St Mary's Island was originally a marshy area to the north of Chatham Dockyard. It had many uses over the years: brickfields, prison, a place to bury the bodies of the prisoners of war held captive on the prison hulks in the River Medway, a place to change the reactor cores of the Royal Navy's submarines, a nuclear waste dump and now, after removing 1,300,000 tonnes of contaminated soil, a housing estate.
In the early years of the twentieth century there were plans to expand the dockyard to include St Mary's Island. The bodies of the prisoners were exhumed, and re-interred in the grounds of St George's Church, now the St George's Centre.
The dockyard extension involved using convict labour to turn St Mary's Creek into three huge ship-building basins. The western basin, number one, was the repairing basin. This was where new ships were launched (there are five docks around the basin), and where other ships were stripped for repair. This is now the marina.
Basin number two, the factory basin, was where ships underwent major repairs. It's now used for water sports, although every time I've been past, it's been empty.
The eastern basin, basin number three, is the largest of the three. It was the fitting out basin, where ships received their final fitting out after repair or maintenance.
The earth taken from the basins was used to raise the ground level of the island, which up until Victorian times had been a marsh.
There's a path around part of the island now, which gives you chance to see things which, up until the 1980's, you couldn't. To get there, just walk along Leviathan Way, past the pump house, and over the lifting bridge.
If you drove down the road, this is the view back up the road from the patch of mud where you have to park your car. There's no more road past this point.
There's a handy warning, repeated several times along the path, pointing out that it might not be such a good idea to wander around here in bad weather...
On the other hand, at least it hasn't been "sanitised"; fenced or walled in to protect visitors from themselves.
If you look to the east from here, across the island, you can see that the developers haven't got this far across the island yet.
It's around this point that there will eventually be another path running across the middle of the island.
You can see the twin towers to the right, as they were in April 2008.
Looking to the north, you can see Lower Upnor across the river. This was all part of the dockyard once. The two pontoon-type things in the water look like they're for mooring ships to, but I could well be wrong. Feel free to e-mail me if you know different.
Looking more to the west, you can see Upnor Castle. It's from here that the English fired upon the Dutch in June 1667, when they attacked Chatham Dockyard and set fire to several ships.
The white writing on the sea wall to the right of the castle says:
NO VESSEL TO ANCHOR OPPOSITE
The building on the right, built in eight sections, is on the site of the powder magazine. I don't know whether it is the original one - I'm just going by the sign on the wall in front of it which says:
One of the features of the path is a huge crane, which seems to have been moved here from closer to the docks, where it would have been used to load and unload ships.
Just for a sense of scale, the scoop underneath the crane is about seven or eight feet tall.
Next to the crane is a bridge to one of the pontoon structures in the river. There's a bench there so that you can sit and watch life go by on the river.
Of course, that is if you don't mind walking along a bridge that's about 6 feet across at its widest point, and has no visible means of support (not from the top, anyway).
From the bench, you can get a better view of the crane.
The chimney in the background is Kingsnorth Power Station.
Looking up, the cab looks almost as though it's still usable - the chair's still there with a big impressive lever, and some fancy red underfloor linkages.
All it's missing is an old copy of the Daily Mirror leaning against the window...
On the beam underneath the cab is one of two identical rating plates. There is one at the front and another at the back of the crane. The rating states:
BUTTERS CRANES LTD GLASGOW & LONDON
PORTAL JIB CRANE JOB No 8194/1977 CLASS 2
SWL-8 TONNES(SLOW GEAR)/4 TONNES(FAST GEAR)
TEST LOAD-10 TONNES(SLOW GEAR)/5 TONNES(FAST GEAR)
MAX. RADIUS 11 METRES
Next to the crane, as well as the obligatory anchors, is this. It's red (obviously!), about 6 feet tall, and around 8 feet across. It looks like it might be a counterweight of some sort, but as ever, please e-mail me if you know what it really is.
Wandering a little further along the path, there's a marker post next to the sea wall, with another marker painted behind it. I assume it's a marker for navigation.
The white tube in the bush on the right is an insect trap. There are a lot of them in the bushes along the pathway, with all sorts of insects and spiders stuck to the glue in them.
One thing I didn't see in any of them was one of the enormous (inch-long!) bumble bees we saw on the island during April...
Looking across to the Isle of Grain, across Cookham Reach, there's a second world war pillbox on the beach, which would have protected the Medway in case of invasion. Subsidence has resulted in it leaning forward, but you can still see the two slits where the machine guns would have been.
A couple of hundred years ago, you would have seen prison hulks all along this part of the river.
Further along the path, to the north of Finsborough Ness, you can see this building.
I don't know what it is - it looks Victorian, and quite sturdy. There are two forts on the islands in the estuary, so perhaps this is something to do with them. It doesn't look as though it's in particularly good condition any more though.
Finsborough Ness has its own slipway, which seems to be mostly decorative now - the access road doesn't look wide enough for particularly big boats, the pathway is a pretty selection of blues, and the winches don't have handles, or cables.
In the distance, across Short Reach, you can see Kingsnorth Power Station. From the end of the slipway (when the tide's out!), you can see Fort Darnet to the east. Fort Hoo is hidden behind a huge mound of earth which seems to be being added to Hoo Ness.
Kingsnorth Power Station is due to be replaced by a new station within the next few years; the new station will produce fewer emissions, despite being coal burning.
The chimney is 650 feet tall, and is visible from most parts of the Medway Towns.
Here's one of the slipway's winches - wheels, gears and pulleys, but no handles or cables. Like the slipway, it looks like it's just decorative.
The tide comes in quite a long way here - you can see the high tide line marked by the line of seaweed in both photos of the slipway.
Finsborough Ness sounds like a slightly more dangerous part of the island, either that or it's just that the slipway is surrounded by houses!
Personally I wouldn't recommend swimming or diving in the Medway, especially as there's an ominously signposted "outlet" just to the west of here!
The cynical part of me wonders how long it will be before someone starts insisting that the slipway, and everything else, gets fenced off? Surely it should be? Won't somebody think of the children?!
The houses in this area are part of "The Fishing Village", and oddly enough are designed to look like an old-fashioned fishing village. It seems like a nice quiet area, and is quite picturesque. The larger buildings are apartments, and the parking problems which plague many areas of the Medway Towns have been tackled by building car parks under them.
This is where the path around the island ends. It covers around half of the island's perimeter, before you have to wander through the streets of the Fishing Village back to Maritime Way. This runs between basins one and two, and is the only road access to the housing estates on the island.
Beside Maritime Way, next to the entrance to the boardwalk, which runs along the edge of basin number 2, is this stone. The carved text on the stone reads:
St Mary's Island
And on the metal plaque is the inscription:
This stone is from one of the former quays
on the island
and was unveiled by
The Rt Hon John Major MP
Friday 30th June 1995
In 1995, there wasn't really much on the island, and I'm not sure how much was actually planned. This stone faces away from the main road, across basin number two, so unless you walk down to specifically look at it, you'll probably miss it, and you certainly won't be able to read what's on it.
Next to the lifting bridge which carries Maritime Way between basins 1 and 2 is a caisson, which separates the basins. Looking north-east from the northern end gives a view of the edge of basin number two, which was finished in 1871, and has water 30 feet deep.
Along the top of the wall, next to the 37 foot mark, is engraved "HEIGHT FROM TOP OF WALL".
Standing under the lifting bridge gives a better view of the caisson separating basins one and two, and the litter which seems to be attracted to it!
You also get to see the deceptively simple structure of the bridge carrying Maritime Way on to the island. Just a few reinforced concrete struts, and a couple of hydraulic rams. (Civil engineers reading this are probably swearing at my lack of appreciation about now!) Of course, the fact the the bridge is there presumably means that the gap between basins one and two is blocked for ever. There's no way that any ship of any decent size could get between the footings and over the top of the foundations. The large ships which have visited the dockyard and been moored in basin two have presumably come in via basin three.
Looking a little closer, you can see two sets of rails running along the top of the caisson. One looks like a standard railway gauge, and the other wider, about 9 feet across. I'm not sure how much weight the outer ones could take, as they're thinner and rounded on top, so perhaps they're just some sort of stabilisation or guard rails.
I can make out the words:
No 12 CAISSON
on the structure, but I can't decipher the words underneath. As usual, I'd be grateful if anyone who knows what it says can e-mail me.
. Walking across the caisson and under the bridge, to the east side of Maritime way, you can look across basin two and see the twin towers being built. This photo was taken at the start of April 2008.
If you roll your mouse pointer over the image, you can see a view from the same point which was taken at the end of August 2008.
There are apparently plans to open another path across the middle of the island. I'll update this site when they do, or next time I wander around the island and see something else interesting.
All photographs copyright 2008 Jason Ross