Elmley Cement Works and a lost village on the Isle of Sheppey

by Ian Tokelove
On Elmley Island, fields of harvested grain, dotted with green bushes, and in the foreground reeds, below a dramatic sky

Elmley Island is nestled within the belly of the Isle of Sheppey, an island within an isle. Although no longer a true island, Elmley is still a remote and wild spot. Elmley Nature Reserve is well worth a visit, but I was drawn to the remote riverside path. An abandoned wharf was my target, rather than the inland grazing marshes.

I parked my car at the end of Ferry Road, a heavily rutted lane which leads to the old Kingsferry crossing. Now home to landfill and dumping, this was once the principle way on and off the island. A ferry ran here until 1860, when the first bridge was built to the mainland.

A metal gate blocks a dusty road on Elmley Island
Ferry Road leads to this welcoming sight at Kingsferry. There is a public right of way here.

Two bridges now span the channel, a lifting bridge dating from 1959 and the much higher, sweeping Sheppey Crossing, which opened in 2006. The end of the road is gated, but there is public access and you can walk around the gate.

An old sign warns of soft mud on Elmley Island
The path is good, but this is a wet landscape

Following the Swale

A public footpath heads east, following the river wall and the flow of the Swale. Inland, sturdy beef cattle browse the wet grazing marshes, dwarfed below huge pylons. Scraps of saltmarsh and wide mudflats lead down to the Swale, the tideway which separates Sheppey from the mainland.

Cattle grazing on Elmley Island

Pockets of heavy industry line the mainland side. The sound of birdsong is occasionally interrupted by the roar of jet skis, blithely ignoring the eight knots speed limit.

The path cuts around the mouth of the Dray. This channel was once tidal, flowing around Elmley to meet with Windmill Creek, creating a true island.

A muddy creek leads to the Swale, with industry beyond
The former mouth of The Dray. This channel once curved around Elmley Island, meeting Windmill Creek to create a true island

Overhead, an intolerant gull was noisily harassing a larger marsh harrier. The harrier drifted higher over the island, before lazily swooping away towards the mainland.  

A white gull annoying a larger, darker marsh harrier high in the sky, on Elmley Island
Birds of prey, such as this marsh harrier, are often pestered by other birds, who want them off their territory

Elmley Cement Works

The track curves past remnant saltmarsh and comes to the ruins of an old wharf. This was the Elmley Cement Works, also known at the Turkey Cement Works. Little still stands, but for almost fifty years this crumbling wharf supported a small industrial village and a riverside pub called The Globe, with a nearby church and school.

The old wharf at Elmley Cement Works. One side is broken concrete, the other wooden. The dock is full of mud.
The old wharf at Elmley Cement Works. The modern building in the distance is a biomass power plant

Elmley Cement Works operated between 1854 and 1901, apparently starting at a site a short distance to the south, before settling here. The cement was produced using local clay, dug from the surrounding saltmarsh and mudflats. This stretch of the Swale is marked on maps as Clay Reach, an echo of the area’s history. The other vital ingredient, chalk, was shipped in from other Medway wharves.

A short-lived brickworks also operated here, prior to the cement works. Again, the main ingredient would have been the local clay.

Ruins of the Elmley Cement Works
Ruins of the Elmley Cement Works
A large standing wall and pit at Elmley Cement Works
A large standing wall and pit at Elmley Cement Works

The wharf and foundations have been heavily warrened by rabbits, but larger tunnels exist. These are probably ventilation flues, providing an updraft of air to the twelve cement kilns which operated here. The flues extend a long way out into the landscape, mostly hidden below the grass. 

A low brick arched tunnel heads into darkness
Probable ventilation flue at the Elmley Cement Works
Inside the arched flue, with rubble extending into darkness
The flue would have drawn air for the fires in the cement kilns

Ghosts of Elmley Village

There is no obvious sign of the lost Elmley Village, although intriguing foundations dot the surrounding landscape. More than 200 people once lived here, in 30 homes. Glimpses of their lives and deaths are recorded in old newspaper clippings and census information, but today, it is hard to imagine a community living in this remote spot.

A small, battered tree grows from between concrete blocks, in an empty landscape, on Elmley Island
Little evidence of the cement works and Elmley Village remain
Black and white photograph of homely looking cottages, with the Swale in the background. On Elmley Island.
An undated photograph of Seaview Cottages close to the cement works. No trace now remains.

Elmley Village School and St James’s Church

Walking inland towards the ruins of Elmley Village School, I was stopped in my tracks by half-a-dozen yellow wagtails, gracefully chasing insects across the dusty path. They are astonishingly yellow, a bird I’ve never seen before. They are only here for the summer, shining brightly, before overwintering in Africa. Nearby, small groups of cautious linnets were flying low, the males displaying blushes of crimson across their chests. 

The village school is about half a kilometre inland, and are can be seen from the public footpath. The dangerously dilapidated structure is fenced off. The school was built in 1885, after rising class numbers at the nearby church made lessons there impractical. Fifty children once attended classes here, walking this same track.

The ruined Elmley Village School, with a tall chimney, amid a few trees and wildflowers
The derelict Elmley Village School lies just off the track

The church which stood next to the school has completely gone, wiped from the landscape. Incredibly, a church had stood here from roughly 1247, surviving rebuilds, centuries of disuse and fluctuating congregations.

The demise of the cement works proved the final nail in the coffin, and the church had become derelict by the 1950s, used as a cattle barn and for general farm storage. Some of the structure may have been taken to rebuild the river wall, following the infamous North Sea floods of 1953. The final ruins of St James’s Church were demolished in the early 1960s.

Trees grow where Elmley Church once stood
St James's Church stood to the left of the school in this photograph, closer to the river. Nothing visible remains
Sepia photograph showing Elmley Church
Undated photograph showing St James's Church beyond the school building.

Of the 160 burials recorded at the church since 1834, not even a headstone remains. Local resident Derek Faulkner has written extensively about Elmley, and his account of this lost church is worth reading.

Kestrels and hares

Heading back, two kestrel caught my eye, poised on fence posts and overlooking a recently harvested field. Every now and then, one would flick down to the stubble, swooping on small prey. In another field, a long-limbed hare, exposed amid the stubble, took flight towards the horizon.

In the far distance, the Kemsley waste-to-energy facility sits boldly on the horizon, a modern addition to an ancient landscape. 

A large, distant, futuristic-looking, blocky building, with several high chimneys
The Kemsley waste-to-energy facility on the mainland side of the Swale, beyond the remains of the cement works and village

Curious to see the earlier site of the cement works, I followed the shoreline a little way south. I suspect all trace may have been lost to later river wall enforcement, but there are some significant chunks of concrete and brickwork here. Wind-battered, twisting crack willow grows amid the remains.

Crack willow grows alongside a few massive concrete blocks, next to the Swale, on Elmley Island
Crack willow grows alongside a few massive concrete blocks, next to the Swale

Walking back to Kingsferry, small flocks of starlings took to the sky, twisting in formation. The moon rose pale in the east, beyond the pylons. A short walk, but a good one.

The moon rising over Elmley Island, with two huge pylons to the right of the landscape. The sky is pink.
The moon rising over Elmley Island

Public transport

This walk is best accessed by buses, which stop on Sheppey Way, close to the junction with Ferry Road. Walking along Ferry Road to Kingsferry takes about 20 minutes.

Alternatively, trains stop at Swale, and you can walk over the Lift Bridge. A footpath on the left of the road leads down towards the riverbank. However, it is only possible to walk under the Lift Bridge at low tide levels, and the alternative detour inland to Ferry Road is a long one on foot.

More pics

Not far from the cement works, this broken wind pump rises above ruined brickwork on Elmley Island
Not far from the cement works, this broken wind pump rises above ruined brickwork.
The wharf’s mud-choked dock contains the skeletal remains of a wooden barge
The wharf’s mud-choked dock contains the skeletal remains of a wooden barge
Parallel grooves in broken concrete, with wildflowers growing in cracks
Grooves show where a travelling crane once moved alongside the dock.
There isn't much standing brickwork at Elmley Cement Works

Maps of Elmley Island

Old map, showing Elmley Island as green.
Bartholomew’s 1904 map shows Elmley Island as a true island. The Inn is marked and a cross marks the location of the church. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
An 1865 map of Elmley Island
An 1865 map of Elmley shows the cement works, former cement works and church. The school has yet to be built. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Position of Elmley Cement Works

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