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Sheppey fighting back in battle for tourists

The Isle of Sheppey has planted its stake in the sand in a bold bid to regain its status as Kent's holiday isle.

After decades of sitting in the shadows of resorts such as Whitstable, supporters say the sun is beginning to shine once again on Sheppey.

Welcome to Sheppey sign by the Sheppey Crossing
Welcome to Sheppey sign by the Sheppey Crossing

Business people with flair and imagination are finally taking a punt and investing in a fine dining restaurant and the island's first cocktail bar - and celebrating the news it is to finally get its own brown tourist signs on the motorway.

In the 1960s, Sheppey was the go-to destination for East Enders wanting little more than a paddle in the sea, a Kiss Me Quick hat and a stick of candy floss from an amusement arcade.

There was a funfair with a big wheel, a wooden scenic railway, a ghost train and a lake with motor boats in Sheerness. On the beach, day-trippers could hire a deckchair or take a trip round ‘the wreck’ for ‘two-and-six’ (12.5p).

There was even a Warners holiday camp at Minster where band leader Eric Delaney played his drums and entertained the crowds.

But all that changed when cheap flights opened up the Costa del Sol and for the price of a week on a windswept Kent coast families could get an all-in package with guaranteed sun and unlimited Sangria. It was no contest.

One of the popular shepherd's huts available to rent at Elmley nature reserve on Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden
One of the popular shepherd's huts available to rent at Elmley nature reserve on Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden

Sheppey was also rocked when the Ministry of Defence pulled out of Sheerness Dockyard.

Even now, there are wards on the Island which are some of the most deprived in Britain. To make amends, it was decided to build a steel mill next to the train station which had been the gateway for thousands of tourists. Despite being state of the art and bringing skilled engineers, it belched out harmful pollution across nearby homes for 30 years before being demolished.

When the Green family across the water at Whitstable decided to take on some run-down beach huts and renovate a worn-out seafront hotel, Sheppey slumbered on. It was clear Swale councillors and officers had no idea what to do with a once vibrant holiday resort which had fallen on hard times.

It is the nearest natural island to London with some of the deepest water in Britain and a natural harbour at Queenborough - ideal for sailors to break a journey from the city or from Holland.

Sheppey has award-winning beaches with clean water, cliffs stuffed with world-class fossils, wildlife reserves and sunsets to die for. It was no accident that Turner returned time and again to paint.

Palm trees have been planted on the beach at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey
Palm trees have been planted on the beach at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey

The Island is steeped in history. Charles Dickens lived at Blue Town and based some of his most famous characters on people he met there, like Magwitch the convict in Great Expectations and Fagin the pickpocket in Oliver Twist.

Lord Nelson stayed at Queenborough, which once had not one but two MPs. The world’s anchors were originally designed in Sheerness. And the Short Brothers created Britain’s first aircraft factory at Leysdown and Eastchurch.

But there have been wasted opportunities. The light railway which ran to Leysdown had its tracks ripped up and homes built over. Whitstable had a similar length of line running to Canterbury. The city council converted it into a cycle path.

For an Island, it is almost criminal to report the lack of sea view restaurants. There are only two looking out over water and only one of those faces the sea. There are no seafood restaurants either, despite fresh fish being unloaded regularly at Queenborough.

Mehmet Suzgun at the new bar of Mem's Meze, Halfway, Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden
Mehmet Suzgun at the new bar of Mem's Meze, Halfway, Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden

Across the estuary in Southend a modern seafront restaurant was built next to an artificial lagoon with imported sand and showers so toddlers can paddle in safety.

Sheppey has a promenade but nowhere to hire deckchairs. And the design of the seawall means cyclists, parents with buggies and those in mobility scooters can’t ride from Sheerness to Minster without having to dismount at Neptune’s Terrace.

Yet it is clear the tide is turning. One of the surprise successes has been Mem’s Meze Turkish restaurant at Halfway.

Owner Mehmet Suzgun took over the former Halfway House pub and invested £1 million converting it into a dining experience which, before lockdown, was full to bursting.

He said: “People said there was no call for something like this on Sheppey but we have proved them wrong.”

Mark Seabrook outside the former Prince of Waterloo pub in Minster, Sheppey. It will soon open as Bank's Restaurant
Mark Seabrook outside the former Prince of Waterloo pub in Minster, Sheppey. It will soon open as Bank's Restaurant

Mark Seabrook, 66, is doing the same. He and cousin Paul Dare, 69, bought the empty Prince of Waterloo pub in Minster in 2011 for £120,000 and are poised to relaunch it as Bank’s Restaurant.

Mark admitted: “It has taken a long time. It was falling apart and needed an awful lot of work but we are now almost ready to open.”

He added: “I come from London but we stayed at a caravan at Sheerness for our holidays as boys. People ask why we want to open a restaurant on Sheppey but it is a wonderful location and, crucially, there aren’t any other restaurants like us.

"It will be English food. We are hoping to attract the ‘foodies’. If they can go to Read’s at Faversham or the Sportsman at Seasalter then I don’t see why they won’t want to come to Sheppey.”

Within 100 metres another old pub, the King’s Arms, has undergone a complete transformation and is now Sheppey’s first cocktail bar.

Amber Haddon with a cocktail outside the old King's Arms pub in Minster village, Sheppey, now relaunched as Charisma Cocktails
Amber Haddon with a cocktail outside the old King's Arms pub in Minster village, Sheppey, now relaunched as Charisma Cocktails

Jodie Turner, who runs Charisma Cocktails with her partner Paul Newton, said: “We were told no one on Sheppey would use a cocktail bar but since we opened every night has been fully booked.”

Its top seller is the Flaming Charisma which is delivered to your table with real flames for a tenner. Bar staff Amber Haddon and Millie Coutts also serve a raft of other cocktails including a Rubber Duck and old favourites such as pina coladas.

Visitors to Sheppey’s newest watering hole can sip their drinks in the garden in the shadow of Minster Abbey, one of Britain’s oldest churches. Jodie admitted: “I couldn’t believe it whenPaul announced he had bought a pub. There was no way I was going to work in one butcompromised on a cocktail bar.”

The pub was on the market for £220,000 and the couple have ploughed in a further £100,000. This is Paul’s first venture into the world of hospitality. He is more at home with his ventilation company.

But he and Jodie are already causing a stir. Sheppey is going upmarket.

Owner Henry Cooper outside Elmhurst caravan park, Eastchurch, Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden
Owner Henry Cooper outside Elmhurst caravan park, Eastchurch, Sheppey. Picture: John Nurden

Holiday camp boss Henry Cooper, as previously reported, is investing millions at Elmhurst caravan park with luxury lodges.

He said: “I really don’t understand what’s not to like about Sheppey. It has a better harbour and more history than Whitstable. You can’t beat its stunning views and community spirit.”

Cosgrove Leisure now owns four holiday parks: Sheerness, Ashcroft, Shurland Dale and Central Beach.

Former US banker Raoul Fraser, who founded Lovat Parks in 2018, has taken over the Golden Leas at Minster.

There is ‘glamping’ at Elmley and Shellness and Dave Wilcock's Island Cruises has reintroduced ferry services from Sheppey to Southend. The first two this season leave Queenborough on the Spirit of Sheppey at 10am this Thursday and Saturday - tickets are £20 and include train tickets for Southend Pier.

Cllr Monique Bonney Picture: Swale council
Cllr Monique Bonney Picture: Swale council

Swale council is waking up to the potential to boost tourism on Sheppey and has created a Visitor Economy Framework Action Plan which has now gone out to public consultation.

Cllr Monique Bonney, cabinet member for economy, said: “Water activities, sustainable tourism and cycling infrastructure are a just a few of the priorities outlined in the action plan.

“Our plan is ambitious but we know the collective effort of our tourism, hospitality and leisure businesses will help the long-term security and growth of our visitor economy. We have outstanding businesses with strong leadership and vision and we want to draw on their enormous pool of talent to help shape and deliver our visitor economy.

“People are thinking differently about how they spend their leisure time and their money as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. We are lucky to have outstanding coastlines, countryside and marshland to provide safe spaces and exciting experiences for all to enjoy.

“We have a wonderful variety of businesses and local attractions here in Swale and we want this action plan to help us work together in a better, more cohesive way to get the message out there and bring visitors to the area.”

How the long-awaited brown tourist sign to the Isle of Sheppey will look on the M2
How the long-awaited brown tourist sign to the Isle of Sheppey will look on the M2

The closing date for comments is September 4. For details visit swale.gov.uk/visitor-economy-framework-consultation

Sheppey Community Development Forum under the guidance of Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Isle of Sheppey Academy, is holding a tourism seminar at its Sheerness campus theatre on Tuesday, September 29 at 7pm.

Mr Chalke said: “It is imperative Sheppey is given a boost.”

He also arranged for the Island to be featured on Songs of Praise. The forum has also also secured permission for two long-overdue brown tourist signs for Sheppey on the M2.

Read more: All the latest news from Sheppey


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