A hot day, one of the hottest of the summer, time for Three Points of the Compass to venture out. But where to go? Somewhere breezy and cool, somewhere wooded and shaded? Nope, I decided an exposed section of mostly farmland with little shelter, little difference in terrain, no climbs, all low level (in fact almost sea level), would be just the ticket. Especially as I was glancing at where British aviation history was made, and is today largely forgotten.
I was walking from one quiet and secluded hamlet to another, equally isolated coastal settlement, at the most easterly point of the Isle of Sheppey, before a meandering inland amble back via various tracks and bridleways. Few of the landscape images shown here will be of much interest. The fields are mostly devoid of features, but delve a little in to this areas history and it can be surprising what is hidden.
I parked at Harty, a place probably first populated in the late Bronze Age. Later, in the Middle Ages there were extensive salt working near here and the remnant mounds are some of the only taller features of the mostly flat ground at the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey in North Kent. The farmed fields were mostly cereals of which around half had recently been taken in. The fields were quiet with no-one around, no walkers, no farm workers, none of the few local residents to be seen. Perhaps unsurprising given that the air was already stifling, a quivering haze over the fields as the air distorted.
Prior to setting off on my walk I stopped in to the lovely little church that overlooks the Swale from its modest rise. The interior of the late 11th or early 12th century Grade II* Harty church doesn’t quite live up to its lovely exterior but Three Points of the Compass was especially taken with some of the stained glass that depicts local farming scenes and wildlife. There is no electricity or running water in this isolated church. Lighting in the nave being provided by hanging paraffin lamps.
The fields are large and mostly flat. Prior to the First World War, the fields beside my path, adjacent to Harty Church, were emergency landing areas for the pilots experimenting with faltering training flights during the war years of 1914-1918. Today, they were simply cereal crops.
After an initial exploratory wander around some of the fields I moved toward the seawall of the Swale National Nature Reserve which I then followed northward between the saltings and the grazing marsh. This area is part of the internationally recognised coastal marshlands of North Kent with many rare and uncommon migrant moths and butterflies. It is an especially wonderful place in winter with large numbers of waders, wildfowl and raptors and todays walk could also be completed then. The rough pasture provide breeding space for waders in the Spring and Terns nest along the shell spit off Shellness. Today, little moved. Marsh Harriers quartered the fields or soared on thermals. Swans, geese and Little Egrets quietly fed in the dykes. Just a few Corn Buntings and Warblers were moving around, it was a quiet and hot walk and I was pleased to stop off in the relative cool of one of the hides for mid-morning snack and water.
The Short brothers built their first aircraft factory at Shellbeach (Shellness), at the far eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey. It was probably built there for two reasons, the flat fields being ideal for early flights and the very isolation and seclusion that the area offered.
Eustace and Oswald Short took their first flight in a coal gas filled balloon in 1897 and began selling balloons in 1902, supplying the British Indian Army by 1905. Joined by their brother Horace, they opened an aerodrome at Shellbeach on the Isle of Sheppey in July 1909. The ‘Short Brothers’, or Shorts, were licenced to sell copies of the Wright Flyer aeroplane and six were sold to the Aero Club, later Royal Aero Club, that was situated at nearby Leysdown-on-Sea.
The Wright brothers visited the Shorts aerodrome frequently and had been impressed with the facilities there. They were introduced to the Shorts by Charles Rolls, of Rolls Royce fame, also an avid airman. Rolls was given Pilots Certificate No. 2 and in 1910 flew a Wright Flyer built by Shorts near here to make the first two-way crossing of the English Channel. Charles tragically went on to be the first Briton killed in an aeronautical accident when the tail of his Wright Flyer broke off during a flying display in 1910. A window in nearby Eastchurch church commemorates Rolls and his friend Cecil Grace, the latter lost at sea in a cross-channel flight in 1910. Grace had been returning to Eastchurch when he crashed at sea, steering by the sun as he had discarded his unreliable compass.
The tide was out and most avian wildlife was far from my path however the grating cry of terns was constant as I neared the little isolated community at Shellness. The husk of a Slow Worm lay on my path, picked over by a lucky gull or Kestrel, just the meaty middle section had been eaten. Butterflies led my way down the clear path, the bare earth so dry it was cracked open with gullies wide enough to swallow my foot.
Once upon a time Shellness was thought might become a bit of a touristy holiday hotspot and a narrow gauge railway opened in 1901 and ran almost all the way to this end of the island, however tourism barely materialised and the railway closed 4 December 1950. Almost nothing remains to show the line ever existed.
There is a little car park at the end of the nature reserve but no-one was visiting. I had enjoyed two hours of walking without seeing a soul. I joined the sea wall at the north eastern tip of Sheppey and began the short walk westward toward Leysdown-on-Sea. There were now a number of people around. They had all parked their cars on the rough unmade road leading out to the peninsula and occupants had made their way to the sand and shingle dunes to my right. Little windbreakers peeked their tops from hollows, their owners standing beside, arms akimbo. I kept my gaze averted as this is one of the few official UK naturist beaches. Ironically, I was now wearing more clothes than when I set off as the sun was unrelenting and I had now donned sun-sleeves.
At the Muswell Manor caravan park on the edge of Leysdown I stopped to admire the roadside commemorative statue of the three Short brothers. Muswell Manor used be called Mussel House, and was the home of the World’s first flying club- the Aero Club of Great Britain. It is an apt location for the lovely evocative statue. The brothers stand gazing toward the fields where their early aircraft lumbered in to the sky. With their arms outstretched, the three siblings appeared to indicate that there were no bounds to their airborne ambition.
The park’s club house apparently displays early aviation history via various photographs and documents but in this year of Covid-19, with associated social distancing, I was not stopping in, so after again pausing in the welcome shade of a decent sized tree, uncommon around here, and further hydration I walked a short distance along the track to a little sad and broken memorial plaque to Britain’s first aviator.
25 year old John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon was the third name to appear in Short’s first order book and on 2 May 1909, two days before the Wright brothers first visited the Shellbeach aerodrome and factory, he took off, near where I was standing, in his Short aeroplane Bird of Paradise to become the first resident Englishman to make an officially recognised aeroplane flight in England with flights of 450ft, 600ft, and 1500ft. In March 1910 Moore-Brabazon became the first person to qualify as a pilot in the UK.
Pigs might fly
On 30 October that year Moore-Brabazon went on to win a £1000 prize offered by the Daily Mail by flying a circular mile. Piloting a Short Biplane No. 2 and cocking a snook at scoffers, on 4 November 1909 he strapped a pig into a litter bin, tied it to a wing strut and proved that pigs, indeed, might fly.
I had seen Bridleways on my O.S. map that used to loop out into fields before returning to a concrete farm track. My map, purchased decades before when I first walked this area, was now showing its age. Rights of Way had been diverted and there was now no need to crash through the crops and for a while I stuck to a concrete road that ran between the isolated settlements. Eastchurch could be seen off to my right and I took whatever permissible path that enabled me to get nearer.
Marsh Harriers circled above and there was barely a sound to be heard. A lone Spitfire flew over. Off to some commemorative fly-by down the far coast towards Whitstable. No military aircraft take off from the island today but in 1911 the Royal Navy established a flying school only a half dozen miles from where I was walking. Shorts began supplying their aircraft to the Navy and eventually turned to seaplanes.
The rough roads around here had been crucial in 1913. The floatplanes that Shorts manufactured for the Navy had to be towed behind a lorry from their factory to the other end of the island where they could be launched from the timber wharf at Queenborough.
I was walking at the eastern end of the island but it was at Sheerness Harbour in 1912, at the western end of Sheppey that a Short S27 became the first plane to take off from a ship in Britain. Proving the way and making the inception of aircraft carriers a realised practically.
Despite the flatness of the fields at this end of the island, Shorts quickly realised that the drainage dykes and ditches also found here could be hazardous so the three brothers decided to move just three miles west to a more permanent factory at Eastchurch.
It was there, at Stamford Hill, Eastchurch, that Charles Rolls had successfully completed an un-powered flight in 1908 in a glider made by Shorts. It was also at Eastchurch that Shorts built the world’s first twin-engine aircraft, the S-39 or Triple Twin, in 1911. The Gordon Bennett Aviation Trophy competition was held there the same year.
One of Shorts customers, Francis McClean, had purchased Stonepits Farm, at Eastchurch and it was to there that the Aero Club relocated from Muswell Manor. McClean rented out the land surrounding the farm to Shorts and it developed into a complex of factory sheds and hangers. McClean loaned his aircraft to the Navy for them to train their pilots. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, learnt to fly at Eastchurch in 1913. and the airfield was requisitioned in December 1914 to serve as the base for No. 2 and No. 4 Squadrons Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
As well as being a training ground for naval pilots, experiments were held here with wireless telegraphy, bomb dropping, aerial machine gunnery and navigation while flying.
There is a remarkable short piece of film that survives, showing Empire Air Day when it was held at Eastchurch in 1937. Later the area became RAF Station Eastchurch. In the Second World War, it was a notable base for the Polish Air Force during the Battle of Britain. Shorts outgrew their factory at Eastchurch, and in late 1933 opened an additional much larger factory at Rochester, about nine miles to the west on mainland Kent. In 1934 they finally closed their Eastchurch factory.
Sadly, I couldn’t walk around this part of the island as the area where the hangers were situated has now become a category D open prison holding over 450 men- HM Prison Standford Hill. HM Prison Swaleside was built on the airstrip of RAF Eastchurch. Instead, I hugged the edges of a few fields as I explored the low terrain, moving west and east as the paths permitted, moving back toward my start point at Harty. Hares started as I approached, then shot off across the stubble at impressive speed.
I returned to Harty church, my walk over by mid-afternoon. No one else had been around when I commenced my days walk, on my return, the interior of the church was being swamped by a couple of large and loud family groups, presumably drawn there due to its proximity to the nearby Ferry Inn. However a couple of shaded benches are conveniently situated in the surrounding church grounds and with the temperature now in the thirties, I sat for a while, cooled off, rehydrated and took in a last inhalation of the peace of the area before returning to my car and home.
Today was a simple walk. The paths are level and it takes an eye to look for variety and interest. A short circuit of the east end of the Isle of Sheppey could be made in six miles, exploring a little more extends that to around thirteen or fourteen miles.
Credit: With thanks to Dave Robinson of Aviation Ancestry for the three images from Aero and Flight