Wednesday 23 May 2012

A Backward Glance

Back in my childhood in the 1950's, and especially the late 1950's, one of my favourite memories is of the annual blackberrying day. I only recall that it was a once only day each year, no doubt due to the trek that we had to make in order to pick the blackberries, but that in a way was what made it so special. Until I was twelve and we moved to a large, semi-detached council house with a proper garden and views across the Sheerness marshes, my world was far from salubrious. It was one of small terraced houses, narrow streets and dirty alleys as playgrounds, a place where the sun rarely shone into the bottom half of the houses and the only lighting was one gas light in the back room, with just a cold water tap in the scullery. OK, I did manage to escape to explore the marshes just outside the town sometimes, but that was just fields and ditches, the real countryside of trees and hedges and grassy fields was something that only existed in books such as the Wind in the Willows and the Famous Five, except for our annual blackberrying day!

So, one Saturday each year in late summer, my mother would announce that the next day was going to be blackberrying day! and my younger sister and I would rush to the cupboard where the tins were kept. The blackberrying tins were three, square biscuit tins that we would line with greaseproof paper and take with us to hopefully fill with blackberries. We were to go to Minster, around three miles and a long walk away but another planet to us backstreet children, who wrongly thought that only posh people lived there and that poverty was only found in Sheerness.
So the next day dawned warm and sunny, it never seemed to be cold and wet in childhood days, and eventually we would set off, my mother, my younger sister and me. In those days cars didn't exist and we had no spare money for buses and so we walked, and the most direct route was to follow the seafront from Sheerness to the distant Minster cliffs. And in those far off days, even the getting there was in itself a most exciting adventure as I shall try to explain. In those days, the main road out of Sheerness alongside the seawall, abruptly ended just past the "Ship-on-Shore" pub, outside the entrance to a small naval barracks that is now a site of small wooden chalets. From there to the start of Minster cliffs a mile or so away, the route was little more than a pot-holed mud track, first alongside the seawall and then alongside just the beach, there was no access for vehicles. There were also regularly two major hazards to endure. The small naval barracks was home to some large anti-aircraft guns, sitting on top of some underground ammunition stores, and the guns were regularly used for practice firing at a target towed behind an aircraft, across the sky further out to sea. We could watch the puffs of the shells exploding behind the target as we played in our backyard in Sheerness, even saw the plane accidentally shot down one day, and ran to the beach to see the pilot being rescued from the sea!
I do recall however, that when these AA guns were being fired that there used to be a sentry, with a small wooden hut and a red flag flying, on the seawall just before you reached the guns, I think stopping you from going any further until the target plane had made it's fly-past. Exciting stuff for a 10-11 year old boy, but there was more too come. Immediately past the AA guns, some two or three hundred yards along the dirt track, you came to the end of the Boating Lake/Canal and what is now Bartons Point country park. Bartons Point in those days was a large area of marshland that was used as a military firing range for rifles and guns,etc. At various distances out on the marsh there were slightly raised, soil ridges on which the servicemen would lay and fire at large targets raised from behind earth embankments. These earth embankments were inside the firing range, with some other small buildings, not far from the Sheerness to Minster Cliffs track. This meant that when practice firing was taking place that they were firing towards the sea and although the earth banks beneath the targets should of absorbed any stray bullets, this wasn't always the case. As a result, and in order to still allow the public to pass by safely on their way to Minster, a Covered Way had been put in place, just behind the earth sea wall. Therefore when firing was taking place, there was once again a sentry positioned by the end of the Boating Lake/Canal, with a raised red flag, who would direct people to go through the Covered Way, which ran for several hundred yards behind the target butts. It was a simple brick wall with a concrete or metal roof and was certainly effective because I can recall numerous occasions when passing through it and hearing bullets hitting the rear side of the wall. It was also a favourite place for caterpillars to pupate in and I collected many along there on later nature rambles. If you double click on the photo below you can see the remaining stretch of the Covered Way as it is today, with some of the earth banks in the background.

In those times above, the seawall in front of the Covered Way was the one that you see below, with white blocks on one side and grassed over earth on the other. What was different was the fact that the Shingle Bank to the right and the road, didn't exist and the area where the road is was just the dirt track I've mentioned, open to ravages by high tides. Its hard to believe now that to get that shortish distance between Sheerness and Minster Cliffs by vehicle, that you had drive a circular route of around 6 miles through Halfway and Minster.

After all that excitement for a young lad, we would emerge from the Covered Way and back up onto the old seawall, a few hundred yards short of the Whitehouse and Minster Cliffs. I can recall being fascinated here by being able to look out across a sparkling summer sea to where in the distance, the old army forts rose up like mushrooms from the water and to wondering what wide world there was behind that horizon. You have to remember that we had no television in those days, just an old radio, and so just books and imagination played a great part in a young child's day. But, being woken out of such daydreams by shouts from my mother and sister, it was off to catch up and round the corner by the Whitehouse and into Minster Broadway, that ran all the way from the beach to Minster Road, a mile and a half away. Past the Warners holiday camp, whose ex-chalets have now become small homes, and past the scrublands of lower Wards Hill Road, which were cleared in the mid-1960's and where my bungalow now sits.
At the time that we were blackberrying, these dense hawthorn thickets were spread for some way along the under-developed Broadway, spreading inwards almost all the way back to what is now The Glen village green. The only way through these thickets was by following wide, grassy tracks that ran from the Broadway inwards, and along a couple of these tracks were one or two bungalows tucked away. Today those tracks are roads with housing down each side and names that reflect their former past, such as Clovelly Drive and Woodland Drive and its hard to believe what they were like when we picked blackberries there.

And to me, a 10-11 year old boy from the alleys of Sheerness, this was indeed a paradise, another planet, a place where wide tracks of knee-high grass and wild flowers ran through hawthorn and blackberry thickets. Here so many butterflies I'd never seen before, skipped across the grass and fed from the flowers and likewise birds, coloured so brightly after the drabness of the sparrows back home, seemed to sing from every bush. Here, under a hot summer sun as we picked, ate and then picked more blackberries and filled our tins, I also fed upon the wonders of wildlife and nature and the seed that stayed with me through the rest of my life was sown.


  1. What a great story! As someone who moved to the island about 3 years ago I have found out many interesting things about this overlooked isle, but its always nice to find something else out about this place - I drive from the lees to sheerness quite often and never would have thought that the shingle beach once didn't exist or that the road was a dirt track! Thanks for the great story and the local history

  2. Thanks Ollie, so much has changed and much of it sadly, not for the better.

  3. Yes, already I've seen big changes! My partner is a Sheppey lass and she says the same, she remembers going trudging through marshes trying to find newts and the like and that a huge amount has been developed. Having come from a nice rural background in Lancashire its not the same but Sheppey still delights me out on the marshes, and gives me a local quiet place to relax. I guess I kind of have a pleasant naivety still :)

  4. There's nothing wrong with having a pleasant naivety - in fact you could argue it's a necessary requirement to live happily on Sheppey these days - but there is still much good habitat left.

  5. Thanks Derek - trust you to stir the old memory bank yet again !
    Coming from Blue Town, we had an even longer walk and a group of five or six of us 11 or 12 year old youngsters used to make a day of it, with plenty of distractions along the way. We always had a great time and never experienced any problems - I wonder if I would be able to say that today !
    I often wonder why we walked all the way to Minster - weren't there any blackberries closer to home ? - and if this was the only site, how come there always seemed to be plenty of blackberries for everyone ?
    Thanks again Derek - please just keep on reminising.
    Ken L

  6. Ken, You make a good point, I guess walking that far was all part of the sense of a day out in real countryside, not the same collecting the berries close to home. After the blackberries would come the mushrooms.

  7. Our blackberry hunts took us from Queenborough Corner over Telegraph Hill (the local names, the maps always had Barrows Gate and Barrows Hill that no-one ever used), and sometimes continuing along the hills to Minster.

  8. Sidney,
    From 1976 to 1986 I lived in Rosemary Avenue, which, backed onto Telegraph Hill and Furze Hill, so walked my dogs up over there virtually every day and knew it well.
    You will also remember the allotments at Queenborough Corner and possibly the old cottage where the Pierce family lived, next to the Secondary school field.
    Where did you live on Sheppey?