Up the Creek - Further Afield
The River Thames & Isle of Sheppey (Circumnavigation)
The Isle of Sheppey is situated in the Thames Estuary at the mouth of the River Medway. At one time Sheppey was mainly known for its sheep rearing. The Saxon word scrapie, meaning sheep, appears in modern names such as Scrapsgate Road. In fact, at one time Sheppey produced its own variety of cheese from its own breed of fat-tailed sheep. In spite of the continual building of new homes, Sheppey is still very much a rural area with industry and urban populations concentrated at the end of the island. Kingsferry Bridge opened in 1960, and owned by British Rail, it is the third in a series of bridges to link the island to the mainland. There is only one other bridge of this design in the world. A lifting bridge has always been needed because the demands of the railways which could not cope with the steep inclines on approaches to a tunnel or high span bridge. The bridge had a reputation for breaking down due probably to the ever increasing use of both rail and vehicular. Today there is a new road bridge (higher not requiring lifting) for road traffic with the old bridge now rail only remaining lifted until required by trains and with less use hopefully more reliability. Birds love this nine miles by four island too. At the Royal Society for Protection of Birds site at Elmley Marshes are hides from which you can watch visiting or resident water birds. Don't miss the Swale National Nature Reserve on the southern tip of the island either. Sheppey's northern edge is lined with good beaches, including a naturist stretch at Shellness. Sea views are splendid towards Whitstable in one direction and the Essex coast in the other. Most of Britain's imported cars arrive via Sheerness docks, an industrial port without a passenger service, so there's usually a large vessel coming or going to watch too.
Before I write of Sheppey I should mention we took “Rebellion-111” affectionally referred to as “Reb” up the River Thames on several occasions to various areas of interest (see photos) and later several passages to Holland but that’s for another story.
Why Isle of Sheppy? Well, sometime in 2002 several YOSC members and myself decided that it would be interesting to circumnavigate the Island. Malcolm Cross (Skipper) was born in Gillingham and knew the Island and area to be worth the trip. Our vessel “Rebellion”, a Kelvic Watson “Atlanta” 32ft long keel motor sailor of 30 plus years old was an ex Ships Captains “yacht” and proud he was of her too. The last owner, a retired barrister offered her to anyone who was interested in sailing her in the hope of a sail himself. We fitted that bill and threw in some much needed maintenance. We passaged from the vessels base off Gillingham Pier to our first evening at Queenborough where we had stopped over several times before. The River Medway seemed rather empty compared with the Solent with probably more Barges than yachts. The whole area also seemed somewhat dated but with the amount of mud showing at low tides one can understand why “yachties” from the south would feel rather lonely. There are few areas to step ashore and plug in or take water from a hose. We picked up a mooring buoy and hailed the Trot Boat Service for a small charge and made our way to the Queenborough Yacht Club premises for an overdue tipple. We could have taken the dinghy parking it on the shore side of the jetty but that would have meant getting the oars and outboard out of the locker and the outboard hadn’t been started for some considerable time. There is water and electricity available on the jetty but we didn’t require any. The following day after breakfasting on board we slipped back the way we arrived, north west up to Lapwell Bank cardinal and out through Sheerness into the River Thames starting our circumnavigation, clockwise. Although a ketch and even with all sail up she didn’t really sail very well but we made good time and made our way down The Cant into Whitstable Bay rounding Sheppy entering the Swale. This is where it gets interesting. Down past Shell Ness up to Horse Sands when to our surprise, we stopped. Why, well er, we had, er, run aground on the mud. Say it quickly and it doesn’t seem too bad. Of course we soon had sails down and engine off, not wanting to suck in pure mud especially on a falling tide. As we were very firm it didn’t seem worth shaking out the anchor and she certainly wouldn’t move in reverse no matter how many revs we had given the engine. We studied the chart and noticed the mud banks either side of us were rather steep but at that time didn’t take much notice. Facing a long wait as the tide was falling out came a drink and some snacks. We were all so cheerful with not a care at how we managed to arrive in this very embarrassing situation or for what was about to happen. All of a sudden the upper side bulkhead locker doors burst open disgorging its contents over the floor in front of us. Of course that made us laugh even more. With the light now falling we noticed we were holding our drinks glasses at the impossible angle of almost 45º to stop spillage and horrors at the next sight, water was not only completely covering the deck but only a few inches from the sliding, non water proof dog house window. The chart showed the marks for Sloping Ground but we didn’t realise just how much of an angle it was to be. Of course we then realised that any more rise in water level would without a doubt, sink us! A quick calculation confirmed that low water had passed and it seemed rather surprising how quickly the water came in. For a minute we thought we had to get the dinghy out. In what seemed no time we were afloat and with engine and navigation lights on we slipped for about a mile and dropped our anchor by Oare Marshes for the night. Needless to say, we slept well. The following day we slipped anchor making our way easily to Peg Fleet & Fowley Channel where we had a choice of channels. This is where the navigation got very interesting. With the GPS in what seemed permanent use plotting our position all the time we took the middle channel which was buoyed all the way to the infamous lifting bridge at Kingsferry. The water was very shallow at the time making it even more interesting but worse was to come with the lifting bridge broken. We picked up a local mooring buoy but were soon requested to move and had to anchor on the north side of the Swale in very, very sticky mud. We had to wait some 3 hours for the bridge to open. After lifting the anchor and motoring onwards we set to work cleaning the anchor and its chain of the very sticky mud. Brushes and many buckets of water were thrown over the decks washing all traces of mud off. Although there wasn’t much water at the time the range is about 4½ Metres and large commercial vessels still use the Swale up to the west of the bridge only with the east side silting up. We motor/sailed our way back to Gillingham and that evening having missed our tide for mooring on the Pier we decided to take advantage of Gillingham Yacht Club’s hospitality and have a drink in their bar in the Marina. The light was now falling and we picked up an unattended buoy for the evening. Dinghy & oars out for sure this time and we made our way ashore finding the narrow concrete slipway making our way to the bar. After our celebration drink we returned in the dark only to find that one of our crew was unable (due to medical reasons and not drink) to make it to the dinghy. So two crew walked the road way and planned to meet us on the high tide around midnight at the Pier in around 3 hours time. By the time myself and another of the crew returned to the boat we and the boat inside & out were literally covered in the very stick mud. A few winks and we slipped for the Pier only receive a call to say the gate was closed and they didn’t know the combination. To while away the time they had returned to the bar this time in very muddy boots. After they had removed their boots and entered the bar an onlooker remarked on the colour of their socks only to be told that they weren’t wearing any, just mud. Now on a rising tide and new directions I manoeuvred Rebellion in reverse to an empty berth pushing as little mud as possible. It wasn’t easy but we eventually had a full crew and finally moored on our home mooring at Gillingham Pier for the well earned night. The following day we saw just how much mud we had brought on board & in the dinghy and it took hours to wash off with many buckets and the hose washing at full blast. Finally with all our belongings ashore Malcolm lifted the Doghouse sole to close the engine sea cock only to find the engine almost under water. What we hadn’t realised was that the deck drainpipes ran below through other pipe work to sea cocks either side and one of the connections had parted allowing all the water we had so diligently thrown on the decks in our cleaning operations, to drain right into the bilge and this boat at the time did not have an auto bilge pump. Another 3 hours later with engine now dry we made our way home. The engine problems we had later are another story for another day and another drink. Lessons to be learned, many but the experience gained more valuable than gold.
Queenborough - Yachts can land at Queenborough at any tide and there are many boat builders and chandlers in the marina. Nelson, who learned much of his sea skill in these waters, shared a house here with his mistress Lady Hamilton. The Guildhall Museum in the tiny high street tells the Queenborough story from Saxon settlement to its role in the second World War and beyond. At the start of WW2, the defences of the estuary area were quite extensive with gun batteries on both shores. Today, the remains of these can be seen in the foundations of the Catamaran Club and in the control towers by the Tesco car park. Once war was declared, antiaircraft forts were built, a boom was rigged across the estuary to keep out submarines and the anchorage point was Minster Leas - look out for the large concrete blocks on the foreshore today. But none of these defences could keep the channels clear of mines and so a minesweeping base was created in Queenborough. The base was at the old Flushing Pier, close by the hard and a few feet from where the memorial now stands. The Liverpool excursion steamer, St. Tudno, acted as a depot ship for the flotillas of minesweepers. At the start, the sweepers, "Smokey Joes", were mainly converted fishing vessels but as the war progressed, purpose built motor minesweepers, "Mickey Mouses", joined. The sweepers moved slowly along the channels facing attack from aircraft, torpedoes, U-boats and mines. The work was not done without loss to the men and an annual ceremony and parade takes place in Queenborough to commemorate and remember all the people involved. Queenborough Yacht Club - Formed in 1976, has premises in a listed building which was previously the Castle Public House. I can certainly recommend their cheap and very good food and of course the beers speak for themselves. The club's sheltered moorings are situated at Queenborough, on the entrance to the Swale. An all-tide landing allows vessels to take on provisions, crew and passengers without using a dinghy. The club provides access to the Thames and Medway estuaries which range from sheltered waters to harder navigational challenges. The club also organises social activities, including seasonal flotillas to other waters. Queenborough is the oldest town on the Isle of Sheppy. Originally a fishing village known as Bynney or Byne Eyot (island), Danish Prince Hoestan built a fort in A.D. 893, followed by a stone castle built by Edward the third in the 1300s. Queenborough came into official existence in 1366 when the King made it into a free borough named Regina Burgia. Today it is the smaller of the two island towns but boasting a wide range of industries including pharmaceuticals, ceramics and ship breaking. Queenborough Yacht Club has the only All Tide Access between Ramsgate & London. The club itself is extensively supported by local commerce. The object for which the club is formed is to promote and facilitate the sport of yachting and also to provide social and other facilities for the members as be from time to time determined. It operates a Weekend Trot Boat Service during the sailing season for use by members and visitors for a very reasonable fee. During the summer season the club is open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday and serve excellent quality, home cooked, good value meals on Friday & Saturday evenings and a table can be booked in advance. Out of season it opens on Saturday evening only but either season, visitors are made very welcome. Their facilities include showers that I am told are especially for visitors. The club also run evening classes on their own premises. Tokens for the ATL (All Tide Landing) security gate allowing access from the shore are available from any local shop, bar, hotel, etc. including the Yacht Club. The Bosons store (Chandlery) almost next door, will stock most of your boats needs, and the Co-Op just up the road most of your crews needs. There is an alternative pub which has a good quality restaurant but of course not the good, friendly, “yachtie” atmosphere called The Flying Dutchmen in the high street. There are other pubs worthy of note even closer to your mooring and worth an ale (or two). I now understand (2015) that the Pontoon and security gate are to be updated so the information above may have changed. I’ve made the passage from Chatham to Queenborough about 15 miles, several times in “Rebellion-111” along the River Medway. This in itself can be very much an adventure and so easy to run aground with the many mud flats, marshes and wrecks to navigate never mind the large commercial vessels plying their trade some not caring a hoot for smaller vessels. They are even more a nightmare at night. Once you reach the Lapwell Bank east Cardinal buoy turn south into the River Swale for just under a mile. Queenborough arrives once you passed the remains of Radio Caroline’s Radio Transmitting vessel which was one of the first Pirate Radio Stations moored in the River Thames. At Queenborough you will find on the port side a long jetty stretching into tidal water (all states) and just past that a concrete slipway. Either drop anchor on a drying mooring, pick up a mooring buoy or moor alongside the Jetty but the latter is only available for 15 minutes to drop off or pick up crew. An overnight mooring for a small charge on the Jetty can be negotiated with the Yacht Club starting after 1600 slipping before 1000 the following day. The Trot Boat Service is run by volunteers and your return is advisable well before closing time. On the shore you will pass through a high tide flood barrier. These defences are designed to protect the village from floods in a similar manner to the famous Thames Barrier and the local Council receive data direct from the Met Office to this effect.
The "Capital" of Sheppey, Sheerness has had a long naval tradition until the base closed in 1965. Pepys came here and this is where they brought Nelson's body after Trafalgar. Visit the Sheerness Heritage Centre. Walk around Bluetown, named for the old habit of occupants decorating their homes with the blue paint they pinched from their employer, the Admiralty. Stroll the curved high street with its distinctive clock.
Minster - Minster is Sheppey's highest point so the views are wonderful. The hilltop church and twelfth century Abbey gatehouse remind you that a Benedictine Abbey began here in AD 675. Today the Gatehouse is a museum of Sheppey's history showing everything from fossils to the honours board of a now-closed local school. The little village of Minster nestles below and nearby Minster Leas beach is good for surfing.
Leysdown - A traditional seaside resort, Leysdown is an ideal place for a family self-catering holiday. Enjoy the promenade and the wholesome beach which has won a Tidy Britain award. You'll find plenty of fish and chips and other family eating options. Visit nearby Muswell Manor for a meal or a drink. It has lots of early aviation memorabilia.
Eastchurch - Aviation was born at Eastchurch. In 1901, Lord Brabazon founded the aero club for ballooning there and five years later he was joined by the Short brothers. The aerodrome was used in both World Wars and there's a memorial to all this opposite the peaceful 14th century church. It was at nearby Shurland hall - of which only a piece of wall remains- that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn honeymooned in 1532. The site is privately owned with no admittance to the public.