Oare Marshes Walk - 29 August 2019


On Thursday 29 August, the Walking Group visited Oare Marsh Nature Reserve, Faversham. This is our first time visiting this location. The weather was sunny, 23C, with a comfortable breeze near the river.

Just to prove we were there

About the reserve (Click link to read more)

Of international importance for migratory, overwintering and breeding wetland birds, the reserve consists of grazing marsh (one of a few left in Kent) with freshwater dykes, open water scrapes, reedbed, saltmarsh and seawall.

The route: Counterclockwise from the car park (marked)

We followed the Saxon Shore Way (footpath ZR234) west along the River Swale. Just before Uplees Marshes we turned south onto footpath ZR317 towards Gate House Bungalows.

Here we heard a brief history of the manufacture of explosives on the Oare Marshes.

Faversham explosives industry (Click to read more)

Faversham, in Kent, England, has claims to be the cradle of the UK's explosives industry: it was also to become one of its main centres. The first gunpowder plant in the UK was established in the 16th century, possibly at the instigation of Faversham Abbey. With their estates and endowments, monasteries were keen to invest in promising technology.[1]

Faversham was well-placed. It had a stream which could be dammed at intervals to provide power for watermills. On its outskirts were low-lying areas ideal for the culture of alder and willow to provide charcoal — one of the three key gunpowder ingredients. The stream fed into a tidal creek where sulphur, another key ingredient, could be imported, and the finished product loaded for dispatch to Thames-side magazines. The port was also near the Continent where, in time of war, demand for gunpowder was brisk.

The first factories were small, near the town, and alongside the stream, between the London to Dover road (now the A2) and the head of the creek. By the early 18th century, these had coalesced into a single plant, subsequently known as the Home Works, as it was the town’s first.

At this time the British government was buying its supplies from the private sector, but the quality was often poor, and in 1759 it decided it needed its own plant. Rather than build a new one, it nationalised the Home Works, upgrading all the machinery. From this phase dates the Chart Gunpowder Mill, the oldest of its kind in the world. It was rescued from the bulldozer's blade, and then restored by the Faversham Society in 1966. It is now open to the public on weekend and bank holiday afternoons from April until the end of October.

Nearby is Stonebridge Pond, today a picturesque beauty spot at the head of the creek. It served to power some of the works’ watermills, slender remains of which survive. It still features a network of narrow-gauge canals along which powder was punted from process to process.

All three gunpowder factories shut in 1934. Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), then the owners, sensed that war might break out with Germany, and realised that Faversham would then become vulnerable to air attack or possibly invasion. They transferred production, together with key staff and machinery, to Ardeer in Ayrshire, Scotland.

The storyteller and a rapt audience

Great Explosion 1916 (Click to read more)

At 14.20 on Sunday, 2 April, 1916, 109 men and boys were killed by an explosion at the Explosives Loading Company factory at Uplees, near Faversham. Fifteen tons of TNT and 150 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up when some empty sacks caught fire.

So great was the explosion that windows across the Thames estuary in Southend were shattered and the tremor was felt in Norwich. The crater made by the explosion was 40 yards across and 20 feet deep.

The Cotton Powder Company's huge factory, adjacent to the Explosives Loading Company's plant, was also seriously damaged. Most of its site now forms the Oare Marshes Nature Reserve, of international importance for its bird life.

This was the worst disaster ever to occur in the history of the UK explosives industry.

A brave attempt was made to extinguish the fire before it got out of control, but factory manager George Evetts ordered everyone to leave the site when the situation became hopeless. However, the explosion occurred as everyone was leaving the site.

Included in the 116 dead, was the whole of the Works Fire Brigade. Many firemen died in subsequent smaller explosions on the site.

Many bodies were recovered from the surrounding marshes and dykes, but seven were recorded as missing, most probably atomised by the explosion.

Many of the dead were buried in a mass grave at Faversham Cemetery on 6 April, 1916.

The obligatory selfie

Onwards along Uplees Road until we picked up footpath ZR319, Uplees Road again and a comfort break at The Three Mariners.

Quiet contemplation
It's not always black and white

Picking up the pace again we continued south-east, passing The Castle PH and turned left onto footpath ZR234. This took us up the west side of the River Oare passing the boatyards and entering the nature reserve. We were back at the car park after completing 4.6 miles (7.5km) in 2 hours.

Next top was a well earned picnic on the ramp at Harty Ferry.

Happy walkers

Footpath references can be found on the Kent County Council: Public Rights of Way Map