The Isle of Sheppey has been wronged. Outsiders believe this corner of Kent to be both a cultural and physical waste ground, with maritime industries long since left and people fending for themselves with regard to their heritage and culture.
This perception is unjust. On spending just a few hours over the bridge, I found four real gems for both the resident community and visitors alike to take pride in and become involved with, to learn and evolve from.
Originally an old school building on the site of Queenborough Castle, the Castle Connections Community Centre was home last weekend to the 365 Exhibition, the photographic record taken by the community of one year in the life of Sheppey. Due to its popularity this has now been extended for a further month.
Chrissie Williams is the manager and she took me on a tour of the building.
“Local people formed a company, the Queenborough Town Community Centre Ltd, and set about making this building what it is. It took time and money but we’re almost self-sufficient now – we’ve a dance school based here, leisure and hobby classes, a cafe and more. And we’ve 28 volunteers, all trained in either food hygiene or first aid.”
There are two beautifully restored rooms for hire with a sympathetically restored stairwell leading to them. It’s decorated with original school photos lending it an authentic air – it actually reminded me of my old primary school, which was probably from the same era; it even smelt the same (in a good way!)
Bringing Queenborough Back to Life was a recent project and this includes getting local artists involved as well as the community at large. Chrissie continued: “We have wall space for artists in the cafe at no charge, as we want to help local artists be seen; it’s really nice for local people to have art at their fingertips.”
Castle Connections believe that encouraging art, culture and history, local people will develop an appreciation of their heritage for generations to come.
Much more than a heritage centre: Blue Town’s Jewel
The only cinema on Sheppey; tourist information; history tours; music hall; museum; cafe and, coming soon-ish, a replica deck of the HMS Victory, complete with cannon!
The Blue Town Heritage Centre, although now a registered charity, is owned and run by Ian and Jenny Hurkett, on their pensions and the kindness of volunteers and regular visitors.
It’s an awesome place, like an historic T.A.R.D.I.S – from the outside you can’t believe how huge it is on the inside. Begun with just a couple of old cameras on a shelf, it’s now a tangible, physical history lesson.
Jenny says: “We just want people to view Sheppey for our heritage and culture; our unique selling point, there’s so much of it. The community has got behind what we’re trying to do here and it’s evolved because of them. The key is to get our young people to take a pride of place and interest in the heritage – not just ours but others off the island, so we can dispel the negative connotations.”
The heritage centre houses the only cinema on Sheppey, in the Criterion Music Hall, which was reopened specially for a one off film about Blue Town – but when a hundred people turned up, Jenny and Ian realised there was a desire that needed to be sated. Says Jenny: “We bought the place originally as a bathroom showroom business but ill health put paid to that. But the turnout for the film was so amazing it gave us a whole new direction. Word is getting around now, so if anyone is having a clear out, we’re their port of call with anything we might be able to use.”
The heritage centre buzzes with individuals and groups: a job seeker seminar in the music hall, a business meeting in the Aviation Room, a workshop in the Dockyard room and mid morning coffee breakers in the cafe. Wednesday is Tea and Flicks, where the audience watch a film of their own choosing. Next year, a six week season begins in earnest.
Barton’s Point Coastal Park is a gorgeous 40 acres of adventure space, just waiting to be invaded.
Mandy Shade has been there for just 18 months and it’s so much more than just a business. She told me: “We’ve a beautiful lake, a cafe which I’m hoping to turn into a proper bistro, camping, events, venue hire, water sports, murder mystery evenings and at Halloween, we’ll be working with the miniature steam railway to bring a Ghost Train to life!”
Another local catalyst, Mandy is determined that future generations of islanders learn to appreciate everything they have. She’s keen to expand her work with schools, a key area in which to invest a sense of place in the local population. Making the facilities affordable and plentiful at Barton’s Point is just the start.
Fishing for people
Collaborating with all three venues for the Sheppey Promenade, Chris Reed of Big Fish Arts said: “It has been really amazing. I’ve been involved in three big festivals before but this one was a bunch of really busy people who managed to have short, concise meetings that got jobs done – it was the best collaborative festival I’ve been involved with.”
Normally a “people thing” rather than a “place thing”, Big Fish Arts have actually taken up residence in Sheerness High Street now and are looking forward to running more workshops. Chris continued: “We take the history of the island and turn it into drama, plays, stories, ghost walks and tours. We’ve recently been commissioned to produce the Milton Creek Memories project and our popular Lantern Parade will be taking place again, probably in early December. Now we’ve got this space the lantern making can really get underway and we’ll hope to involve as many in the local community as possible.”
It’s clear from speaking with these community doers that they share the same passion and aims for their island. With the focus on education, participation, engagement and community involvement, they seek to ensure that residents and outsiders alike understand and appreciate the culture and heritage of Sheppey.
Due to the nature of each of these projects, they aren’t open all day, every day – please check their individual websites for opening hours and take time to visit them, you won’t be disappointed. Other community and heritage centres are dotted around, see them in the photo gallery below: