Island life in Kent
PUBLISHED: 14:24 28 December 2014 | UPDATED: 14:24 28 December 2014
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