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.


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