Published: 09:22, 15 June 2021
| Updated: 15:17, 15 June 2021
Ah, the sun-kissed Isle of Sheppey! Where better to spend a day at the seaside?
It has had its detractors but over the past few years it has been quietly and steadily rebuilding its reputation as Kent's own treasure island.
In the 1960s its beaches were packed with holidaymakers during the summer with Londoners, mainly from the East End, roasting gently on hired deckchairs.
The women would hobble off to the water's edge for a paddle with their skirts tucked into their knickers while their husbands, often Black Taxi Cab drivers, would sit guard over handbags with trousers rolled up and knotted handkerchiefs protecting their balding heads.
Then holidaymakers discovered they could have just as much fun for half the price on the Costa del Sol and scarpered to sunnier climes. Sheppey suffered like many other English resorts and sort of gave up.
It is still playing catch-up today which is actually its secret weapon. Many laugh when its name is mentioned which means its award-winning beaches remain relatively quiet compared with the shoulder-to-shoulder battles at, say, Margate.
The Island boasts three Blue Flag beaches with clean water at Sheerness, Minster Leas and Leysdown. Thankfully, the good old, bad old days where you'd risk sitting on an oil slick are long gone so I slipped into my shorts, slapped on the sun screen and donned a silly hat to explore what the Island had to offer on the hottest day of the year so far.
Leysdown beach on Sunday
Sheppey's main beach is a completely different kettle of fish from the others. There are no painful pebbles here. Leysdown has a mile of golden sand and is the most commercialised of the three.
You reach it by driving down The Promenade which is flanked by amusement arcades. This is the place to stock up on buckets and spades, candyfloss and those kiss-me-quick hats you secretly want. It is also the one you need if you want to teach the kids how to build sandcastles.
The sea disappears for miles at low tide so it might be worth packing provisions in your backpack if you want to explore the waters edge. Back on shore, youngsters will find the sloping sea wall fascinating and take great delight in sliding down it. At one end is a private area for members of the Central Beach holiday park. You can't miss it, it has a lone palm tree growing out of the sand.
Visitors can indulge in a bit of history-spotting by peering into the distance to see the Second World War Maunsell sea forts patrolling the horizon like giant AT-ATs from Star Wars. Those of a musical bent may muse on how they were also once home to pirate radio stations.
Leysdown has well-placed toilets on the promenade (smaller ones more inland), a crazy golf course, some trampolines, a children's play area and the Rose and Crown pub which is what people might call an "old-fashioned seaside boozer."
Alas, Leysdown's famous night time entertainment scene is no more. Merlins/Crest club is waiting to be turned into houses; the Island Nightclub which once hosted top stars is an old people's home and the site of Stage 3, once one of Britain's leading discotheques, is now a market selling shoes, dresses and England merchandise.
Even the Talk of the Town which was well known for live bands is being converted into a fish and chip shop.
Visitors can find plenty of cafes and takeaways and there is even the obligatory pie 'n' mash stall selling jellied eels.
There are many double yellow lines stopping casual parking outside the amusement arcades but there is an enormous car park behind Jimmy G's arcade where you can park all day for £3.40. It is wise to use this if possible as traffic wardens are on patrol. When I visited, they had left a sea of yellow parking tickets covering windscreens wherever I looked.
For those of more meagre means, I can recommend the country park just a few minutes' walk from the promenade and alongside a row of beach huts. It's free although worth remembering the barrier comes down at 6pm.
The beach is a magnet for families and is kept in order by a small team of litter operatives including the bewhiskered Trev Christie, 58. He's been cleaning up after visitors for 16 years.
"It's the best job I've ever had," he said. "I'm out in the fresh air and it's nice to hear people laughing and seeing them enjoying themselves in the sea."
Although he admitted: "When the tide is up it makes my job easier, there's not so much beach for people to drop litter on."
Rosie Pullen was doing a roaring trade selling hats at Fun Land and Swale council's Covid marshalls Prince Asuming and Peter Broome were keeping busy ensuring everyone was safe. Peter said: "The shop and arcade staff are very good but we've had to remind a few visitors they need to wear masks inside the arcades. Sometimes we get a bit of abuse."
Leysdown knows how to be a holiday resort. It smells of ozone, burgers, barbecues and beer. There is deafening noise from the arcades and the bingo callers. Poppy Edwards was even on hand with her son's Divine Light stall to help passers-by with her Tarot cards.
As with Sheppey's other beaches, the RNLI lifeguards are on duty at weekends and during the summer holidays.
Just don't make the mistake of driving a little bit further to Shellness where you could stumble on the nudist beach. That needs a totally different review...
SCORES (out of 5)
Activities: Fine if you like arcades ****
Toilets: The main one has outside taps too ****
Cleanliness: Sea and sand were great *****
Address: The Promenade, Leysdown ME12 4QB
Lifeguard service: Yes
Dogs friendly? Yes if on a lead
Public transport: Limited bus service
Disabled access: Yes