Shellness lies at the eastern edge of the Isle of Sheppey, an end-of-the-road, low headland overlooking the North Sea. The saltwater horizon is breached to the south by the Kentish coast, distant Whitstable shimmering through a summer sea haze.
I was walking this one with a friend, driving away from London’s early August heat. The traffic clogged as we neared Shellness, squeezing past the crowded holiday parks, amusement arcades and funfair at Leysdown-on-Sea, before reaching the sea wall.
There is plenty of free parking along the road here, although on a hot day much of this can be taken up by motorhomes, which park nose-to-tail as they settle in for a day or more.
After grabbing a parking space towards the end of the line, we hit the uncrowded beach. A narrow strip of sand and shells leads to silty shallows, divided by low wooden groynes. We headed south, bare-footed in the warm water.
A short stand of salt-blasted, wooden huts watch over the beach. Beyond, the sands became slightly busier, and the nut-brown bodies of well-seasoned naturists start to outnumber clothed visitors. This stretch seems family-friendly, with only one peacocking male, propped up on one elbow, an Adonis posing for an uncaring audience.
At the end of the beach, Shellness Estate overlooks the foreshore. This small, gated community huddles behind fences and prolific warning signs. Even the beach groynes are liberally covered with ‘keep out’ warnings. Fortunately, the beach below the high tide mark is legally accessible, so we hopped over the final groyne and kept walking.
Beyond Shellness Estate, a busy flock of turnstones were worrying the tidal edge, hoovering up unwary insects and small crustaceans. Beyond, a Second World War observation post watches over the mouth of the Swale, the channel which flows to the south of Sheppey, separating the island from the mainland.
The Shellness Operations Post
During the war, an officer and operator would watch over the entrance to the Swale from here, guarding against intrusion by enemy U-boats. An underwater line of electronic detection equipment spanned the Swale, altering the operator to the presence of any submarine or unknown craft. The operator could then detonate a second line of mines, also primed to detect any approaching submarine.
The bird painted on the side of this remote post is a hen harrier, sketched by the artist ATM in 2014. The work was created with permission, as a means of highlighting the dire plight of hen harriers, which have been persecuted until close to extinction in the UK.
At the time of painting, ATM explained how hen harriers “…migrate over Sheppey, it’s one of the places they go, and it was great to paint it there on the shoreline with all the wild birds around and hearing the calls – often it’s hard to find a spot that’s appropriate but this really was.”
The Swale National Nature Reserve
Progress beyond here is usually off-limits, the beach and saltmarsh best left to the wildlife. This is vital territory for breeding birds during spring and summer, and an important feeding and roosting spot during winter.
Retracing our steps past Shellness Estate, we picked up a path heading south-east along the seawall, overlooking saltmarsh and the Swale. On the landward side, fields soon give way to the wetland mosaic of the Swale National Nature Reserve. In the summer heat the wetland birds were keeping low. Occasional reed bunting darted across the path, and a marsh harrier flew low and heavy along a distant channel.
A bird hide overlooks the reserve, something to aim for on a cooler day. Beyond this, where the seawall draws closer to the Swale, the path turns inland and follows a long line of tall, thin windbreak trees. The path meets a quiet lane which leads down to the beautiful St. Thomas Church, dating from around the 11th or 12th Century.
Just beyond the church, free range chickens roam and scratch within a large enclosure alongside farm buildings. Their eggs are on offer from a shaded table, next to an honesty box and a carton of hand sanitiser.
The Ferry House Inn
A shaded avenue leads to one last turn and the road culminates at The Ferry House inn. Beyond the pub, an old and crumbling hard leads gently down into the waters of the Swale. The ferries last ran here in 1953, but the pub thankfully remains. This was my first pub since lockdown and it didn’t disappoint, even if we were only seeking icy-cold, non-alcoholic pints.
Down at the water’s edge the sun was getting lower, its bright reflection glittering on the silvery water. A chevroned work van was parked up, a sheet spread across the windscreen to shield against the heat.
A drunk woman sagged heavily in a deckchair beside the side door, her skin reddened from the day’s sunshine. Her voice was raised against a soundtrack of seventies pop, loud and incoherent as she addressed others in the van.
We took a shortcut bridleway back towards the farm, through a gorgeous waist-high field of wildflowers. The plants had largely gone to seed, their branching shoots stiff and dry and adorned with curious seed pods. The earth underfoot was dry and deeply cracked from long weeks of summer heat, dark fractures running along the path.
Where the bridleway nears the farmyard, it squeezes between several entangled damson trees. These were bearing a harvest of small, almost-ripe fruit, which I initially mistook for sloes. I scoffed a stony handful, a quick energy snack for the return walk.
We retraced our steps but continued along the lane to Elliotts Farm, seeking a shorter inland route back to Shellness. Just beyond the farm, a bridleway heads east across Harty Marshes. This is a well-surfaced route, wide enough for vehicles. The low-lying land on either side is largely agricultural, holding less interest than the coastal route.
With the sun now dipping below the horizon we found it hard to get our bearings, unsure of where we’d left the car, somewhere along the distant seawall. The bridleway eventually leaves the fields and skirts the edge of a small holiday park at Muswell Manor, located on Shellness Road, the road on which we’d parked.
With two directions to choose from in the darkness, we made the right choice. After walking along the road and then the seawall for fifteen minutes, we spotted the dim lights of camper vans, pulled up alongside the roadway.
Quiet voices drifted from small groups of campers as we walked past in the dark, returning to my car. We headed home, enjoying the balmy night air, slipping across the inky Sheppey landscape and back to London.
Public transport to Shellness
Shellness is served by buses out of Sittingbourne (334 and 360) and by the 360 running from Sheerness. Journey length varies between one and one-and-a-half hours.
The WW2 operations post at Shellness – http://indicatorloops.com/shellness.htm
ATM Street Art – http://atmstreetart.com/
More remote walks on the Isle of Sheppey – https://www.remotelondon.com/?s=sheppey