YESTERDAY, I was up with the metaphorical lark and, in a break with recent habit, actually caught the very same train that I had intended to catch. The world didn’t end or anything, which was slightly disappointing.
A series of trains carried me away across North Kent to Swale with enough time between connections to buy a coffee and some breakfast, which I sorely needed. I arrived at Swale halt by twenty past nine and stood in the shadow of the colossal Sheppey Crossing.
‘It looks big in daylight,’ I thought. ‘I wonder how small it will look later?’ And so, I set off at a suitably brisk pace…
The Sheppey Crossing
My feet soon carried me past a couple of truly enormous electricity pylons, carrying cables far above the Swale, and I could not help but observe that, thanks to the local concentration of power stations, practically every field in sight had a bumper crop of pylons looming large like some mains-powered Martian invasion force. My consideration of this was brief however as my feet were already taking me towards, and then past, Ridham Dock.
Ridham Dock, which gave its name to the original railway staff halt that is now called Swale, was developed in the First World War as a wharf for loading ammunition. Later it was used for importing materials for the paper mill at Kemsley. Currently it appears to be yet another gravel/concrete works. If you imagine a gravel works surrounded by marshland with a power station in the distance in one direction and some orchards in the other then you’ve pretty much got the idea of north Kent.
The Swale Itself
The Swale swung around so that I was heading directly south at this point and I was struck by how much it seems like just a large river rather than a sea channel, with the Isle of Sheppey giving the illusion of the parallel bank. We are well past the point where one can pretend that it’s still just the Thames though, so sea it is. Simultaneously with this I was struck by the foul reeking stench of some sort of waste processing works and came dangerously close to not having had breakfast after all.
The always fantastic Mr Fox watched me go past, his red coat looking a bit tufty and his nose unbothered by the pungency. Unsurprisingly the until-now ubiquitous rabbits were suddenly nowhere in sight. I reached for my phone and the fox likewise vanished into the undergrowth. Perhaps he’s read of photographers hounding celebrities and, in fit of literal-mindedness, assumed that cameras indicate a hunt. Which sounds like rhyming slang to me.
To my great relief I either grew inured or left the smell behind and soon came to Kemsley Down, which sits at the mouth of Milton Creek, at the head of which lies Sittingbourne. Kemsley Down is the site of a paper mill, built in 1924 by Mr Frank Lloyd, who also built a ‘garden village’ in which to house his employees. The latter became Kemsley, now a suburb of Sittingbourne, which had been until then little more than a brickworks and a single row of cottages
A second mill was established in Sittingbourne and, to move goods between them and Ridham Dock, a private light railway was built. In 1969 the mill owners decided to close the line for cost reasons but instead of tearing it out, they handed it over to be run as a heritage railway. This lasted until 2007 when the mill closed and new land ownership threatened closure of the line too. Although no public services have run since, they are expected to resume in 2011. Thus, as I followed the path along by Milton Creek, the railway line on my other side remained sadly silent and mostly hidden from view.
Unaccompanied by trains as I was, I duly picked my way beside the creek, moving first through a construction site, as Sittingbourne is hoping to renovate the banks of the creek and convert them from the industrial wasteland they are at present into something more appealing, and then through the industrial wasteland. When I eventually made it into the town, I stopped for brunch. Because I could. I was making good time.
Sittingbourne has been settled for millennia and its suburb of Milton Regis was a Roman port and administrative centre. Much later, after the death of Thomas à Beckett, it became a stop-off for pilgrims heading to or from Canterbury. In this context it is even mentioned in a line in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
The town was bombed by Zeppelins in World War I and I started to think Betjeman-like thoughts as I made my way through it because, although I’m sure it’s very nice and it has a science park apparently, which I’m all in favour of, my route meant I only really got to see its industrial estates. First impressions are important, after all, and mine were spent examining its guts.
A pleasant interlude occurred however when I was heading through yet more industrial units towards the path out of Sittingbourne, which runs back up the other side of the creek towards the Swale. I spied, while crossing a roundabout, what looked like an old, abandoned church, hidden away behind some office buildings and a wall. This turned out to be all that remains of the original twelfth century Murston Church, Murston being the part of Sittingbourne it is in.
It seems the church, even when intact, could only hold a hundred people which was about a seventh of the capacity it needed by the late nineteenth century. In 1873 the vicar had much of the church torn down and moved to become part of a new, larger one. What is left is the central chancel and a number of gravestones –mostly for local dignitaries and vicars of Murston past – and these days is permanently sealed and locked to prevent vandalism to the gravestones and other remaining furnishings.
Spotting Murston church put a smile on my face which was in no way dislodged by the discovery, about fifteen seconds after turning my back on the church, that the next section of the Saxon Shore Way was closed and a diversion was in place. It was pretty clear that Sittingbourne’s attempt to regenerate the creek’s banks were over schedule on this side and not safe for walking through.
The latter point was immediately hammered home by a works lorry hurtling flat out along the narrow road I would otherwise have been walking down. Well, I say ‘walking’. A sequence of walking, suddenly and unexpectedly flying through the air, landing and then being reduced to paste by a fully-laden works lorry seems altogether more likely.
Undismayed by losing my chance to be smeared across the floor for twenty yards, I consulted the map regarding the diversion and found that dismay was not even to be offered a look-in. Instead of retreading the dreary Milton Creek’s opposite but equally industrial bank (whoo hoo), I was now sent on a route down leafy lanes, past the farmstead of Little Murston, direct to the shores of the Swale. ‘Oh, what a calamity,’ I thought as I strolled through tree-dappled sunlight, ‘and I so much wanted to see all those industrial plants again.’
The Swale Again
The path spat me back out of the trees to the Swale just slightly eastwards of the mouth of Milton Creek at a point where I could see the Sheppey Crossing and so gauge how far I had walked. I did originally snap a photo of it but I later figured that seeing any more pictures of that bridge would be duller than dishwater. Let’s just say it looked disappointingly close, as its distance as the crow flies was about a third of what I’d actually walked.
I sat in bright sunshine on a part of the sea defences—the whole edge of the Swale is marked by a huge bank of earth and rock, faced with stones on the Swale side—the purpose of which becomes obvious at high tide when the sea is noticeably higher than the fields. The sunshine at this point was very bright, the forecast cloud cover having parted to reveal a great stretch of blue and I turned up my collar and put on my hat in an effort to avoid too many rays.
Suitably rested and refreshed, I bounded along the edge of the Swale, casting an eye across it towards Sheppey. Practically all the conurbations on Sheppey lie to the north yet I could clearly see their edges because the south of the island is mainly flat fields comprised of drained salt marsh, much like the northern Kent mainland.
Voles and Vespas
As I turned my attention back to where I was walking—tripping over and falling into the Swale at high tide not being high on my list of things to achieve—I spotted a tiny little vole getting out of my way at a speed that was frankly impressive.
Less impressive, but also related to speed, was an intermittent sound like a nest of giant mutant hornets from a science fiction B movie. I spent a good ten minutes glancing around trying to spot the gargantuan insect that was making this sound before remembering that Sittingbourne also plays host to a speedway track.
Having thusly assured myself that the noisemaker was distantly related to an entirely different type of Vespa than the one I had anticipated, I moved on to arrive some time later at the mouth of Conyer Creek. The only insects I actually encountered en route were butterflies (mostly large whites and common blues), dragonflies and honey bees.
Now, I keep mentioning creeks and, in this context, ‘creek’ is not a synonym for ‘stream’ but specifically refers to a tidal water channel. This particular one was quite small and had at its head the village of Conyer, which is quite picturesque and, I suspect, obscenely expensive to buy property in. Let’s just say that it’s one claim to fame is its marina, which might possibly be bigger than the village itself. There were considerable numbers of retirement age gents out polishing, painting, repairing or fondling their yachts and boats as the path wound round the marina.
Once around the head of the creek, the path skimmed through the edge of the village and into some woods. I paused to consult the map on the far side of the trees until I was startled by something in my right ear, which turned out to be a wet collie dog with a tennis ball in its mouth and a tail set to Maximum Wag. His apologetic owner bounded up behind him with an expression that suggested that her dog often snuck up on people’s earlobes and it was nothing that she hadn’t apologised for before.
The Saxon Shore Way returned me to the shores of the Swale facing Fowley Island, which is definitely an island by definition, being a small strip of land surrounded by water sitting between Sheppey and the mainland. I wouldn’t want to put any faith in its ability to support a man’s weight though, as it looked to me very much like a mudbank that happened to have a dusting of grass.
Having said that, the fields on my right lay in the region of Luddenham Marshes and they seemed to be supporting a good number of cows, so perhaps the grass binds the marshes better than I think. Or maybe the cows were wading. I didn’t go for a closer look but stayed firmly on the solid bank.
I continued along the path for some time, starting to worry about imminent sunburn, and turned around to see dark clouds approaching. On one side were white, fluffy cumuli. Above me was blue sky and a sun that was shining its heart out, on the other side were dark and ominous clouds with the rain clearly visible below them. I stood with some strange satisfaction as I, in bright sunshine, watched the clouds empty over Sittingbourne. I also checked my bag to make sure I’d brought my coat. Fifteen minutes later I needed it in earnest.
An Explosive Past
The Kentish coast swerved around as the path approached a track leading off to the tiny village of Uplees. Uplees, along with nearby Oare and Faversham, were massively involved in the manufacture of gunpowder—a big industry there from 1787 to the interwar period, when ICI (who by then owned the factories) moved them to Scotland to be out of easy German bomber range.
The path took me past some mysterious foundations indicating buildings that once were but are no longer. Such things always fascinate me and I knew I’d try to research them later. As it is, I can find nothing definite but the land they are on was used by the Cotton Powder Company, which unloaded components and loaded finished powder onto ships on the Swale.
I suspect therefore that the vanished buildings were part of the gunpowder industry (although the sites of the actual factories are now variously museums, a country park or a housing estate in Faversham town itself).
Beyond that track lay the Oare Marshes, now a bird and wildlife sanctuary and I traipsed in the pouring rain to a point where a jetty snaked off into the Swale, while a road led off away from it towards the village of Oare. Directly opposite on the Isle of Sheppey lay the Ferry Inn, for this was the point where the Harty Ferry used to cross.
The Harty Ferry linked mainland Kent and the Isle of Harty (now part of Sheppey due to silting of the channel separating them) but ceased operation at the start of the First World War and never resumed.
I passed two beachcombers picking the shore in the driving rain (who were clearly regretting their t-shirt and jeans ensembles) and made my way to the mouth of Faversham Creek.
Here, a wooden hut had been set up as a bird hide and I considered sheltering inside it but decided not to as I could tell from the murmured conversation within that it was already full of genuine birdwatchers and I didn’t want to disturb them
No sooner had I decided this than the rain eased off and then stopped
From the mouth of Faversham Creek, I could look back to the west and still see the Sheppey Crossing, now tiny upon the horizon (I tried to take a picture but between the distance and the conditions I couldn’t get one in which you could actually make the damned thing out).
I then looked east, past the end of Sheppey and realised that this was the first time in any of my walks that I had been able to look out to sea. Seeing the open sea cheered me greatly and I squelched my way alongside Faversham Creek in high spirits, drying off slowly in the breeze.
Faversham Creek soon twisted off to the left, while Oare Creek branched from it and it was the latter that the path followed, leading me past the ruin of another abandoned boat towards Oare village.
I passed a wharf and a marina before entering the village proper, where I struck out along the main road towards Faversham, of which Oare is essentially an outlying district. The dark bulk of an old windmill lay to one side of the road but it looked naked without its sails so I left it to its modesty and pressed on.
Faversham is another ancient town, held in royal demesne (i.e. by the King himself) in 811, thus long predating Domesday, in which it is recorded as ‘Favreshant’. It was formerly home to a wealthy abbey, founded in 1148 by King Stephen, who was buried there with his queen and their son.
The abbey, like Stephen’s Plantagenet dynasty, didn’t survive the Tudors, it being destroyed in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The Abbey’s pond still persists and was full of coots when I walked past it.
In 1698, Captain Richard Marsh established a brewery in the town which still exists, its name having changed over the years to Shepherd Neame, now Britain’s oldest brewery. The Shepherds were Marsh’s descendants, the Neames a powerful hop-farming family who became business partners in 1864. The Shepherds ceased to be actively involved after the death of Henry Shepherd in 1877 but the company’s board of directors still contains two Neames today.
Faversham’s other big industry was, as previously noted, gunpowder, and it boasted three such factories all of which eventually came under the ownership of that well-known modern manufacturer of paint, Imperial Chemical Industries (now Dutch owned). ICI closed all three and moved their business north in 1934, fearful of what would happen if Germany bombed them.
Indeed, Faversham already had a pretty good idea of what could happen, with an explosion in a TNT store in 1916 having killed over a hundred factory staff. One independent factory, opened in 1924 as a new venture—the Mining Explosives Company—continues under the name of Long Airdox but no longer makes explosives, instead manufacturing an alternative that uses compressed carbon dioxide.
Faversham’s final claim to fame is that it holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK—namely 38.5°C or 101.3°F on 10th August 2003.
I wasn’t quite that hot when I found my way to Faversham station but a cold drink was still very much in order and I boarded the train home feeling quite satisfied with the way I’d spent the day.
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 49½ miles