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   photo: Luke Dixon

‘If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.’

- Carl Linnaeus

If in the city it is ‘London that surrounds one’, on the Isle of Sheppey it is the sea and the sky that is all around. It is a big sky and a vast blue horizon here on the estuary. ‘The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon,’ wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on ‘Nature’. ‘We are never tired,’ he said, ‘so long as we can see far enough.’ Marooned on the North Kent coast, as the estuary of the Thames gapes its mouth to the open sea, Sheppey is an island that has stood forever between the inhabited banks upstream and the unseen peoples and places beyond the horizon. Sheerness is the town, port and stronghold on the island’s tip that has both guarded England from hostile invaders and traded with benign visitors since it was founded. Across the sea an influx of clean and bracing air sweeps in from the North. It is a rare day that is without a breeze and it is a common day that brings faster, fierce winds.

Sheerness, then, is the place to come for a good mouthful of air. In the nineteenth century it was noted for having the cleanest air in the country, blown freshly in from what was then known as the German Sea. It was a fashionable resort in Victorian times, the fresh blowing air the main attraction. A guidebook of the time noted that, ‘certainly the air of the place is most clear and bracing. Its effects, after only a few days’ residence in it, are most surprising.’ Fifty-eight English resorts were measured for the quality of their air and Sheerness-on-Sea topped the list. Consumptives in London in search of a seaside cure were even warned that they ‘will probably find Sheerness air too keen, except in the warmer parts of the season.’ The town was noted for the lack of consumption amongst its residents. One medical writer expounded:

‘On other invalids it has a most beneficial and invigorating effect, especially those suffering from Cachexia Londinensis, or that strain of symptoms arising from close application to work in vitiated atmospheres, generous living, and want of fresh air and exercises. Scrofulous patients will also derive great benefit at Sheerness. The sea air is often uninterruptedly blowing across Sheerness for weeks together, and to this fact may be ascribed the peculiar healthiness of its population.’

London and the seaside resorts downstream of the Thames have histories that have been intertwined since the ancient Romans first came up the river, a journey imagined by Joseph Conrad as one into a heart of darkness. The anonymous Victorian medical writer, (a contemporary of Conrad) extolling the virtues of Sheerness, echoes the darkness of the city as, ‘a place of disease, foul air and generous living’. Conrad, in his novel ‘The Heart of Darkness’ writes of the London air, ‘condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.’ Dickens, in his journalism, wrote that, ‘the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.’ For a time as a child Dickens lived in Sheerness and drew on his experiences of the prison hulk ships and the occasional escapee in the Magwitch scenes of ‘Oliver Twist’. His description of the bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge in the novel takes us deep into a heart of London darkness:

‘…crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage.’

In London the natural world can seem lost forever, a foreign and forgotten place out of reach amongst the buildings of city where for its inhabitants, as Richard Jeffries noted in 1883, ‘the narrow streak of sunshine which falls day by day for a little while upon the office floor, yellow by the dingy pane, is all, perhaps to remind them of the sun and the sky, of the force of nature; and that little unnoticed.’ Today the sun is reduced more than ever to narrow streaks as the buildings have grown taller and ever more excluding of natural light. Yet the sun does beat down on the rooftops above all the offices and their dingy panes, and it is there on the wild roofs of London, that the force of nature can be so often found.

As cities grew so the wild places and wild life that it encroached upon disappeared and adapted. Where man once hid within the wild world, so gradually the wild world hid within the man-made one. The symbiosis of industrial man with rural wildlife became more complicated as man and nature began to find new ways of co-existing in an increasingly urban world. Nowhere was this truer than in London. Marlow in Conrad’s novel journeys up the unnamed Congo River where the best man can hope to do is keep the wildness at bay. The ancient Thames in the novel takes on a similar feel, but by the time Conrad was writing and Marlow tells his tale of, ‘the horror, the horror,’ the darkness of the Thames was of a different kind. Becalmed on a boat on the estuary, just upriver from Sheerness, the narrator of Conrad’s novel writes:

‘The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mudflat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved on the fairway – a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”’

By the time Dickens, Conrad and Jeffries were writing, the Thames had grown to be the busiest trading river in the world, and ships plied to and fro, from the furthest corners of the globe bringing people, goods and merchandise with them. Many of the animals and plants who made their way up the Thames amongst all this trade, from countries far away, became absorbed into the ecology of the city and remain part of it today. Indeed, some that we think of a quintessentially English, or archetypical of London, made their way to the city borne on the waters of the Thames.

As the city grew so the need for human escape grew too. Seaside resorts developed on both sides of the estuary, Southend most prominent on the Essex side, and others, like Margate and Herne Bay on the Kentish side. Canvey Island just off the Essex coast and The Isle of Sheppey just off the Kent coast on either side of the river’s estuary became holiday islands. It was the air and the sea and the silence and the wildlife that brought me to The Isle of Sheppey.

Downstream from the city, the Thames becomes gradually wider and increasingly difficult to bridge, the widest crossing point being where the Dartford Crossing carries the six lanes of the M25 motorway over the river. From there to the sea the river becomes an estuarine world of its own, with ships and boats navigating the depths and shallows, the wrecks and mudflats, the ever-changing tidal waters. As the estuary widens so the horizon where water meets sky widens too and plays tricks on the eyes. The concrete and steel Maunsell Forts, rusting hulks of Second World War defences, and the ever-expanding wind farms, glistening, pristine white as clean as the energy they produce, can seem close enough to row out to one day and just distant specks the next. Sun plays on the water and shifts in the atmosphere, so that the natural light is a constant wonder. For the most part the sea resorts of England face south, towards the sun, but here on the Kentish side the coast looks north, and there is something particular about the light. A Victorian ‘Guide to Sheerness-on-Sea’ says that ‘the Beach and Esplanades afford a delightful prospect for a stroll. From their aspect, the glare of sunshine, so often found objectionable on other coasts, is not a source of discomfort here.’  J.M.W.Turner loved this light and based himself for much of his career in nearby Margate to make the best of it. To the north across the water from Sheerness is Southend, Londoners’ favourite resort despite its ‘objectionable glare of sunshine’ and with its brash, bright, multi-coloured flashing neon lights. I work there sometimes, and on a good day can see from the other side of the water, with utter clarity, the curved hood of the swimming pool by the university building where I teach. After dark the myriad coloured lights of the pier, the longest in the country, reaches out a whole mile across the two banks of the river.

The estuary map gives distances in cables and nautical miles. These are human-scaled measurements. A fathom is the measure of a length of rope a man can hold with arms stretched wide apart, about six feet. A cable is the length of ship’s cable, one hundred fathoms, a hundred sailors arms stretched out together. A nautical mile is ten cables. From the Isle of Grain, a few cables further up upstream the distance between the estuary shores is even shorter, perhaps just four nautical miles and so just four times the length of the Southend Pier. Sometimes when the tide is at its lowest you could think it possible to wade across from Sheerness to Southend.


‘Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.’

- Shakespeare

Between Sheerness (meaning Clear Headland, scir naess in Old English, shifting like to sands to Scerhnesse in 1203, Shernesse in 1221, Shirenass in 1462 and in eventually in 1690 to Sheerness) the clear headland at the mouths of both the Thames and the Medway, and the obviously eponymous Southend lies the great sandbank that is the Nore. This is where the river Thames meets the sea and the authority of the Port of London gives way to the coastguards of the Kent and Essex coasts. It has been an anchorage for the Royal Navy since the first days of sail, ideally situated close to the city of London itself, the Port of London and the naval base and dockyards of the Medway. The anchorage may be convenient, but it is also perilous, the sandbank being a major danger as well as a safe haven to shipping. It was here in 1732 that the world’s first lightship was moored. A lightship remained there for two and a half centuries until 2006 when it was replaced by a buoy - Sea Reach No. 1 Buoy.

Coming down the Thames, past the Chapman lighthouse (significant in Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’) marking the dangerous shifting sands of Canvey Island, Essex’s mirrored reflection of Kent’s Isle of Sheppey, one has reached the beginnings of the sea and the Port of London Authority has lost its jurisdiction. The buoy is marked on the tidal map on my study wall, along with the pier at Southend and the sand banks and the tidal channels, the navigation routes, jetties, shingles, flats, wrecks and other hazards.

I am writing this in my chalet at Barton’s Point close by the Sheppey beach where, it is said, old Jesse Barton, a shepherd and milkman, lived a solitary life in a cottage here on the shore looking out to the sea. He would have seen the things that I too can see lifetimes later, and perhaps have known the names for them whether he had a coastal chart or not. Some are seen only at the lowest of tides, others being under water never seen at all but named and charted as warnings for passing sailors. Barton’s Point was constructed in the 1890s as a defensive position, the sea on one side and a canal dug the other. The gun emplacements are still here, as are guns from the Second World War. The earthworks that make up the original sea defences, before the flood walls of the 1960s were built, are the canal, and the earth banks created when the canal was dug. It is on those earth banks that rabbits came to dig their warrens, and humans came in 1971 to build ninety holiday chalets. There was a brief vogue for catamaran sailing in the late sixties and early seventies and for a few brief seasons, Barton’s Point became the world epicentre of the catamaran craze. Sailors came from across the globe with their double-hulled yachts and race in the estuary. The ninety holiday chalets were the Catamaran Yacht Club where the sailors made their temporary homes during their stay. For three decades, from 1960 to 1991, the Catamaran Yacht Club played host to ‘The International Catamaran Week’, a seven-day regatta bringing together competitors from around the world to race off the waters of Sheppey.

When the fashion for catamaran sailing was over, the Catamaran Yacht Club took on a different life as a place for summer holidays. As years passed, and the English summer holiday was eclipsed by package deals in the Mediterranean sun, so the Club became used for the most part as a footprint on English soil for ex-pats living abroad (in Thailand, the Far East, Spain) a fragment of the never ending and ever changing two way human traffic that has marked out this place from time immemorial, semi-residential homes (save for the two months of the year when the ‘temporary’ nature of the accommodation forces its winter closure), and a weekend and summer bolt hole for Londoners escaping from the smoke of the big city. It may not have the pubs and brothels of old Blue Town, but there is something of the improvised about the place, with the wooden clap-board chalets protected not with naval blue paint but with Cuprinol ‘Ducksback’ preservative.

It is caught between riparian and littoral worlds. The riparian world is that of the canal banks, the littoral world is that of the seashore between high and low tides. Seawater and freshwater life find a home within a few yards of the chalets, from the banks of the canal in front of me, to the shingle beach behind. The chalets sit at sea level on a part of the English coast line notoriously prone to flooding. Flood damage is excluded from our insurance, though the seawall built after the catastrophic floods of 1953 offers protection from the sea, while only good luck offers protection from the overflowing canal. The winds, which make for the freshest air in England, come roaring across the North Sea and occasionally take a chalet away with them.

My chalet, like all the others, is of simple wooden construction, a timber frame with clap-board slats and a flat pitch roof. It is not much different from the buildings of the original Blue Town, save for the ubiquitous UPVC doors and windows set into the small wooden buildings, and like the houses of Blue Town, the timber constructed chalets creak into life as they expand and dry out in the morning sun. The noises of the place - the wood itself, the wildlife, the drips of water, and the creaking in the wind - make the chalets sound like living things as they shift and stretch in the weather.

My chalet measures about ten feet by twenty-six, not much different from Henry David Thoreau’s house near Walden pond. The front looks out to the canal, a couple of paces from my front door. Behind are other chalets and beyond them the earth bank, the road, the concrete sea defence and the sea. Beyond that is Essex. I have furnished it out as simply and cheaply as I was able. The living space looks out across the canal to the marshes and fields beyond as does my cosy little writing room. There is a hum of traffic at times, but for the most part it is a silent world of water, reeds and willow trees, and the birds and animals that make it their home. Staring out to the canal and the meadows beyond, there is always something new to see, from water rats and weasels to kingfishers, owls and egrets.

‘Are you a bird watcher?’ I asked a neighbour who was sitting along the canal bank with a pair of binoculars when I first arrived.

‘Nah, not a bird watcher,’ he replied, ‘but I watch the birds.’

The other side of the Catamaran Club, behind me, is the estuary and the many things animal, vegetable and mineral which live on, above and below the sea water’s surface.


The Isle of Sheppey lies against the north coast of the county of Kent. It is the eponymous island of sheep, and its human inhabitants living for the most part at and around sea level are known as Swampies. It is a real island, unlike the Isle of Grain to its west now a silted-up part of the mainland. Other unnamed islands and islets sit just upstream in estuary of the river Medway as it joins the Thames Estuary. There is another waterway, The Swale, which cuts off Sheppey from the Kent coast and keeps it an island. There are other, smaller, waterways. The Swale is fed by the Milton Creek from Sittingbourne from which the West Swale runs towards the Medway, and the Faversham Creek which runs to the West Swale and thence via the Whitstable Flats to the sea. Another tiny island, Little Fowley Island, sits between the East and West Swales. This is a world of island and sandbanks and the town of Sheerness is in truth an island itself artificially parted by water from the rest of Sheppey. ­Sheerness is a triangular wedge of land sitting on the North West corner of the Isle of Sheppey. The northern side of the triangle sits along the North Sea and the mouth of the Thames. To the west of the town is the confused and swirling mouth of the of the river Medway, twisting around its self-made sand banks as if reluctant to join the Thames and make its way to the sea. Completing the triangle is marshland – the Diggs Marshes, the Sheppey Court Marshes and the Minster Marshes with an old salt works amongst them. The town and port of Sheerness is thus defended by water on all three sides, and just to make the defences even more secure, in 1667 and 1685 the canal that my chalet looks out on was dug between the marshland and the town and so complete the encirclement of water.

The many maps and charts drawn up over the years to guide sailors through the Estuary mark the many sands and rocks and wrecks that boat have to take great care to avoid. There are the Cheney Rocks (with ‘a dangerous wreck (drifts 6 ft.),’ say the charts), named after one Sir William Cheyne. There is the Cant with its ‘(Numerous Obstructions)’. There are the Kentish Flats, and on them lights and buoys each with a name: E. Spile, Spaniard Middle Sand, East Spaniard, Whitstable Street, S. E. Girdler, S. Shingles, S. E. Shingles, Tongue Sand, E. Red Sand, Shivering Sand, N. Oaze, W. Oaze, S. W. Oaze and S. Oaze. All are decked out in their different colours and stripes.

Then there are the channels: Queens, Princes, South Edinburgh and North Edinburgh, and Alexandra; the deeps: the Oaze, the Barrow; and Fishermans Gat. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath said of herself, ‘Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me weel’. The Wife of Bath, who with her fellow pilgrims journeyed this past here on their way from London to Canterbury, saw the gap between her two front teeth as part of her sexual allure, but the gap here in the Estuary is a space for fishermen to take their boats between the sandbanks. There is Bedlams Bottom, graveyard for scuttled barges. There is Clite Hole Bank, Studhill, Pudding Pan, Gilman, Tongue, Margate Sand, West Shingles, Shingles Patch,  South Shingles, North Shingles, Pudding Pan, The Warp, Mouse, Nore Sand, Columbine, Woolpack, Black Rock,  Pan Sand, Princes Channel, Alexandra Channel, North Know, Knock John, South Know, both in the Knob Channel, Red Sand, and there are Oyster Beds ‘(beware of grounding)’.

Perhaps old Jessie Barton knew where the names came from, but now the origins of most are long forgotten.

No number of buoys, lightships, or local knowledge could protect every ship that passed through the Estuary from the dangers of the shifting sands. The sepulchral masts of the SS Richard Montgomery stand as witness to this treacherous truth.  In 1944 the American ship ran aground on the sands between Sheerness and Southend with thousands of tons of explosive munitions in its hold. There the ship, broken backed and still full of its explosive cargo, remains. It has its own marker buoys to warn of passing shipping that might shift its cargo and blow Southend and Sheerness to kingdom come.

The German writer Uwe Johnson, escaped and in exile from the East, spent the last years of his life in a house on Marine Parade, Sheerness, a few hundred yards along the road from me, staring out across the estuary and contemplating the wreck. Here is part of his telling of its story.

‘At dawn on August 20 1944 in fair weather and good visibility the Richard Montgomery, en route to Cherbourg, turned west into the English Channel and headed into the broad estuary of the Thames where it was to await a convoy. When, in accordance with instructions, it veered towards a shoal, it was warned by a cacophony of sirens from other ships. In Southend, on the opposite bank, the Deputy Harbour Master had also noticed that this thirty-two-foot draught ship had been allotted mooring where there was only twenty-four feet of water at low tide. He was just about to issue more appropriate instructions to the new arrival…when his superior officer stopped him.... So the Montgomery dropped anchor off Sheerness. Then came a spring tide, throwing the ship hither and yon against the sand-banks until finally it stuck fast.… Two days later the ship broke in two and sank. Holds three, for, and five were successfully cleared, but when the British stevedores realized what had arrived in them, they demanded danger money.

Left in the remaining holds were:

 2,893 tons of bombs containing about 1,200 tons of TNT.

173 tons of self-detonating anti-personnel mines with built in firing mechanisms.

107 tons of containers of phosphorous which burst into flames on contact with oxygen.

They remain there to this day, creaking on the restless sandbanks.

One of my maps tells me that: ‘The whole of the entrance to the East Swale and a considerable area of shallow waters eastwards to the Reculvers is occupied by Oyster Banks. Vessels grounding are liable to pay damages.’ The Reculvers are the twin towers of the mediaeval church at high on the cliff edge at Herne Bay which have been a navigation point for shipping since they were built.

Was it Jonathan Swift who first said that, ‘It is a bold man who first ate an oyster.’? No-one seems to know for certain. More likely it was a hungry man or woman who first ate an oyster. This little stretch of the Kent coastline is famed for its oysters. Nowadays it is to the fashionable town of Whitstable nearby on the mainline that Londoners visit to sup on the shellfish. The Whitstable Oyster Company, since its revival in the 1980s, has brought a cachet to the town and with it some of the most expensive beach huts in the country. But it is at Sheerness that the oyster industry reached its zenith, when the beds were owned by the biggest oyster business in Europe.

When the port was at its busiest, William Alston built his oyster factory on the shore a few hundred yards from our chalets. It stands there still, and though a listed building, has fallen into disrepair. It is a big, plain building of three stories. Until the sea defences were built after the great flood of 1953, it was literally on the beach, just as the Whitstable Oyster Company still is across from Sheppey on the mainland. Now a huge wall of concrete, a defence against the sea, has marooned the old factory and made it land-locked. At the adjacent Yacht Club tractors have to be used to take the yachts up and over the wall and down a slipway to the shingle. In Alston’s day the boats would pull upon the shore and the barrels be dragged inside. A bushel is still a traditional measure of oysters (just as prawns can be measured in pints) and equivalent to 36.37 litres, can mean 500 oysters.

The names shift with the sand and perhaps with time too until one day they become fixed on maps and charts. Above and around the banks and sands and lights and buoys, named or otherwise, the ships navigate their ways. For most vessels the estuary is a seaway, from beyond the North Sea to the Medway ports or up to London itself. For others, it is their home waters, and many bare the names of fishing vessels. Out on these oyster beds in the mid nineteenth century were the Adder, the Alice, the Amity, the Emma, the Ellen, the Emerald, the Henry and Elizabeth, and the James. These were full bottomed boats able to withstand the hard Sheerness foreshore and with large ports cut in the bulwarks to shovel the unwanted culch overboard. Culch was the sea detritus that made up the oyster-bed, rocks and crushed shells where oyster spawns can attach themselves. Collected in nets while fishing for oysters, it was returned to the sea along with empty shells to prepare the oyster beds for the next harvest in a process known as culching.

These were the boats of William Alston, who was, according to ‘The London Quarterly Review’ (1854), ‘without doubt, the largest oyster-fisher in the world, sent up last year between 40,000 and 50,000 bushels from his fishery Cheyney Rock, near Sheerness,’ and with forty to fifty boats out on the oyster beds. These ships wrote ‘The Cornhill Magazine’ (1865), ‘vary from small dredging vessels of eight or ten tons to carrying ships of thirty forty or fifty tons according as they are employed on the home banks or in voyages to Ireland or the Channel Islands.’ 50,000 bushels is twenty-five million oysters.

According to ‘A topographical dictionary of England’ (1840):

‘Messrs. Alston, the spirited owners of Cheyney Rock oyster fisheries, are occupiers under Lady Wenman of the West Grounds and Lapwell. Although in private hands, the number of persons employed is great, and the liberal manner in which the fisheries are carried on adds materially to the prosperity of the town. The oysters sent to London market from these fisheries are not wholly produced here but are generally bought at other places and deposited in these grounds until they arrive at a proper state of maturity, when they are dredged up and sent to the London market, under the well-known name of “Milton Natives”. There is another description of oysters, called common oysters, inferior in flavour and price. The Native Oysters, however, are esteemed the finest and best-flavoured of any in Europe: they are supposed to be the same that Juvenal particularly describes in his 4th satire as being reckoned a delicacy even in his time.’

There were scallops too, and fishing for whitebait, shrimps and eels, but it was the oysters that were famed and the makers of fortunes.

Oysters need good tides and the waters off Sheerness provide them, pulling far out to sea to reveal the rocky land that is barely concealed by water at high tide. The oysters are exposed and covered again twice a day and thrive. With the professional oyster industry now gone from the island, low tide is the perfect time for anyone who wants to, and observes the rules, to go foraging for sea food.

Oysters have a legal protection and cannot be harvested during their summer breeding season from April through to August, but the rest of the year, those months that have a ‘R’ in them, is the season for eating. There is much else besides oysters to harvest at low tide, and on a summer evening many are out with pails and spades collecting the traditional sea food of Londoners, whelks, cockles and oysters as the tide recedes.