153. Sittingbourne to Sheerness-on-Sea

July 2006

For this walk I had a choice. Continue on the mainland of Kent or cross to the Isle of Sheppey. I opted for the latter, but it wasn’t without it’s problems.

I drove to Sittinbourne and parked at the station, as I did last time. To be honest I wasn’t much looking forward to returning to Sittingbourne, I had not found it a nice place last time I was here – too industrial and ugly.

From the station I had to continue along busy roads to reach the inland end of Milton Creek. From here I could rejoin the Saxon Shore Way and follow this along the western edge of the creek up to the Swale estuary, which separates mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey.

The Milton Creek, Sittingbourne

Today the tide was in so rather than mud I had water, and it looked much better for it. The grass beside the path was long so I was glad that it was dry as this is a fast way to end up with soaking wet feet. The banks were lined with industry and wire fences, but it was still nicer than I had been expecting.

I heard the whistle of a steam train too, for Sittingbourne is the perhaps unlikely setting for a heritage steam railway, The Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway which runs between Sittingbourne and Kemsley Down, starting in industry, ending at a large factory (making cardboard, I believe) and passing through mostly industry on the way.

Thankfully this side of Sittingbourne was not so industrial and I was soon leaving the town behind, though it had one sting in it’s tail with a stinky sewage works to pass. As with most estuaries in Kent I passed the rotting remains of a boat on the other side of the creek.

The Milton Creek, Sittingbourne

The marshes quickly began to feel quite remote with a network of streams, ditches and creeks over the otherwise flat land. Only the power lines gave away the fact I was near a sizable town (though this view has changed now, with the construction of a new road bridge).

The Milton Creek, Sittingbourne

I soon reached Kemsley Down which sounds nice but isn’t. Here the path passed a massive factory (used to make cardboard, I think) and then round an old land fill site. However I had now left the Milton Creek behind and was now alongside the Swale, which separates mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. Not quite the open sea, but a large expanse of water.

The Swale Estuary near Sittingbourne

I soon passed a derelict jetty probably once used by the cardboard factory nearby. Looking across to Sheppey there was a small hill (Elmley Hills) and I was amused to see that a herd of cows had all chosen to stand at the top of this hill!

The Swale Estuary near Sittingbourne

Elmley Hills on the Isle of Sheppey from the south side

On this side of the estuary though I soon reached more industry. Not sure what this is used for but the jetty here was very much still in use, with cranes at the far end and a very “chunky” fence stopping anyone without a key from being able to get along the jetty.

The Swale Estuary near Sittingbourne

Passing under it the angle of the cranes meant I soon got an interesting photo where it looked like the cranes at the end touched.

The Swale Estuary near Sittingbourne

I continued to pass more industry on the left though on the right areas of little marshy islands, whilst boats passed along the Swale. It was all very peaceful, but I did wonder how different it might be on a weekday when all this industry was operating.

The Swale Estuary near Sittingbourne

Ahead I had another inland diversion. Ridham Dock occupies the coast ahead and whilst there is a path along the eastern side it’s a dead-end. I decided not to follow this path and instead stuck with the main Saxon Shore Way which takes an inland route around the dock. On the other side of the dock, I was back on the marsh and was now very close to the Kingsferry Bridge, that links the Isle of Sheppey with the mainland.

The Swale Estuary near Sittingbourne

Actually although my Ordnance Survey map showed only a single bridge, as you can see there are in fact too. The older lower bridge, the Kingsferry Bridge,  opened in 1960 and replaced an earlier bridge so badly damaged so badly by an errant Norwegian cargo ship that collided with it that it was not repaired. It carried both the A249 and the railway line over to the island but is unusual in that to allow taller ships to pass underneath, the central section lifts up. This caused problems with traffic onto the island (especially emergency vehicles) which often had to wait for boats to pass under the bridge. So a new bridge, called The Sheppey Crossing was built. This is the higher bridge above. This solves the problem of ships passing under by being much taller (but this requires much longer approach viaducts) allowing traffic to continue whilst boats pass underneath.

In fact this second bridge was not marked at all on my Ordnance Survey map and had only opened 5 days earlier (on the 3rd July 2006) so was brand new when I walked here. The old bridge remains in place I think largely because it still carries the railway.

I continued on the easy, though un-exciting path along the sea wall approaching the bridges.

A train crossing the Kingsferry Bridge

The Kingsferry Bridge

I was quite pleased to see that as I approached the bridge lifted, so I got to see it in operation. Apparently the priority on this bridge is first given to the trains, second to river traffic in the Swale and lastly to road traffic. So I got to watch the road lifting up into the estuary to allow a single yacht to pass under neath. I wondered how often the bridge lifts.

The Kings Ferry brige lifting

Approaching the bridge I passed under it to the gap between the two bridges and followed the road to get up onto the bridge. Though architecturally unremarkable I was impressed with the engineering and scale of the new bridge, way up above me.

The Sheppey Crossing, Kent

Sadly I don’t think pedestrians are allowed on the new bridge. Although I was still surrounded by marsh land I suspect it will not remain like that, as signs advertised the land as for sale for “Open Storage, Development Land and Warehousing”.

Soon to be not marshes, Swale

So I headed up onto the old bridge. With the opening of the old bridge, it was eerily quiet in terms of traffic, though the traffic on the new bridge could be heard racing above. Unusually given there is nothing else here, there is a railway station at the south end of the bridge, Swale.

Sheppey Crossings

I believe the history of it is that a station was built at either end of the bridge after the bridge was damaged by that errant cargo ship and couldn’t be used. So temporary stations were built at either end of the severed bridge and passengers had to travel on a ferry over the estuary, between them. When the bridge re-opened the station on the north side of the bridge was closed but the station on the south side of the bridge was kept open (I think largely because the operator of the bridge used it to travel there). So now there is a station serving essentially just a bridge!

Geoff Marshall, who knows a bit about trains as he has (twice) previously held the World Record for travelling around all the London Underground stations in the fastest time has made a video about this odd station because it is the least used railway station in Kent. (In fact he’s currently on another project to travel to every rail station in the UK).

The station turned out to be rather handy for me, too. I hadn’t originally planned to walk all the islands of the coast too, but so far I have managed to get to all those it’s possible to get to, so decided to include the Isle of Sheppey too. As you can see there were also some road works on the Kingsferry bridge in connection with the new bridge. Once over the bridge I had planned to walk around the island clockwise and so wanted to take a footpath starting just on the north side of the bridge which heads north west to Rushenden past a building called The White House.

But when I crossed the bridge, there was a problem. A sign on a lampost indicated the footpath was currently closed to building work with the new road bridge. A sturdy barrier blocked the way. Even if I could get around that I could see works on the marshes below. Normally I find a closed path is in fact perfectly usable, but I suspect I could see there were problems here and works going on so it probably was not usable.

The notice helpfully informed me that the path was closed and there was “no alternative safe route”. A look at the map suggested the only alternative was the busy A249, the main trunk road onto the island. The A249 now goes over the new bridge and the road on the old bridge this is now a B-road but I knew traffic from the new bridge would soon join it, and I’d be walking beside a pavement-less busy A road. It was not a pleasant prospect or one I particularly wanted to undertake.

So I hatched an alternative plan. A few hundred meters north of Rushenden is another small town, Queenborough. This has a station. I’m next to another station and trains run every 30 minutes between them (I was surprised Swale got such a good service for such a remote place). So rather than risk the dangerous road walk I decided to use the train to by-pass the closed footpath.

Swale Station

Strictly this is not cheating because when I wrote my rules I did say I wouldn’t include every island but would try to if practical.

So instead I headed back to Swale station and took the train onwards to Queenborough. The timetable printed at the station  (there was no information display) was running up until 10th June 2006. It was now July, so no one had updated the timetable. I hoped it was still the same as the poster and it was, so I had about 15 minutes to wait for the train. There was not a lot to do at Swale other than take photos of the estuary and watch the train going the other way.

The Kings Ferry Bridge

Marshes at Swale, Kent

It did strike me that the Isle of Sheppey is fairly unusual in being an island but still connected by both road and railway to the mainland.

It had not been the best of welcomes to the Isle of Sheppey. I was hoping to enjoy the view from the train (even if I couldn’t walk it), but most of the short journey was taken up with buying a ticket from the conductor, who seemed surprised to have picked anyone up at Swale (where there is no where to buy a ticket).

So having got the train to Queenborough I headed down to the little creek called, imaginatively enough “The Creek” which passed through the village. It had quite a busy little quay, with numerous boats now marooned on the mud flats now that the tide had gone out.

The Creek, Queenborough

I followed the road along the north side of the creek and then briefly passed some industry to reach the shore again, now on the western side of the Isle of Sheppey. The tide was out revealing large areas of mud and sea weed and I could see many boats out in the estuary and more cranes on the distant shore.

Queenborough, The Isle of Sheppey

I continued past a pleasant little garden and continued on the footpath along the western shore of the island. It was more a promenade or road really, a wide tarmac track with a few benches alongside.

Queenborough, The Isle of Sheppey

At a car park the track narrowed to a path alongside more light industry on the right. Sadly the path runs for only about half a mile before turning inland. The land north of here has nothing at all marked on it on the map so I wondered why this was.

The reason soon became obvious. It turns out that Sheerness is still quite a busy port and a large number of new cars are imported through the docks.

Imported cars at Sheerness-on-Sea

And once imported here they sit in a massive car park presumably awaiting delivery to a garage or their new owner. So I followed the path beside the hire wire fence that keeps the public out of this huge car park.

The A249 near Sheerness

Soon the path, enclosed between fences reached the A249 again. Beyond it was more industry and freight trains too, presumably also used to move goods imported from the port. The path was not pleasant, squeezed between the high wire fence of the docks, the A249 and then the railway beyond it. I was glad to reach the end and pick up a more minor road through an area of Sheerness called Blue Town.

Well it wasn’t very blue but it did have some interesting buildings – I noticed the sign “Budden and Biggs Body Building Beverages” above this one, The Royal Fountain Hotel (though I believe it has since closed down) and another pub opposite, the Jolly Sailor.

Budden and Biggs Body Building Beverages

The former Royal Fountain Hotel

I suspected this was where the dock workers came to drink! In fact I passed several more pubs, crossed a small docks and at last could turn left and reach the sea.

And here it was the open sea, rather than marshes and estuary. It was so nice to see it again!

Sheerness-on-Sea

The beach at Sheerness is backed by a large and ugly concrete sea wall and below this is a beach, a mixture of sand and shingle. It may not be much but I was still pleased to see it.

Sheerness-on-Sea

I could also now clearly make out the Essex coast (Southend, I think) on the other side of the Thames estuary.

The Thames Estuary from Sheerness-on-Sea

At the time I was working in London and many of my colleagues lived in Kent. No one had a good thing to say about the Isle of Sheppey and Sheerness in particular. But whilst it wasn’t the greatest town it was not that bad either and had a few buildings of interest, too.

The beach at Sheerness-on-Sea

From here I headed the short distance inland to Sheerness-on-Sea station and took the train back to Sittingbourne.

It had been an interesting walk, not quite what I had in mind, as I had to use the train for part of it! The marshes at the start were pleasant, though to be honest I was getting a bit bored of marshes by now. So it was nice to cross to Sheppey and return to the open sea and the sound of waves once more! At least I knew next time I’d be returning to a beach, which was something to look forward too as well.

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk :-

South Eastern Trains Sheerness-on-Sea to Sittingbourne : Sittingbourne – Kemsley – Swale – Queenborough – Sheerness-on-Sea. Trains run every 30 minutes Monday – Saturday and hourly on Sundays.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link | Slideshow

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