for ease of importing the raw materials and exporting the finished product: Oare Works also became the leading supplier to the British East India Company; Chatham Naval Dockyard, Sheerness Dockyard and Woolwich Arsenal were within easy reach by boat. After the Napoleonic Wars it was leased by the government to John Hall, meaning that all three works were then owned by the same company. In 1898 it changed hands and by 1920 became Nobel Industries which in turn was absorbed into ICI. In the 1930s, despite extensive refurbishment having taken place it was decided to move the production to Scotland due to the fear that the impending war would make the sites vulnerable as they were so close to the continent. Faversham’s long association with the explosives industry largely ended in 1936.
The Oare Gunpowder Works Country Park is now an industrial heritage and nature trail managed by Swale Borough Council. The processes that took place at the Oare Works are explained and illustrated in the excellent Visitor Centre which occupies the converted cooperage building, where barrels for transporting gunpowder were originally made. Pre-Covid the Visitor Centre was open from 10.30am – 4.30pm at weekends from 1 April to 30 November but it would be wise to check 2022 times before travelling: when open there is a small museum; snacks and drinks are available and there are toilets inside the building. The car park is also closed over the winter months but there is still pedestrian access to the site which remains open all year; on these occasions it is possible to park in nearby roads or in Sainsburys car park nearby (where you could also buy a takeaway sandwich and use the toilets when the visitor centre is closed). It’s a 1.5 mile walk from Faversham railway station but buses also stop nearby – Sagecoach route 3 or X3. The main entrance is off the western part of Bysingwood Road which leads off the Western Link Road – it’s fairly well hidden between a car repair business and Bretts office block – you enter as if going to the car repair shop but then instead of turning left into their car park you go straight ahead. There is also another pedestrian entrance further along Western Link Road towards Oare but the walk along the pavement on the side of the busy road is not pleasant.
There are three colour marked routes around the park that lead to remains of some of the buildings that were used for the various procedures during the production of gunpowder – including the Incorporating Mills, Glazing Mill and Corning House – and many surviving `blast` walls. Be aware that there are steps and steep inclines and at times some of the paths are extremely muddy, although the Red walk does have a boardwalk across the marshland. The leats were a series of canals made to provide power for machinery and also to safely transport gunpowder round the site in wooden boats, or powder punts. Most of these leats still contain water, as does the Lower Mill Pond, one of two reservoirs constructed to power waterwheels. This whole area, wetland, woodland, marshland and open glades (on the upper Test Range site) provide important habitats for a whole range of insects, birds and plants; crevices in the old buildings and the trees provide roosting and hibernating habitats for at least six species of bats. It’s a good place to visit for a nature walk but the industrial archaeology is an interesting bonus – and it’s free of charge!
There are plenty more locations around Faversham associated with gunpowder and gun cotton manufacture and I will do reviews of walks around these areas later.
“For more information”:http://www.gunpowderworks.co.uk