The Swale debate

PUBLISHED: 16:49 25 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:36 20 February 2013

The Swale debate

The Swale debate

The Swale is a popular area in Kent for walking, bird watching and sailing, but is it a river?

When is a river not a river? When, it seems, it is The Swale. This stretch of water separating the Isle of Sheppey from the Kent mainland is some 17 miles long and links the mouth of the River Medway near Queenborough in the west to Whitstable Bay in the east, and is a haven for bird watchers, walkers and anglers.


In former times it was wider and deeper and was a busy route for working vessels coming up the English Channel making for the Thames Estuary, but today, although still used by tankers to reach jetties at the western end, it is now largely an attractive yachting area providing miles of usually sheltered sailing, and excellent moorings in drying creeks such as Conyer, Oare and Faversham, as well as The Swale itself, especially at Queenborough and Harty.


But what do we call it? As a boy in the late 1940s I remember trundling over the Kingsferry Bridge in my fathers Wolseley Wasp to visit my aunt who lived on Sheppey. Thats The Swale, my mother told me as we looked down on the rather narrow stretch of water.


Any local round here will tell you that it's called simply The Swale, not the River Swale


The name stuck with me unchallenged, and it was only when I joined a Kent newspaper as a trainee reporter, and later moved to Fleet Street, I discovered that while locals used that name, nationally it was often called a river.


For 10 consecutive editions of Jack Cootes East Coast Rivers pilot, it was described as a river until he changed it after a Faversham resident said it could more correctly be described as a ria, a submerged valley.


A geographer will tell you a river has to have a source, but the Swale is really a waterway where the tide floods from both ends, meeting roughly at Elmley, off Milton Creek.


Perhaps a clue to the centuries of confusion comes in The Place Names of Kent by Judith Glover, which has references to it recorded as Suuealuue Fluminis in 812 (flumen is Latin for river) and Sualu in 815, from the old English swealwa whirlpool, rushing water, swallow. Florence Pendrey, of Sheerness Library, says Edward Hasteds History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, originally published in 1798, says the island is separated from the rest of the county of Kent by a narrow arm of the sea, called the Swale, while none of the local newspapers reporting the opening of the Sittingbourne and Sheerness railway, when the first Kingsferry Bridge opened, in 1860, refer to it as a river.


Arthur Percival, MBE, honorary director of the Faversham Society, is in no doubt. Apart from anything else it's not geographicallya river - it's the Kent/Sheppey equivalent of Spithead and The Solent, not River Solent, the channel which separates the Isle of Wight from Hampshire.


The story goes that originally at its eastern end the channel ran round the north side of the Isle of Harty, not the south side, as at present, he says.


The UK Hydrographic Offiice, which has been charting the seas for over 200 years, told me they used Ordnance Survey as the authority for British place names, and that the UKHO had been using The Swale on British Admiralty BA chart 2482 since its publication in August 1988. But some East Coast yachtsmen are still using charts showing it as a river.


Willie Wilson, director of Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson Ltd says: I think just The Swale is correct. Weve been taken to task a few times and as we reprint charts were deleting the River bit.


Last word, from Dick Holness, joint author of Imray's best-sellingEast Coast Pilot: Any local round here will tell you that it's called simply The Swale, not the River Swale, although this name keeps being used by others. It's not a river in any sense of the word, it'sa tidal waterway with access fromboth ends, and as a result it has its own fascinating and complex tidal patterns.


My mother would have approved.


More from Out & About

From its literary links to its cricketing history, this riverside town has plenty of surprises to discover

Read more

There may not be the usual crowds this summer, but we can still look ahead to our return to one of Kent’s favourite seaside destinations - Whitstable

Read more
Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Picnic baskets at the ready because we have gathered 10 of the best places to enjoy a picnic in stunning rural Kent

Read more

As the world slows down, we turn our eyes to the skies in search of the best places to watch some celestial wonders this summer

Read more
Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Margate is Thanet’s trendiest seaside town so we selected some things to do, see and eat when visiting

Read more

Here are 12 places that may have flown under your radar before but are well worth seeking out

Read more

Kent is blessed with fine and indeed famous country houses, but over the decades has lost as many of its grander houses as it retains. A new book by Martin Easdown reveals 120 examples that have simply disappeared

Read more
Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Take our quiz to see if you can decipher the town or place in Kent from the emojis

Read more
Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Enjoy three of Kent’s best and most loved cycle rides which take in lots of the county’s beautiful coastlines

Read more

We look ahead to the end of lockdown and to a quiet seaside resort we can’t wait to visit again – Herne Bay

Read more
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

Most Read

Latest from the Kent Life