A walk through Whitstable Maritime

Gamecock at her mooring

Whitstable Maritime Coastal Community Team Director Gordon Vincent gave the following talk to the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames. Part tour guide, it is also partly a description of what Whitstable Maritime is working on and out to achieve.

It comes to us with the help of the excellent Neil Batey, the Sailors’ Children’s Society’s local community engagement and family support officer for Dover & Ramsgate. Thanks Neil, and thanks Gordon!

A walk through Whitstable Maritime

If we stand by the Old Neptune on Island Wall looking out to sea, in front of us is the Swale Estuary, the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey, and the start of the Thames Estuary. To our right is Whitstable Harbour and the open expanse of the North Sea.

The people who live and work along this coast realised that the majority of visitors and school parties who trekked along the narrow path or settled on the beech, were blissfully unaware of its maritime past and the factors that will shape its future.

So in April 2014 two dozen of us agreed to form Whitstable Maritime, a ‘not-for-profit’ Company Limited by Guarantee, that would celebrate Whitstable’s connections with the sea, past, present and future.

From the Old Neptune we can walk along a rough path that follows the coastline to Faversham. We pass Nature Reserves and Seal Sanctuaries with some remains of former maritime activities amongst the salt marshes.

Canterbury Christ Church University and Natural England have agreed to work with Whitstable Maritime on establishing a Coastal Trail. When finished, walkers will be able to download on their mobile phones, pictures and other information about the wildlife, the marine life, and the geography and history at particular locations on the trail.

Towards the end of this part of our walk we come to where Faversham Creek empties in to the Swale and there we shall find the Gamecock swinging on a mooring. The Gamecock is a 42 foot, wooden, Oyster Yawl built in 1907 on Island Wall. She spent her working life dredging for oysters in the Swale and is now owned by Whitstable Maritime. She is being
restored to working order and this year we were able to race her in the local Match. There are very few modifications to the Gamecock so it has been possible to register her as a National Historic Vessel.

If we continue up Faversham Creek we shall come to a boatyard owned by Alan Staley. Alan began his apprenticeship on Island Wall and now has a national reputation for his work on traditional craft. He is amongst about twenty experts that Whitstable Maritime has been able to attract on to its management team. We also have a growing regional support network including bodies such as the National Maritime Museum, the Department of Communities and Local Government, Kent County Council, and Canterbury City Council.

At the top of Faversham Creek is a defunct swing bridge which another charity is planning to renew so that craft can once again enter the basin. The two charities have compatible aims and are mutually supportive.

Returning to the Old Neptune we can climb over the timbers that block the gaps in the sea-wall from October round to March and walk along Island Wall towards the harbour. We are on a large spit formed by the waves and current. The shingle beach is broken by wooden groins that extend down in to the sea and the beach has been artificially raised as part of the sea defences, so we can no longer see the slipways that ran down the beach from the boat-building yards that use to be along the ridge of Island Wall.

However they live on in the place names, as do the alleyways along which the boatbuilders, fishermen and divers walked inland to their homes and pubs: Keam’s Yard, Sueeze-gut Alley, and the Guinea Pub, are evocative names prompting investigation. Whitstable Maritime aims to capture these local histories in a format that excites the present generation.

The beach is owned by the Royal Native Oyster Company as is the brick eighteenth-century warehouse in front of us which is now a fish restuarant.

When the tide is out we can see wire trestles supporting bags of baby oysters that are growing in the inter-tidal zone: these are the rock-oysters. Further out in the Swale are the native-oysters, which are more rare.

Above the fish restuarant is a large hall which use to have pews on which the oysterman would sit and conduct their business. A silent film from the 1920’s shows over 70 oyster yawls moored offshore. Bill Coleman, the 86 year-old previous owner of the Gamecock recounts how they use to drive a metre-long metal screw in to the sea-bed to provide a secure mooring.

At this point on our walk we cross the Horsebridge where the horse and carts went down on to the beach at low tide to offload cargo from craft sitting on the sea bed. The Arts Centre alongside is currently the home of Whitstable Maritime.

As we continue our walk along the coast we pass the Yacht Club, the Lifeboat Station and a new tall building constructed in traditional style with black cladding. The latter is leased by the company that builds and operates the wind-farm out to sea, one of several companies actively supporting the growth of our project.

Then we are in the harbour with its three quays, half-dozen fishing boats and a Thames Barge run commercially by one of our Members. The tidal range is considerable so the Harbour Board have agreed to build a pontoon for visitors to embark safely. Through a growing partnership with the East Kent Sail Association, we are able to offer our members the opportunity to crew traditional craft and have already run two barge and smack races out of the harbour with over a dozen boats.

Whitstable Maritime is currently seeking funding to undertake a feasibility study for a Maritime Discovery Centre in the harbour. Our aim is to introduce visitors and school parties to Whitstable’s connections with the sea through themes: for example, the impact of Man and Nature on the Coast; maritime industries; seamanship and navigation; harnessing tides and wind; and climate change.

The themes will be accessed through interactive exhibits, workshops, and investigations using new technologies. There is also the possibility of incorporating boat-building, seamanship and
a beach-school.

By the main entrance to the harbour is a yellow brick building which was once stables for the horses that manoeuvred the goods trucks on the rails that ran along the quays. These linked to an early railway that is now a public footpath. So today it is possible to continue your walk through Whitstable Maritime by following the old trackway to Canterbury.

Sailing on the Swale, last weekend

On the Swale, last weekend. The winds were light, but it was very pleasant and some of my favourite local boats (and one or two I didn’t know) were out and strutting their stuff ahead of the Swale Match this coming weekend. Aside from the sailing barge Orinoco, there was Cygnet, Privateer of Boston, Bird of Dawning and a Finesse

And then we had one of those North Kent skies that Turner loved so much…

Stangate Creek. It makes you think about times past…

These days Stangate Creek on the south side of the Medway is a popular stop for cruising sailors and motorboaters – it’s sheltered, and visitors are surrounded by low-lying land and islands and saltings, and some impressive bird life.

But this peaceful spot has a heck of a past, and was frequently a less than happy place.

With the Naval dockyards at Chatham just a few miles away up the Medway, the Navy has at times used it intensively as a place to moor ships when necessary.

From 1712-1896 it was used for quarantining ships. For example, there’s a story that in 1832, the barque Katherine Stewart Forbes set out from Woolwich with a complement of male convicts for Australia but then anchored in Plymouth Sound after cholera broke out. She was sent back to Stangate Creek for many months – of 222 convicts aboard, 30 men developed cholera and 13 died.

There’s an account of how the quarantining started here.

During the Napoleonic era, French prisoners of war were coonfined in prison hulks on the River Medway, where they were subject to cholera, smallpox and typhoid, and many of those who died were buried on Deadmans Island on the eastern side of the Creek.

And of course it was close at hand in 1667 when the Dutch captured Sheerness, invaded the Medway and threatened Chatham. The Wikipedia has the story, including a wonderful painting.

In the early part of the 19th century Turner depicted it in one of his watercolours of English rivers, and much more recently, the extraordinary cruising film-maker Dylan Winter visited Stangate and seemed to fall in love with the place.

Most of the photos of Stangate Creek above including the Finesse class small yacht, the  smack, Buccaneer and the barge yacht Whippet above are mainly Julie Atkin’s shots. Only the shots showing the flooded saltings are mine…