Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sittingbourne - Sheerness: A ride on the Sheppey Express

As previously mentioned, I planned to visit Sheppey again, that mysterious island off the Kent coast. This time, I took the train and what follows is an account of my journey to Sheerness - on - Sea.

For all those who rely on public transport, getting on to the Isle by train is by far the most convenient method. The Sheppey Express, as I have named it, departs twice hourly from Sittingbourne railway station; and it is here where the journey starts. (Well, I had to come over from Faversham, but no incidents worthwhile reporting occurred during the eight minute ride.)

Upon arrival at Sittingbourne you cross over onto platform three, the platform that is entirely reserved for the train to Sheppey. The train model itself is one of those regional type trains, the ones that are being used across Greater London, the ones with the uncomfy seats, that call at all stations. I'm sure the model has a name, but who needs that kind of technical information in their lives?

The Sheppey Express, awaiting its departure from platform 3 at Sittingbourne

So, one gets on, takes a seat and waits for the departure. Much to my surprise, the train didn't smell of excrement. - Note to the reader: Southeastern commuter trains feature an underlying, ever - present odour of excrement. It gets particularly pungent in the late afternoons / early evenings. It's the Southeastern signature scent: a mixture of faeces, fried fast food, subtly enhanced by base notes of sweat and old socks. - So, there I was, pleasantly surprised that this two - coacher was unexpectedly fresh, clean and, from what I could tell, full of civilised passengers. (For reference: This was after 2pm on a Friday, the Friday preceding the August bank holiday weekend to be precise, i.e. the kind of weekend where you might be unlucky enough to witness inebriated no-hopers, dressed up  in  Beckham football shirts (size XXXL), creating an unpleasant atmosphere.)

Eventually, we left Sittingbourne (on time!)  in brilliant sunshine, turning right into what seemed like a forest towards Kemsley. The Sheppey Express calls at four stops: Kemsley, Swale, Queenborough and Sheerness - on - Sea.  Both Kemsley and Swale are on the Kent mainland, Queenborough and Sheerness are located on the Isle. The entire trip from Sittingbourne to Sheerness takes less than twenty minutes.

Not much can be said about Kemsley. It sports a series of new housing developments and that's about it. From Kemsley onwards the land gets flatter, more barren and marshy. The landscape shows almost no evidence of trees, instead an abundance of reed grasses, shrubs and water pools. If you are familiar with these environs, you will instinctively know that the coast is not far. When the landscape looks like this between Kemsley and Swale, however, you are not approaching the sea straight away, you are about to cross the channel Swale.  Just before that happens, the train stops at Swale, an unmanned station located underneath the Sheppey Crossing. The A249 runs parallel to it. Apart from a few sheep, the reed grasses and the constant flow of traffic on the adjacent road, there is nothing but a vast expanse of flat marshland.

View from Swale station below the Sheppey Crossing 

View of the Sheppey Crossing (from the train)

Upon leaving Swale station, the train crosses the Swale via the Kingsferry bridge, a vertical lift bridge, that will lift both the road and the track section in the event of a ship passing through. It's not a magnificient crossing, not as inspiring as crossing the bridge over the river Medway at Rochester, for example. You have missed it in the blink of an eye if you are not paying attention. Already at this point I noticed a change in the weather. In actual fact, I noticed it first when the train had left Kemsley. Gone was the brilliant sunshine and the atmosphere now seemed increasingly misty and humid.

The Swale (taken from the train)

Having left the Swale behind us, the journey continued to Queenborough. It's here where Sheppey appears at its most bleak. Queenborough can best be described as an industrial estate. Butler - type steelframe construction next to parking lots packed with car imports. A little further on there was another carpark full of caravans. This was swiftly followed by more decaying industrial buildings.

Abandoned home, Queenborough (Isle of Sheppey) 

I also noticed a network of disused railway tracks covering the ground. At Queenborough station a handful of people joined and the journey continued to Sheerness-on-Sea. By now, the entire landscape was covered in mist with the sun occasionally gaining the upper hand against a dense blanket of clouds, that seemed to have suddenly appeared from nowhere.

View of Sheerness docks and parts of the abandoned steel mill from Sheerness railway station 

The abandoned steel mill from Sheerness railway station

Unidentified, seemingly derelict building next to Sheerness railway station

The sense of bleakness didn't subside as the train rode past even more derelict industrial buildings during the last stretch of the journey, including the mothballed steel mill right next to the station in Sheerness. It closed its doors in January 2012, causing the loss of around three hundred jobs - a significant economic blow, considering the island's overall population of approximately 38,000. Despite initial talk of the site being reopened, it now seems unlikely that the mill will ever operate again. On a positive note, it's worthwhile keeping an eye out for the amazing bits of vegetation that have started to wrap themselves around the abandoned industrial structures, thus slowly reclaiming the land. (I can't get any more positive than that, but I suppose it's a start.) Eventually the train pulled into the station, after a little shunting we came to a halt, the doors opened and everyone climbed out onto the platform. 

I had arrived in Sheerness...

Mural adorning Platform 1, Sheerness-on-Sea railway station

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure that the "Unidentified, seemingly derelict building next to Sheerness railway station" is the old bus station office. Not the booking office, but the building where the drivers, conductors and inspectors worked from.


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