Exploring Milton Creek, from Sittingbourne to the Swale

by Ian Tokelove
A set of metal steps lead down into the water and towards a mostly submerged green navigation pole with a green triangle on top.

Milton Creek winds from the small, industrial town of Sittingbourne towards the Swale and the Thames Estuary. Once busy with barges, the creek is now a forgotten backwater, a saltmarsh landscape with, in places, an industrial backdrop.

The truncated head of Milton Creek can be glimpsed from The Mill Skatepark in Sittingbourne, but access is poor. This was once a remote, rural landscape, dominated by corn mills. Now the air is tainted by junk food and exhaust fumes. Passing a Domino’s and Topps Tiles, the raised line of a shabby, low viaduct leads the way on slanting legs of re-enforced concrete.

Seemingly derelict and disused, this stilted railway ran between the lost Sittingbourne Paper Mill and Ridham Dock on the Swale. The line is surprisingly still in use, maintained by the volunteer run Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway.

Milton Creek, the head and the mouth

A public footpath leads off Gas Road towards the creek, passing industrial units and a lorry park. The path meets the creek at an old wharf, where creative signage points towards the head and the mouth of the creek.

The route circumnavigates a large lake, a tenuous track between the creek and the flooded remnants of what was perhaps a brick field or quarry. Across the channel, the snarl and buzz of Go-Carts drifts over the riverwall and the carcass of an old barge.

Our waterways have long been a dumping ground for our liquid wastes, which is why sewage treatment works dot our coastline and rivers. Alongside Milton Creek, one such works sits close to the river. Gulls float in slow, clockwise circles on the circulating waters of the settling tanks. There’s a bit of a whiff, but nothing unbearable.

Marsh and landfill

An extensive area of saltmarsh leads to the Swale Way road bridge. Burrowing rabbits reveal the dumped landfill used to reclaim what was once Church Marshes. Bottles, clinker and crockery spill towards the creek, a forgotten history of trash below the path.

Just beyond the bridge, a renovated yet empty wharf once served the nearby Burley Brickworks, and later the Bowater Paper Mill (now Kemsley Paper Mill). Nothing remains except for a blackened hulk which lies in the mud, hidden with every high tide. Red-billed oystercatcher patrol the mudbanks, occasionally expressing themselves with shrill, piping calls.

The path carries on past wild saltmarsh and below towering pylons, towards distant, gleaming industrial chimneys. On a high tide this is a flooded landscape, with salt-tolerant plants emerging from the brine.

Industrial rubble and kingfishers

Passing the paper works, a circular cut in the concrete wharf reveals what is probably the footprint of a derrick which once stood here, unloading Thames barges. A little further on, a large rusting pipe plunges into the creek, an exhausted outflow for the old paper works. Here I saw a kingfisher, an emerald flash of light fleeing my intrusion.

This is an area of heavy landfill. Kemsley Marshes have mostly been lost to the expanding paper mill or dumped upon. Broken concrete tumbles into the creek, and in places walking can be tricky. Beyond the paper mill, the Kemsley combined heat and power facility burns waste to produce energy and power. The massive bulk of the building squats low behind landscaped landfill.

At the mouth of Milton Creek, where the channel joins the Swale, the remains of the paper mill’s small pumphouse and jetty sit offshore. Cut adrift from the mainland, the barren concrete structure now provides temporary respite for roosting gulls.

Grinders and gypsum

Around the corner a modern industrial conveyor arches across the path and out to a jetty. The way is almost blocked by what appear to be WW2 anti-tank blocks. These are actually huge rollers from the paper mill, once used to crush and grind logs to produce wood pulp. The jetty isn’t used by the paper mill but by Knauf, to deliver Spanish gypsum to their nearby factory, which produces building materials such as plasterboard.

Another sewage treatment works discharges into the creek here. At high tide the piped, turbulent flow agitates and stirs the creek waters. Thankfully the outflow was odourless, the water apparently clean, returning to the environment from which it came.

Grovehurst Dock

The sewage treatment plant stands roughly where a large, basic dock once cut into Kemsley Marshes. Grovehurst Dock was excavated in the 1860’s to serve the inland Grovehurst Brick and Tile Works. The dock later served Kemsley Paper Mill, as an import dock for wood pulp. The dock is visible on maps until 1947, but was probably lost during river wall refortification, following the disastrous North Sea flood of 1953. A deep treatment pool now occupies part of the former dock.

The Isle of Sheppey lies across the Swale, the shoreline bordering the fantastic Elmley Nature Reserve. You may make out the remains of a simple dock on the far shore, one of the last traces of the lost Elmley village and its small cement and brick works. I could make out an excavator by the dock, and a barge moored offshore.

I visited the following week and found the owners are dredging and repairing the lock, the spoil a glutinous pile of mud, brick and old timber, perhaps a former barge. One barge remains, an unnamed hulk at the head of the dock, the broken body now weighted under a cargo of mud and bound by cord-grass.

A series of wooden posts head out across the water.
Two parallel timber gantries lead out into the Swale. Unmarked on old maps, their purpose unknown.
Looking back along a then path of vegetated rubble, with water on both sides. In the far background a large, square white factory building stands with a towering white chimney. The sky is blue.
Nearby, an old wooden breakwater has been re-enforced with rubble and debris to form a basic harbour.

Ridham Dock

The main path now cuts around Ridham Dock towards the Sheppey Crossing. However, another dead-end path heads north, to the mouth of the dock. Astride this seawall, the extent of the dock and associated works is apparent, covering a large chunk of Ridham Marsh. A wide belt of saltmarsh still thrives along the edge of the Swale, punctuated near the tip by an old slipway and lines of wooden posts.

Ridham Dock was opened in 1919 as a deep water dock, allowing larger ships and cargoes to serve the paper mill at Sittingbourne, and saving the need for barges to navigate Milton Creek’s tidal waters. Goods were carried by tramway, with the dock expanding to meet the demand of the later Kemsley Paper Mill, which it still serves today.

The path to the mouth of the dock is blocked by a large concrete block, but local anglers have stamped out a rough route towards the deeper water and better fishing. A battered sign leads to a final narrow stretch of dock wall, with a long drop into the dark water below. In the distance, the Sheppey Crossing and Kingsferry Bridge frame the horizon.

A battered, broken sign sticks out over a wide channel of water, from a thick concrete wall. The wall is fenced on the inland side. In the distance a large bridge arches over the channel.

For me, this was as far as I got. I turned and retraced my steps, into an ever-darkening winter night. As the tide crept in across the mudflats and the light fell, winter waders came closer to the path. An occasional bulky curlew stood out among flocks of black-trailed godwit and redshank. Their soothing calls fading as the darkness grew.

For a shorter one-way walk, continue to Swale railway station, situated where the bridges cross the Swale. Sittingbourne is just a ten minute train ride away from this single line station. At time of writing, trains are hourly at weekends, half-hourly during the week.

Walk undertaken in November 2021

The Medway Swale Estuary Partnership is a not-for profit organisation which works to conserve and promote the estuary’s natural and cultural heritage.

Milton Creek on the map

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