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“Newcomer now, but I’d love to become an honorary Swampy,” says Sheppey fan Will Palin

Blue Town resident Will Palin
Blue Town resident Will Palin

As trustee of the Spitalfields Trust, a charity set up to conserve Georgian buildings, Will Palin crossed the Kingsferry Bridge for the first time in 2000, as the group set about restoring Shurland Hall.

He said: “We were going towards Eastchurch and I was struck by the rural and powerful landscape, and the wide horizons towards Elmley.

“I knew a bit about north Kent, Faversham and Canterbury, but Sheppey had a mystery quality to it.

“The trust spent the best part of a decade bringing Shurland Hall back to life, so there were plenty of opportunities for me to keep coming back.

“Then we discovered the dockyard in Sheerness.”

Anyone curious enough to wonder why a leading architectural voice and son of a global comedy and national TV treasure should set up home in downtown Sheerness, isn’t left wondering for long.

Will said: “Once you get past the steelworks and the industrial landscape you get to the port itself and you discover the most amazing group of officers’ houses built in the Georgian period.

“They are houses of stupendous quality and amazingly intact.”

Will Palin brings refreshment to the team involved in the removal of the weather vane from the tower of St Paul's Dockyard Church
Will Palin brings refreshment to the team involved in the removal of the weather vane from the tower of St Paul's Dockyard Church

A man of effusive words for his adopted home, Will’s also a man of action.

Last year, as secretary of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, he helped secure the dockyard’s historic residential quarter as the Spitalfields Trust won planning permission and listed building consent for 10 properties.

But his love of the Island extends far beyond the dockyard’s imposing outer walls.

“There’s something about Sheerness that stirs me,” he said.

“It’s a real place with a port which has a proper industry, a seaside town with lots of character and a High Street that needs to be appreciated a bit more.

“Any historian who knows about Kent as a county will know about Minster Abbey and its architectural and historical importance.

“And then there’s Queenborough, where I like the Guildhall, and Elmley Nature Reserve, which has some of the most amazing wildlife in the south east.

“The Island has two sides, it’s got something for everyone.”

To summarise the thoughts of the mainly-keyboard-warrior-kind, that “something” includes a reputation for being boring, dirty and unfriendly.

But the Island’s underdog status simply drew it closer to Will’s heart.

He said: “I’ve always been interested in places that appear neglected or overlooked, because often in these places you make the most exciting discoveries.

“I’ve never followed the crowd and I’ve always looked to do something different.

“I know it sounds a bit pompous, but with the dockyard, I want to use some of that pioneering Spitalfields spirit that helped preserve parts of London in the 1970s.”

Will, who divides his time between Blue Town and a London residence, claims (slightly tongue in cheek) spreading the word about Sheppey has become his “life project”.

He said the moment the Island is no longer thought of as Kent’s forgotten coastal resort, his work here is done.

“I love it here because it’s not Whitstable, so when the place becomes ‘too Whitstable’, that’s the time to move on,” he laughed.

Will’s wife Heloise,who he married last year in a ceremony in East Malling, is among his Island converts.

But some of his cosmopolitan contemporaries, as he puts it, “still don’t get it”.

He said: “When I tell people I have a house in a Kent seaside town, they say ‘Whitstable? Deal?’, and I say, ‘no, Sheerness’ and those who do know the Island are a bit surprised.”

So ‘agent’ Palin’s mission continues, but he says he can’t act alone, adding: “Everyone’s got their part to play in changing the perception of the Island – commercial business, the council, the community...

“Sheppey might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and for some it will take a while to see the quality.

“It has a quirkiness which manifests itself in its independence, the creativity and people’s self-deprecating humour, which is fun to be around.

”I was born and bred in London, but I’ve never felt more of a sense of community than I have on Sheppey.”

And there’s one more mission...

“I’m a newcomer, but maybe one day I’ll be known as an honorary Swampy.”

6 These comedy writers, Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, penned part of which summer cinema hit on Sheppey?
6 These comedy writers, Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, penned part of which summer cinema hit on Sheppey?

Will admits that for Sheppey’s star to ascend to the levels of its coastal cousins, it may need to attract a younger, trendier crowd.

He’s doing his bit for the cause.

A fortnight ago, Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, creators of the comedy hit of the decade, the Inbetweeners, spent a week at his Blue Town abode penning a follow-up to their 2011 box office chart topper.

Then of course there’s his dad, Michael, the globetrotting ex-Python who’s seen the world in 80 days and appears to have plenty of time for Sheppey.

Will said: “He’s been here a few times and feels the same as I do. He thinks the Island’s interesting, different and the people always fantastically friendly.”

Michael Palin at Sheppey Little Theatre
Michael Palin at Sheppey Little Theatre

Will said he was never tempted to follow in his father’s showbiz footsteps, and he ended up pursuing his passion for architecture after spells as a museum curator and an online newspaper sub-editor.

He’s made the most of his relatively brief time on Sheppey, lending support to groups such as Blue Town Heritage Centre and Sheerness County Youth Centre.

And he’s not short of a word or two about issues which could affect his seaside home, including the “Boris Island” plan for a floating airport off the Thames Estuary.

He said: “It’s a bonkers idea and so patronising. I get the sense they were looking to build an airport in this part of the county because they didn’t think it was worth anything.”

He welcomes new developments such as Morrisons and KFC at Neats Court, Queenborough, only if it’s part of a “meaningful investment in the whole of Sheerness Town Centre, because that’s where the heart of the community is.”

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