Thursday, 5 February 2015

Island in the Sun

No, don't worry!  I'm not going to force that old Harry Belafonte hit song down your throats!  Mind you, if you are not old enough to remember it - or if you really want to hear it again after all these years - you can find it right here on Youtube.

With my old mucker Skip currently idling his life away in Hawaii (to be more exact, on Maui) and fellow Lion (and, as Buck would have said, blog-buddy) John in the Atlantic Ocean on Madeira, my thoughts have been turning to islands that have featured in my life.

My childhood was spent, for the most part, in the Medway towns in north Kent.  There are a number of islands to be found within the Thames/Medway estuary system but the first island that really came into my life was further east in the north-eastern corner of the county; the Isle of Thanet.  Thanet is really no longer an island, although I understand that when the waters subsided to leave Great Britain separate from the European mainland, the Wantsum Channel, which separated Thant from the new mainland, was two miles wide.  Over the course of time, the channel has silted up and now, I suspect, is no more than a narrow ditch - if it even exists at all.

There are several suggestions as to how the name Thanet came about but one I have only recently heard is that it means the Isle of the Dead.  According to Greek legend, Britain itself was the home to the dead, and that the bodies were rowed across the sea in un-manned boats in the middle of the night and returned empty before dawn. This mysterious place was called "Ynys Thanatos" - the Isle of the Dead.  Not that death every intruded into my young mind when we had holidays at Broadstairs, a seaside town which was, I suppose, typical of 1940s holiday resorts.

More obviously an island is Sheppey, a low-lying, marshy place which in my youth was linked to the mainland by a bridge wide enough for a road with one lane in each direction.  And a railway line.  Quite why the small town of Sheerness, a one-time Naval dockyard town on the Isle of Sheppey, should have exerted such a pull on my father I never did discover.  Actually, I suppose that it never occurred to me as a child that such a pull even existed.  My father only learned to drive in about 1950 or 51, his peripatetic lifestyle having precluded that until he was based in the Naval barracks at Chatham for a stretch.  It would have been in those very early 50s that he bought his first car, an Austin of considerable vintage.  I think it dated from 1929.  On summer evenings he would take us all (my mother, my brother and me) for a drive.  We did venture into the Kent countryside beyond the North Downs, but our trips seem in memory to have often involved driving across the Sheppey marshes to Sheerness where we would walk along the river front.  Incidentally, Nelson's body was brought ashore in a barrel of brandy after he died at Trafalgar.  It was from here, too, that the Fighting Temeraire, a heroine of that battle, left on her final journey to the breakers’ yard further up the Thames — a moment so gloriously depicted in the oil painting by J.M.W. Turner.

I don't think I have been to Sheerness since 1952 because it was in 1953 that my life became centred upon another island, the Isle of Wight.  This island site just off the south coast of England, opposite the major Naval port of Portsmouth.  It was in January 1953 that my brother and I were despatched to Ventnor on the southern coast of the island where we were to stay for several months at a home/school run by nuns for "delicate" children.  Both of us suffered quite badly from asthma and the doctor considered that the air on the Isle of Wight would be beneficial to our health.

After our return to the Medway towns, I started at the local grammar school and it was there that I became interested in bird watching.  This led me to yet another island in the Thames/Medway estuary, the Isle of Grain.


I spent many a winter's day walking around these marshes in wind, rain and even snow!

Nowadays Grain is dominated by the oil refinery but back in the 19th century this was the setting for the opening scenes of Great Expectations.  More recently, or so I have been led to believe, a mock army camp was constructed from plyboard or suchlike to fool German bomber pilots during World War II.  Now what remains of the peace of island is threatened by the possible construction of a new London airport, either on the island itself or in the Thames estuary.  Mind you, that could cause a problem as, not long after D Day, the SS Richard Montgomery sank with 7,000 tons of wartime bombs  .It’s estimated that anything from 1,400 to 3,000 tons of explosives are still packed in its water-logged hull, and it has been said that their detonation would cause one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever.


Sarah said...

I'm a big fan of Islands too having grown up near one. I've talked about Burgh Island in some of my posts. I'm not sure how good it is for bird watching (although there are almost always Cormorants to be seen)but it's well worth a visit if you are ever down that way.

Brighton Pensioner said...

One of these days, Sarah, one of these days... Perhaps...