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It takes a particularly hardy population to live so close to a “time bomb” but the people of the Isle of Sheppey or “swampies” don’t appear to mind. On 20th August 1944 the USS Richard Montgomery was wrecked off the Nore in the Thames Estuary carrying about 1,400 tonnes of explosives. It’s too dangerous to move it still. Even on the grey overcast day I visited the wreck can be seen from Minster beach. The locals refer to the wreck as their “only spectacle”.
The isle is surrounded by the Thames, Medway and the Swale to the south. Much of the land is marsh used for grazing sheep. Sheppey is taken from the Saxon “sceapige” meaning isle of sheep. Great, I had visions of buying some local salt marsh lamb only to be disappointed as I couldn’t find a butchers. The island is formed of three islands, Sheppey, Harty and Elmley. The rivers that once separated the three isles have silted up.
Sheerness is the largest town and has an interesting history as a garrison town with a Royal dockyard and in Victorian times it developed into a holiday destination. Charles Dickens had this to say about the place:
“It is, perhaps, possible that Sheerness on Sea may some day take the place designed for it by its promoters. Present appearances, however, point emphatically in the opposite direction”
That was in 1880 and it hasn’t improved in appearance since. Its neighbour Queensborough is an all together different and looks like a town ripe for “gentrification”. It has a working boat yard and lots of historical interest including a handsome Guildhall.
Close to Sheerness Docks in Blue Town I stumbled across the Heritage Centre. Jenny Hurkett originally bought the site to run a furniture business but discovered that it had been an old music hall. Through dedication and determination she has transformed it back into a music hall and small museum. Jenny will take you on a guided tour and keep you entertained with her extensive local knowledge.
As well as the unique spectacle of the Robert Montgomery there is another distinctive fact about Sheppey. It is the only part of mainland Britain to fall victim to an invasion by a foreign power. In June 1667 the Dutch captured the fort at Sheerness. It was not formally handed back to Britain until the 1960s. That alone makes it worth a visit.
Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames from Oxford to the Nore, 1880: An unconventional handbook Issue 2