From the Swale to Bedlams Bottom, a Medway Marshes walk

by Ian Tokelove
A rough, sea wall path with the Sheppey Crossing bridge in the far distance. The landscape is very flat, water on one side, marsh on the other. Nobody can be seen. Two marine navigation marker posts stand along the path, tall poles with diamond shaped signs on top of them.

This walk starts where the King’s Ferry once shuttled between the Isle of Sheppey and the Kentish mainland. Today, the modern Sheppey Crossing sweeps high overhead, dwarfing the older Kingsferry Bridge, which still carries rail and road. Up until 1860, no bridges stood here, and ferries were the only way to cross the Swale.

Three hundred years ago, the ferry keeper had “a Priviledge to drudge for Oysters” here. It must have been peaceful. Now, jet skiers tear the water and shatter the peace, tracking endlessly back and forth, circling and going nowhere.

There’s room to park here, and Swale station has somehow survived. A single platform is served by trains from Sittingbourne.

The Saxon Shore Way

The Saxon Shore Way follows the Swale, and we head north-west, treading the cropped grass of the sea wall. Ferry Marshes lie inland; drainage channels in the wet pasture reflecting the winter sky. Robust horses graze to a backdrop of pylons and distant industrial stacks.

Away from the jet skis this is a peaceful, if exposed landscape. Few trees grow here. In the far distance, massive tankers cruise the deep-water channels of the Medway, and the white stacks* of Grain Power Station catch the eye.

At Chetney Marshes the path cuts inland, rendering further access along the sea wall untenable. If we could continue, we’d find ourselves within a stone’s throw of Deadmans Island. This low-lying saltmarsh was used to bury the numerous dead of prison ships and isolation hulks. Erosion has opened the old graves and scattered nameless human bones along the foreshore.

Pylons stretch to the horizon, across a flat landscape. In the distance, a large container ship is proceeding along the unseen Medway, with the Isle of Grain in the far distance.

Following the path below a line of pylons, a large, circular earthwork can be seen on the left. Perhaps once used to shelter livestock, its ancient purpose is no longer clear.

The landscape is flat but wild. A few scrubby bushes have managed to set root in the shelter of ditches; others cling to the frame of an old wind pump.

Meeting the angriest man in Kent

The path crosses a lane, marked as a bridleway on OS Maps, which leads to a remote cluster of modern barn buildings and grain silos. The OS Maps show the path continuing, as far as a lost farmstead known as New Chetney. But the way is blocked, with a plethora of keep out signs. Up close the place looked sinister, with a dead rabbit smeared into black, muddy tyre tracks.

Heading back to the path, we noticed a pick-up truck approaching. The driver swung his vehicle over to block our way and we got to meet the angriest man in Kent. I’ve never heard the f-bomb dropped so frequently, as he harangued us for trespassing on his private lane. He wasn’t interesting in listening, or reasoning, or explaining why a public right of way was now his and his only.

Others have written that this landscape has a darkness, a threatening vibe, but I’d never felt it before. I’ve felt it now. This man was consumed with anger, diseased with rage. It wasn’t a pleasant encounter.

I caught up with my companion, who’d wisely walked away from the abuse while I’d tried to reason. Ahead, another inlet of the Medway beckoned, the low sun glittering across the golden, tidal mud.

Stangate Creek and HMS Éclair

Chetney Hill, to the right, is a circular half-island, connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land. In 1801 this was chosen to be the site for a quarantine station, although the station seems to have only been partially built. Based on the ‘lazarettos’ of the Mediterranean trading ports, this would have been a place where sailors and passengers arriving in the Medway could be isolated, during times of epidemic disease.

Ships which did arrive carrying disease were often forced to anchor in the sheltered creeks. HMS Éclair arrived here in 1845, its crew decimated by yellow fever, after a torturous return journey from West Africa. Having been sent out to suppress the Sierra Leone slave trade (recently abolished in Britain) the Éclair limped back to Portsmouth. However, the authorities took one look at the diseased vessel and told it to continue to the Medway, and Stangate Creek.

The sick were removed to other ships for care, while the survivors remained on board. Subsequently, the white members of the crew were also relocated, leaving the Kroomen (West African crew members) on board.

Sidney Bernard and his solitary grave

More than half of the ship’s crew had already died on the journey that brought the Éclair from West Africa to this remote spot on the Kent coast, including the captain, the surgeon and the assistant surgeon. On route, the stricken vessel had been refused permission to land at the island of Madeira, but Sidney Bernard, the 27-year-old assistant surgeon on HMS Rolla, offered his services and was appointed surgeon to the Éclair.

At Stangate Creek, five more crew died, followed by Sidney Bernard. His solitary grave is sited on Burntwick Island, at the mouth of the creek. At the time, it wasn’t understood that yellow fever isn’t contagious but is caused by a virus, transmitted by mosquito bites. It’s likely that infectious mosquitos were still breeding in the warm, damp bowels of the steam-driven Éclair, unnoticed, but deadly.

At the time, it wasn’t unusual for ocean-travelling ships to lose half their crews to disease, but Sidney Bernard’s death drew attention to these losses, and to the brutal quarantine treatment which could await those who survived.

Martyred in the British press, the death of Bernard helped, in part, to focus attention on the plight of the navy and the conditions endured by naval crews. This in turn led to transformative public health reforms, sowing seeds for today’s National Health Service.

Bedlams Bottom

Continuing along the creek, one reaches Bedlams Bottom, where a graveyard of abandoned vessels lies along the coastal path. Twenty-five hulks have been recorded, although some have now decayed beyond recognition, or are lost below the mud. With the winter’s sun low on the horizon, we didn’t linger long, but followed the footpath to the lane at Raspberry Hill, and then across fields to Sheppey Way.

At Sheppey Way, the path was (at the time of writing) completely lost in a tangle of undergrowth, so we followed the road until picking up the path alongside. Under a pale moon the route wasn’t always clear, but the sweeping heights of the Sheppey Crossing gave us something to aim for.

Ridham Dock

Back at the Swale, and in no rush to leave, we followed the coastal path east for about a kilometre, to the mouth of Ridham Dock. The path detours inland here, around the docks, so we headed back to the bridges, and bade our farewell to the moonlit marshes.

Once, we might have slaked our thirst at the Lord Nelson, overlooking the approach to the ferry crossing. Known locally as the First and Last, and dating back to at least 1841, the pub was apparently swept away by the construction of the first bridge, the Kingsferry, in 1959. No sign remains, of either the pub or of the large, second world war pillbox which protected the road and rail crossings here.

More information

My thanks to Kirsten D for joining me on this walk, undertaken in January 2022. We used a car for this one. Swale station is served by an hourly train service, including weekends.

* One of the three stacks collapsed during Storm Eunice in February 2022.

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