Published: 06:00, 19 July 2020
| Updated: 15:46, 20 July 2020
Suddenly Sheppey is the place to be. The Island's holiday camps only re-opened on July 4 after suffering weeks of the coronavirus lockdown but they are already groaning under an avalanche of bookings.
Just when bosses thought this year's tourism was doomed, the parks have come alive as people, fed up with staying indoors, realise they can book a holiday again.
But this time around they are staying in Britain. Jetting off to Spain and the South of France is still too dangerous for many. So they are embracing the staycation - and Kent's self-styled holiday Isle is reaping the rewards.
Henry Cooper knows this more than most. The Island-born entrepreneur bought his first holiday park in November and was praying for a hot summer to start paying back his loans.
"Then coronavirus hit us," he said at the site office of Elmhurst caravan park off Second Avenue, Eastchurch.
"There is no getting away from it, it was extremely difficult. I bought the park in November and during the winter we had four massive storms and lost a couple of trees.
"We managed to open for two-and-a-half weeks this season and then on March 17 the Government ordered us to close. We had just stocked up behind the bar and then bosh, everything stopped.
"I am sure some of the caravan owners thought we were being difficult and making the laws up but we had no choice. We had people pleading with us on the phone to come down to use their caravans. Some were quite abusive.
"Then our insurance company insisted we weren't entitled to claim for loss of earnings because it said the pandemic was an act of God. I can tell you, I said a few prayers of my own that day.
"We weren't entitled to any grants because of the size of our rateable property and I had to furlough seven workers. But the grass kept growing and a million other things needed doing.
"I ended up spending my days driving around on a big mower. It might have been lockdown but I don't think I've worked so hard in my life.
"I remember in quiet minutes sitting in the office looking out of the window and wondering what on earth I had done. Was this the worst business decision of my life? It was pretty tough, physically and mentally. None of us knew how long this was going to last. I only had a limited amount of funds to keep going. It was a rough ride.
Henry Cooper talks about coronavirus and his holiday park
"Then we discovered the beer was about to go out of date. So we ended up drinking the bar dry. Fosters became the new water. Ironically, the government has since said it will pay for any unused keggage but it was too late - we'd already drunk it!"
The dad-of-three added: "I don't blame the government. Boy, it had a tough job. And it is helping now by reducing the VAT for the hospitality sector."
During the dark days Henry, 39, and his new sales manager Michael Edwards, who had moved onto the site with his wife Laura and their own three children, set about putting into place their vision for the future.
During lockdown most of the roadways and car parks were resurfaced, a sound-proof fence was erected and concrete slabs laid for new luxury lodges which start at £150,000.
That was also fraught with problems. Henry recalled: "At first, it was hell on earth to get the materials. And then half the labourers could only work certain days."
Michael, 42, added: "At times it was like being on the set of a Zombie Apocalypse film. The place was deserted apart from our kids riding their bikes."
Then, when they thought things couldn't get any worse, a house fell off the cliff.
Henry said: "The first I knew about it was seeing a helicopter with its searchlight hovering above us."
As residents of Surf Crescent suddenly became homeless Henry took pity on them and offered them free accommodation.
He said: "They used our club house as a meeting room. Woods from Leysdown provided fish and chip suppers, the Leysdown Bakery sent over bread and cakes and we had food parcels from Morrisons."
The everything changed.
Henry, who is married to Sandra, said: "Suddenly, we have become inundated with customers. We were allowed to open on Saturday, July 4, and a minute after midnight our caravan owners started coming through the gates.
"The week before, we were allowed to open our showroom and staged a launch for our luxury lodges. On that first day we sold nine out of the first 10. We are now starting on the second phase.
"In the past two weeks we have sold more than 20 lodges and caravans. And the phone hasn't stopped ringing with people asking if we have any caravans to rent. We are owners-only but we put the callers in touch with other parks.
"We have also picked up customers from neighbouring parks. We might even hit our original budget.
"The whole industry is changing. It is a different type of customer. They seem to be more middle-class. Many are over 55 and have cash to spend. But they want to spend it in England. Spain and the South of France is still too dangerous for them. Our business is going through the roof."
He added: "The nice thing is, we also have customers who have been on the park for 50 or so years. One caravan dates back to 1948 and one family has 12 caravans here.
"And I'm not surprised. Sheppey has a funny old reputation but anyone who lives here will tell you it is a wonderful place with its sea views, wild marshes and maritime and aviation heritage.
"We have some unpolished diamonds here but all they need is a bit of tlc and a group with a passion to bring them alive again. A proper marina at, say, Queenborough would certainly give the island a lift. I don't understand why it doesn't have one already."
And with that he dashed off to make another phone call adding darkly: "I know a person who might be interested."
Not bad for a Sheppey lad who went to Minster College. They'll be calling him Sir Henry next..
One of the people who bought a new luxury lodge at Elmhurst caravan park is Tom Garrett, a 77-year-old retired electrician and grandfather.
He has moved onto the park with his wife.
He said: “Just looking out at the view of the sea speaks for itself. Why would you want to live anywhere else? I am really happy here. And we feel safe.”
The club house has introduced a one-way system with hand sanitiser at the entrance, a guest book where names are recorded for the NHS test and trace system and social distancing markers are taped onto the floor at the bar.
Henry Cooper said: “We have done everything we can to keep everyone safe. We just need them to follow the rules and do as they are told.”
Sheppey made headlines in the Guardian newspaper on Saturday.
Journalist Carol Donaldson reviewed her time in a beach cabin at Shellness and told readers: “I want to dance with joy.”
She described her drive to the Island with her mother and their route through Leysdown, past the statue of 1900s aircraft pioneers the Short Brothers, and the unmade track to a line of “idyllic” remote cabins on top of the sea wall with wooden shutters, verandahs and porches where they stayed.
She wrote: “Overcome by a burst of holiday fever, I want to dance around with joy at the newly minted pleasure of a weekend getaway – all the sweeter for the realisation that I must never take it for granted again.”
The review also mentioned swimming in the sea and a visit to Brambledown Farm Shop and Harty Church.
In the review, Ms Donaldson concludes: “Across the water I can see the fashionable seaside town of Whitstable, visited by so many people wishing to escape the city.
“Sheppey has been the poor cousin for too long, but it deserves to be loved.
“It is a wilder place of colourful characters, unspoiled beaches and endless skies, a place where the world and its worries seem far away.”
Henry Cooper said: “I thought it was a wonderful piece. It summed up exactly what Sheppey is all about.”