Seaside postcard: Sheppey High on a list of places you wouldn't go for a day out is the Isle of Sheppey. An isolated patch of North Kent, nine miles by six - what could possibly be of interest? Well, quite a lot actually, assuming you have the means to nip around the island and search out its more interesting history. A Norman abbey, a naval dockyard, Henry VIII's secondhoneymoon, even the earliest origins of British aviation - they're all here. A couple of bird/nature reserves can be found amid the marshy flatness to the south, while if it's loud brash seaside you like there's an ideal sandy resort on the eastern coast. Access to the island improved five years ago with the construction of the Sheppey Crossing, a gently arching viaduct which removed the need for vehicles to queue at the Kingsferry lifting bridge. Both structures coexist - the railway still crosses via the latter - and are the only non-waterborne ways to access the island. Should any of the following tempt you across The Swale then the Sheppey Tourism Alliance will be well pleased, and you'll likely find their welcome leaflet useful.
Sheerness: On exiting the station, the town's less-than-lovely welcome is a McDonalds, a by-pass and a giant Tesco. Head for the seafront and you may not be much more impressed. The sea wall is steep, the beach is all pebbly, and the offshore waters are the last gasp of the Thames estuary [photo]. You can't walk too far to the west without encroaching on Sheerness's modern docks (Private, keep out), through which your car probably passed on arrival in the UK. On the public side of the dockyard's Georgian brick wall is Blue Town - once the dockworkers' shanty town, now attempting regeneration[photo]. The whole area was put at risk by the naval dockyard's closure fifty years ago, and the landmark church is now a burnt-out shell which developers would like to turn into (sigh) 22 flats [photo]. One delightful survivor is the Criterion Music Hall, part of the Blue Town Heritage Centre[photo]. As well as housing a historical archive, and occasional cinema screenings, the main hall is usually set out as a large but cosy tearoom. I can't believe many island tourists accidentally stumble upon this gem, but it's well worth the meagre £1 entrance charge. Half the price, back in the hubbub of the main town centre, is the Sheerness Heritage Centre. This weather-boarded cottage is 200 years old, and stacked out inside with an endearingly amateur hotchpotch of homely and historic artefacts. No space is underused, no item too insignificant, but the overall effect still somehow sort-of works. The visitors book revealed evidence of a distinct lack of visitors, which is a shame because the lady curator was the friendliest soul I met all day.
Minster: It's no surprise that Saxon tribes settled on the highest point of Sheppey, keeping guard over the mouth of the Thames, though more unusual that the Abbey's founder's name was Queen Sexburgha. The Norman building which remains isn't the Abbey, it's the smaller Abbey church, along with a medieval gatehouse which would have been open yesterday if only Easter had been earlier. [photo]
Leysdown: If Southwold is the epitome of coastal chic, then Leysdown is very much the opposite. A nucleus of "holiday villages" (think caravan sites) stretched out along the main road almost as far across the Isle of Sheppey as it's possible to drive. A proper resort, for sure, with a street full of arcades, its own brand of seaside rock and a decent sandy beach[photo]. Ron Wood's fish and chip shop provides sustenance during the day, while Merlin's entertainment complex feeds the soul at night. But still a very specific bolthole aimed square at, dare I say, the working and not-working classes. If you're a grandma under 50, or parent to a daughter named Lacey, or proud owner of a tattoo on the side of your neck, then Leysdown's sunrise strip may well be for you. Take the coast road beyond the chalet line to the marsh's edge, and the view changes completely [photo]. The beach thins, then widens again, this time with a far greater concentration of shells underfoot. The first significant habitation is a series of ramshackle wooden beach houses, followed swiftly by Sheppey's official nudist beach[photo]. Remote enough that almost nobody could accidentally be offended, most of Saturday's strippers had set up camp in the dunes rather than risk the full blast of the beach. There's nothing titillating here, as can be evidenced by the very ordinary couples walking back to their cars, fully clothed, with a towel over their shoulder. A short distance further on is the private hamlet of Shellness, hogging the very tip of the island looking out across The Swale towards Whitstable. Birdwatchers and ramblers should turn right here for the joyful isolation of the Isle of Harty, which is possibly as remote as anywhere in Kent gets. If Boris Johnson gets his way the road and rail access to his estuary airport will scythethrough this peaceful backwater before launching out into the Thames. It's almost impossible to imagine, and yet somehow oddly appropriate because nearby Muswell Manor is the site of Britain's very first aerodrome. Not just that but the world's first aircraft factory was here, and the first HQ of the Royal Aero Club, and the first recorded passenger flight by a pig. And you thought Sheppey was boring - how wrong were you?