6 ISSUES FOR £6 Subscribe to Kent Life today CLICK HERE

Island life in Kent

PUBLISHED: 14:24 28 December 2014 | UPDATED: 14:24 28 December 2014

Isle of Sheppey crossing

Isle of Sheppey crossing

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Whether it's a large, well-populated island like Sheppey, a smaller community such as St Mary's or a salty, uninhabited marsh like Burntwick, Kent is blessed with its fair share of islands - but what's it like to live on one?

There was a time when 
Kent could rightfully boast 
to be home to a host of small and not-so-small islands.

The likes of the Isle of Grain, Thanet and Sheppey were just 
three of many that populated the county’s coastline and waterways. Today, that’s 
no longer the case. Changes to the coastline and the way in which our rivers flow have altered the landscape, joining many of these former islands to the mainland 
and making them ‘Isles’ in name alone.

However, despite this, some have survived and Kent can still claim to be populated by more than its fair share.

Some of them, like Sheppey, you’ll probably know. But others, like Deadman’s Island, you might not.

Let’s start big – and they don’t come any bigger than the Isle of Sheppey. Technically comprised of three islands, Sheppey, Harty and Elmley, this 36 square mile chunk of Kent lies just off the its northern coast. Low lying (its highest point is just 250 feet above sea level) and consisting of large areas of marshland, Sheppey is home to nearly 40,000 Kent residents – including Jane Hill, who runs the Nirvana B&B in Sheerness, the island’s principal town.

“I’ve been living here for 50 years, 
which is pretty much all my life,” says 
Jane. “Sheppey is one of those places where if you’re born here, you stay here.”

One of the reasons that Jane has remained an island dweller is the sense 
of community that she believes is stronger on Sheppey than in many other places 
in the UK. “When you live on an island, there is a feeling that you’re apart from 
the mainland. Because of this you have 
a strong identity and I think that this 
also helps create a sense of community.

“Although here on Sheppey we might have the kind of population similar to a small town, in many ways the island still feels like a village. People help each other out, say hello to one another in the street and it feels like a safe place to live.

“It’s one of the many reasons why we opted to open our B&B here. We wanted 
to continue to enjoy this real sense of community and also share it with others.”

Despite the many delights of island life on Sheppey, nowhere is perfect and there are some drawbacks, as Lisa Lorton of the Harps Inn in Sheerness explains.

“Not everything you need is on 
the island, so that can be a pain. If 
you want certain shops than that means 
a drive to the mainland, which isn’t 
always convenient. I also know of some people who can find the ‘smallness’ of island life a bit claustrophobic occasionally.

“But really these are only minor drawbacks and they are more than compensated for by the benefits of 
living here,” she tells me.

Unlike Sheppey, not all of Kent’s islands are inhabited. Around the River Medway, the area of the county with the greatest density of islands left today, there are scattered examples that are not only uninhabited, but have also rarely seen 
a human foot set on their soil.

Take Hoo Island, for example, home 
to little else except a Victorian fort, 
which is still standing (if unused) today.

For many years this 140-acre site was principally used as a landfill for dredging spoil from the nearby naval dockyard.
It created the kind of island you wouldn’t want to visit, let alone live on.

Other islands in the estuary are not 
just uninhabited but also have grisly or nefarious pasts. During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners were housed 
in hulks on the Medway. Because they 
were kept in close quarters and in 
pretty dismal conditions, diseases such 
cholera, smallpox and typhoid were rife.

Those that succumbed, were buried on the nearby and aptly named Dead Man’s Island, which today is an unremarkable piece of land near Queenborough Harbour on Sheppey. It is possible to land at Queenborough on any tide and there are still boat builders and chandlers in the marina. Admiral Lord Nelson is reputed to have learned many of his seafaring skills in these waters, and also shared a house near the small harbour with Lady Hamilton.

Elsewhere in the Medway there is also Burntwick Island, a notorious smugglers’ haunt and one-time home to the infamous North Kent Gang, one of the more gruesome gangs to operate in Kent during the early 19th century. Several of its members were tried for the murder of a blockademan, Sydenham Snow.

Efforts by the authorities to apprehend the smugglers failed on several occasions until the mid-1820s when the gang was discovered by a blockade force at Westgate-on-Sea, an event that eventually led to 
the executions of the leaders.

Many of the islands in Medway are 
barely above sea level, marshy and not places that anyone would want to develop or live on. However, despite the fairly unappealing nature of some of these places, there is one that has been brilliantly redeveloped: St Mary’s Island, Chatham.

For much of its history, St Mary’s was little more than a marshy swamp criss-crossed by tidal channels. This changed during the Victorian era, when thousands of convicts were forcibly employed to 
dig out St Mary’s Creek and construct, 
in its place, Basins One, Two and Three of Chatham Dockyard. The spoil created was used to form the island we know today.

“Once the Dockyard was closed, the area was left with this island no one knew what to do with,” says David Taylor, Chairman 
of St Mary’s Island Residents Association.

“It was heavily contaminated and needed extensive remediation before anything could be built there. In the mid 1990s, under the aegis of SEEDA, a plan was hatched by the Government of the day to redevelop St Mary’s, as part of the wider regeneration of the Chatham Maritime area.

“Since then, the community that we see here today has emerged from nothing. We now have several hundred new homes, a primary school, a community centre, a doctor’s surgery and a late-night pharmacy.

“We also have a good amount of 
open space between housing parcels, as well as sports fields and play areas.”

Like life on Sheppey, according to 
David Taylor, St Mary’s also enjoys a much-cherished sense of community.

“The residents here are really active 
in ensuring that our island functions in a similar way to a village. We have lots of groups and societies (covering all ages), a residents’ association that listens to local people and a really friendly atmosphere.

“It’s quite telling that when people come to live here, very few leave. If individuals or families do move, then it tends to be 
to somewhere else on the island.”

Our landscape is always changing 
and so it’s possible that in years to 
come this might no longer be the case.

But at least today, island life in the county of Kent is alive and well. n

More from Kent Life

Tue, 16:58

There's nothing like finding a quiet spot in a beer garden with the sound of a river running along beside you. We have picked 10 places to do just that

Read more
Tue, 10:42

If you're wondering what's on this weekend in Kent, we have picked five exciting events that we're sure you'll love!

Read more

The gardens at Ladham House combine traditional English garden style with contemporary schemes

Read more
May 2019

Wherever you go in Kent you'll find people just like us pounding the streets, parks and waterways. So why are we all running?

Read more
May 2019

Kent has a wealth of beautiful gardens to visit and throughout the open garden season you'll find an array of stunning choices. Here's a selection of our favourites

Read more
April 2019

If you love live music, good food and fun in the sunshine, here's our guide to some of Kent's best music festivals this summer

Read more
Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Watch legends come to life in a thrilling tale told on an epic scale - 2,000 years in the making.

Read more
Thursday, May 9, 2019

Kent has many villages that exude historical charm and a traditional village atmosphere beloved by locals and visitors. Here we pick 10 of the prettiest to explore

Read more
Thursday, May 9, 2019

To celebrate the opening of the newly refurbished cottages, Middletons Hotel is offering the chance for up to five guests to come and experience for themselves the newly finished rooms.

Read more
Wednesday, May 8, 2019

We have teamed up with Black Deer Festival of Americana and Country Music to offer a lucky winner the chance to win two adult weekend tickets

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory
Kent Life Food & Drink awards. Open for entries.

Subscribe or buy a mag today


subscription ad


Follow us on Twitter


Like us on Facebook


Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search

Most Read

Latest from the Kent Life