Friday, 16 August 2013

On the eve of boarding the Sheppey Express...

Today's top tip: 

If you feel under the weather, somewhat unhappy or even a little depressed ... Why not head for a location that's even more dreary than the state you are in? Coming face - to - face with all the grotty misery on offer, you will return sufficiently re - charged, and, perhaps, somewhat relieved that at least you can come back to a place that's marginally more inviting than the destination of your trip. If you are looking for a location of this kind, may I suggest a trip to the Isle of Sheppey, situated just off the East Kent Coast?

The Isle of Sheep: Sheepey (or Sceapige in ancient Saxon) 

I left mainland Europe a little over ten years ago and settled in East Kent. For a very brief period I was allowed to take in the delights of the "Isle of Thanet". After three months on Planet Thanet, as it is lovingly referred to by the residents of more affluent places in the area, I moved further inland to Canterbury. The nearest seaside town in the Canterbury area is Whitstable, which I visited on a cold December day back in 2002 for the first time.

Winter is always a dubious seasonal backdrop when it comes to  seaside towns, and just as I was questioning my decision to walk along Whitstable beach in icy winds, I came face to face with her for the first time: The Isle of Sheppey! 

Sheerness beach on a grey day

At the time I was unable to make out whether this strange entity emerging in the far distance, housing what seemed to be eerie - looking, industrial buildings, was, in fact, an island or still attached to the mainland. But it was clear to see that it did not blend in well with the quaint scenery of Whitstable right behind me. Becoming more familiar with the local geography, I was to find out that Sheppey is indeed an island, separated from the mainland by the channel Swale. Whilst I was not to set foot on the Isle until a few years later, I remained strangely fascinated by Sheppey, despite or, perhaps, because of what the mainland locals had to say about it.

Sheppey Marshes

I'm afraid, most of the comments on Sheppey and her inhabitants were unfavourable - beset with prejudice at best, ostensibly hostile at worst. In local parlance, the Isle is commonly known as 'Alcatraz' or simply 'Traz' - a reference to it being home to three prisons, including a young offenders' institution. Others are keen to highlight the supposed anatomical peculiarities of the island population: webbed hands and feet. This was usually followed up by subtly suggesting the occurrence of "habitual inbreeding".

Bar Tantra on Sheerness seafront

Amongst the Isle's harshest critics are often those who managed to escape her confines. A work colleague of mine, herself a former Swampie (the term used by some of the islanders when referring to themselves, but I wouldn't recommend its usage when you are actually on the Isle), pointed out that three of her peers were serving prison sentences on Sheppey at the time. She followed this up with: "You don't want to go there! It's not a very nice place." An understatement! If there were ever any plans to shoot a remake of Deliverance, Sheppey should be considered as a backdrop. 

A fire-damaged barn just outside Queenborough

Years later on a rainy February day and by now residing in Swale, I briefly visited the Isle for the first time. (And I returned!) She presented herself as a deprived, tired and utterly bleak place. The recession, no doubt, has played its part in enhancing this image. That said, a visit to Sheppey on a grey February day has its very own charm - if withered industrial heritage and social deprivation float one's boat. The Isle of Sheppey is everything and more one would expect from a decaying Kentish seaside resort.

Sheerness Seafront

Originally, I planned to visit Elmley bird reserve, one of the RSPB conservation areas in the Thames estuary probably best known for attracting a rich variety of wading birds. However, due to severe winds the reserve was closed. Come to think of it and regardless of the season, Sheppey always seems extremely windswept, so much so that it is almost impossible to steady the camera and take an in - focus picture without the help of a tripod.

Sheppey Marshes

A change of plan was required, and so I decided to head into Sheerness instead. A royal naval dockyard until 1960, the port of Sheerness now mainly serves the automotive industries. Sheppey was once serviced by a number of ferries, including routes to Vlissingen in the Netherlands and Southend in Essex. None of these are operating today and this undoubtedly enhances the feeling of being cut - off.

View of  Southend from Sheerness beach

Sheerness and its concrete seawall 

The first thing I noticed upon my arrival at Sheerness were its substantial sea defences, quite unlike any I had ever encountered in the coastal towns on the Kentish mainland. In fact, it felt like a large concrete wall was encircling the entire town, rendering the sea invisible and giving the impression of a fortified settlement. Walking atop the sea wall, it becomes apparent that many of the town's buildings are in a bad state of repair, some ruthlessly left to fall apart. The high street itself, lined with pound shops, tattoo parlours and pawnbrokers, was populated  with pram - pushing teenagers in tracksuits - a picture all too familiar across coastal Kent.

In the local supermarket I encountered a couple of orthodox Jews going about their grocery shopping. Sheerness was once home to quite a sizeable Jewish community. Its first members are thought to have migrated to the Isle from Medway, settling in the area now known as Blue Town. Initially a slum settlement on reclaimed marshland, Blue Town provided housing to the labourers of the nearby naval dockyard. It derives its name from the navy blue paint, in which the residents painted their dwellings. On your way out of Blue Town, you will inevitably pass Whelan's, the UK's largest concrete garden ornament manufacturer. In other words: a gnome factory.

Rotting industrial buildings just outside Queenborough

Sufficiently depressed by the local sights, it was high time to leave Sheerness. Getting onto and off the island, you can either swim or use one of the following escape routes: If  retro is your thing, you can opt to depart the old - fashioned way and exit via the Kingsferry Bridge, a vertical-lift bridge that has been in operation since 1959. I chose to escape via the Sheppey Crossing, a roadbridge commissioned in 2006. It connects the island with the M2 and the M20 on the Kent mainland, and, perhaps most importantly, the Sheppey Crossing is an aesthetically pleasing piece of structural engineering that even won an industry award back in 2007. (Note to the reader: I get quite excited by a good bridge!) 

View of Harty Ferry (Faversham) from Sheppey

Southeastern also operate a train service between the Isle and Sittingbourne. The Sheppey Express, as I have named it, departs twice hourly from platform three at Sittingbourne railway station. Its departure times tie in with the arrival of the coastal - bound trains from London Victoria, King's Cross / St Pancras and London Bridge. (Believe it or not, there are quite a few regular commuters, who travel every day between the Isle and the capital.)

As I am writing this, I'm preparing another trip to the Isle as I figured I'm in need of cheering up, and this time I will be sampling the delights of the Sheppey Express. 

A rotting piece of rope - by far the most photogenic object I could find on Sheppey

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