In 1667, during the second Anglo-Dutch War, the Isle of Sheppey was successfully captured by the enemy navy. It was a great military victory, partly helped by some half-hearted resistance by the ill-fed, underpaid local garrison at Sheerness. However, after only a few days, the Dutch hastily abandoned their conquest and never returned. History regards their departure as something of a mystery, but common sense suggests they simply couldn’t stand being in Sheerness another moment longer.
Visiting Sheerness today, it is easy to sympathise with the Dutch. The town may be less than 40 miles from London, but its atmosphere and of decay and abandonment makes it feel as you travelled to one of the less scenic industrial towns of Siberia. Surrounded by a bleak landscape of mudflats, electricity pylons and waterlogged fields, it is hard to believe that this used to be a holiday destination for working class Londoners.
Sheerness has managed to avoid becoming a clone town, but this is only because few retailers have bothered to open branches in an area blighted with badly-built housing, obese locals and a wealth of unoccupied industrial units. The town once contained a complex of attractive Georgian naval buildings, but these were largely demolished in the 1960s to make way for a container port.
On the plus side, Sheerness does cater for some very unusual niche markets. It might be short on organic cafes and antique shops, but how many other towns provide one-stop shopping for scrap metal and sex aids?