Sunday, 2 January 2011

Rushenden Marshes

Given the small size of Sheppey as an Island and the fact that I have lived on it all of my 63 years, its surprising sometimes to realise that there are parts of it that I haven't been on for a long time. This was true of the stretch of land that runs between the Sheppey Bridge and Queenborough and named on the map as Rushenden Marshes, which is a bit incorrect because these days Rushenden Marshes don't exist as such.
This stretch of land, like most of Sheppey's marshes, borders onto the stretch of tidal water, The Swale, that seperates all of the southern side of Sheppey from the mainland, as we like to call the rest of Kent. My walk this morning began at the two bridges that link Sheppey to the mainland, you can see both in the photo below. The small four-poster Kingsferry Bridge, which has a central section that lifts to the top to allow small ships through, was built in 1959 and was superceded around five years ago by the far more impressive Sheppey Bridge.

Swinging right and leaving the bridges above behind you, you then get the view down The Swale, with the top of the seawall that I followed for about 2-3 miles in the right hand corner. This first mile of The Swale is known as Horse Reach and then it becomes Long Reach before turning a tight point of land known at Lady's Hole Point (I don't know!) and into the wider waters off of Queenborough and then Sheerness.

The first half a mile of land alongside the seawall from the bridges is original and low lying grazing marsh, part covered by a large sewerage works and known as South Marshes. But immediately after the sewerage works and for the remaining mile and a half or so, the land and seawall referred to on the map as Rushenden Marshes, is very much higher and clearly not marshland as such. The photo below, which shows it stretching for some distance across to the housing estates of Rushenden, fails to show it how it actually looks. This huge acreage of land running all the way to Lady's Hole Point, is flat and overgrown but more importantly, is clearly some 3-4 times higher than the original marshland.
In the 1960's a dredging company who were deepening the shipping channel up the Medway to Chatham needed somewhere to lose their dredgings. They bought the majority of Rushenden Marshes, raised the seawall by some considerable height and spent many years backfilling the marshes across to Rushenden with dredgings. When I first worked for the Kent River Authority on seawall maintenance along that stretch of The Swale in the late 1960's, pumping had more or less been completed and that whole area inside the seawall, now overgrown, consisted of dead flat fields of dry sand and mud. Utilizing it to great effect for nesting each year were Ringed Plovers and over a hundred pairs of Little Terns. Its hard to visualise from this photo, but imagine an area of dry sandy mud the size of that on the right hand side of the Elmley track and that's what it was like.
Also, as we found when working out there in the winter on the seawall and needing fuel for our tea-hut fire, these dredgings had also deposited a good sprinkling of small pieces of coal, which we happily collected.

Directly opposite across Long Reach were the marshlands of Chetney on the mainland. Despite various agricultural changes over the years these marshes still retain a lot of their original marshland features and are home to large numbers of both wildfowl and wading birds.
I recall one time in the 1970's that a friend and I used to do a lot of unofficial eel netting over in the fleets of Chetney. We would launch a small fishing boat at the Kingsferry Bridge and with an outboard engine travel down The Swale and moor off of Chetney before walking ashore to empty our nets, normally after dark.
One particular night, by the time we returned to the boat with a bulging tray of eels, a really dense fog had dropped in. The minute that we chugged the boat out into The Swale we knew we were buggered, we could see no more than a couple of yards and didn't even know where the shore was, or even which way we were pointing. Thick fog, dead silence and two pretty scared men drifting somewhere in the middle of The Swale at 11.00 at night! Eventually, as we drifted along on an incoming tide, one thing saved us, I could smell sewerage to the left of us, it had to be the Rushenden sewer works. We started the engine and headed left into the fog and joy of joys, we hit the mudflats of the Sheppey shore but visibility was so bad that we daren't leave the security of those mudflats and go back into the river and get lost and dis-orientated again. So what did we have do, we stepped onto that soft mud and we pulled the boat for a mile or so down river until through the fog we could hear vehicles crossing the Bridge. Pulling a boat through soft mud in chest waders that night was unbelievably tiring and I certainly wasn't welcomed with open arms after midnight that night by my wife as I arrived home covered in river mud, freezing cold and stinking of eels.

This less than impressive view is the end of my walk along that stretch of seawall and shows all that remains of the gloriously named Lady's Hole Point, with Queenborough and Sheerness in the background. To most of us old Sheppey-ites it has always been known as "The Coal Washer" because for countless years this remote spit of land had a jetty that received coal vessels that unloaded coal for a coal merchant in Queenborough, with the coal being transferred by a single rail line along the edge of the shore. For many years after that and until recently, it was owned by a company that shipped scrap metal out to Italy.

So that pretty much ends my little ramble along that stretch of Sheppey's coastline, there was little else to do but turn round and walk back. Oh yes, what of birds - well to be honest it was pretty naff, the only birds of note were good numbers of wildfowl in The Swale itself, Wigeon, Mallard, Teal, Shoveler, Shelduck and Greylag and Canada Geese and most of those had come off of Chetney.


  1. Thanks again Derek for yet another fascinating study of Sheppey's history and geography. I hardly recognised the area but then it has to be at least 50 years since I last walked that stretch. I had to study the OS map to follow your journey and to pinpoint your photographs which continue to add greatly to your 'lessons'.
    I hope you got a good price for your eels !

  2. Ken,
    We used to sell them live to an Eel-Pie shop in Bow, London and get £1 a pound for them, which was a good price in those days.

  3. That was a very vivid account of your escapade in the fog Derek, it must have been the only time anyone has found the smell of a sewer welcome! :)

    What an imposing place it is although I have to admit to finding such large man-made creations as bridges like those rather intimidating. It is fascinating to see and learn about somewhere so very different to what I am used to.

  4. Jan,
    Unfortunately, I'm old enough to remember the bridge that was there before those two, a right rickety affair.
    Sheppey is only about 12 miles by 8 miles in size with one third being a mixture of houses and industry and the other two thirds a pleasant mixture of cliffs and lanes on the high ground and best of all, the desolate marshes on the low ground.

  5. £1 a pound sounds a good price Derek, but did you have to deliver them to Bow ?
    I note your mention of the old bridge - I'm sure you must have a few tales of the pulp boats that used to knock the bridge supports and thus leave the span in the raised position, resulting in the Island being cut off for days at a time.
    Ken L

  6. Ken, that was a good price, and yes we did have to deliver them, all writhing around in black dustbin bags.
    After one trip my friend's car began to smell worse and worse and eventually we found a decomposing eel behind his back seat that must of escaped.
    I recall the boats that hit the bridge were Gorthon pulp log boats, much later when I worked in the docks, we unloaded the same vessels there.

  7. Derek,
    The smell in that car must have been indescribable, even before the escapee decomposed !!
    Ken L