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…

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We recommend: Swin, Swale and Swatchway by H Lewis Jones, reprinted by Lodestar Books

Swin-Swale-and-Swatchway-Front-Cover

I’ve just read H Lewis Jones’ book Swin, Swale and Swatchway in a new edition from Lodestar Books, and I have to say that it’s a rattling good read.

Lodestar proprieter Dick Wynne has kindly given me permission to put up a section of Swin, Swale and Swatchway – download it here. The whole thing is of course available at a very reasonable price from the Lodestar Books website.

Lewis Jones’ book about cruising around the Thames Estuary and its various creeks and rivers quickly turned out to be one of those that I read from cover to cover and didn’t want to put down. I come across only three or four such books a year that meet that description.

On starting to read Swin, Swale and Swatchway I quickly felt I was in familiar territory – yes, the sailing areas he describes are often familiar, but more there seems little doubt that Lewis Jones was a powerful influence on many sailing authors who came later. That’s what I thought when I first sat down to read, and I was enormously pleased to be vindicated later when I learned that Maurice Griffiths, no less, was a Lewis Jones fan.

Published in 1892 and not reprinted until now, Swin, Swale and Swatchway still seems very fresh, and almost every page seems to includes something quotable. Here are a few very small samples

‘The Medway in its lower reaches is a splendid cruising ground for small craft, certainly there is no other place at once so accessible from London and so convenient for small-boat sailing. From Rochester Bridge to Sheerness there are nearly fourteen miles of water, all open except in the neighbourhood of Rochester itself… For the rest of the distance the banks are low, so that the winds blow true and without squalls; there is soft bottom everywhere, so that no harm can follow from any accidental going ashore, and for a large part of the distance, in fact for nearly the whole way from Gillingham to Sheerness, there are a series of side creeks and channels, along which the man who is fond of exploring expeditions can penetrate into no end of quaint corners, and can find plenty of quiet anchorages for the night without alarms of any sort.’

Again, on the subject of one of these creeks:

‘Long ago, Stangate Creek was full of hulks, and was used as a quarantine station, and at the time of the Crimean war there was a large number of Russian prisoners kept there. When any of them died they were buried on the island, between Stangate and Queenborough, which has the name of Dead Man’s Island. Tradition says that the fishermen used to dig up the coffins for the sake of the oak planks of which they were made; and Benson says he once picked up on the shore there a hollow thing which he used for a bailer for some time, until he discovered that it was a piece of human skull, and hastily threw it overboard.’

Benson, I should explain, was the experienced Thames sailor and Mr Fixit who looked after LewisJones’ boat when the author was going about his workaday business.

Finally, here’s a Lewis Jones anecdote explaining why tying up overnight at Rochester wasn’t necessarily such a good idea in the late 19th century:

‘Once, when we were anchored near the Sun Pier, about five in the morning, an enterprising young ruffian thought the occasion a good one for coming alongside to prospect for moveables, little reckoning that as he touched the little vessel’s sides there would emerge, Jackin-the-box like, a half-dressed and dangerous looking figure from the fore hatch and another from aft, with a truculence of aspect heightened by a pair of gold spectacles; and that both, in well drilled chorus, and in accents bland, would demand an explanation of the unexpected visit. The double-barrelled apparition proved too much for our young friend; his jaw dropped, he hastily withdrew, murmuring by way of apology for his intrusion, “I say, d’yer stay out all night in that ‘ere?”‘