Elmley Nature Reserve

Wild swim retreat: Elmley Nature Reserve

Ella Foote discovers unexpected beauty and wild adventure on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent

The sun is hot despite nearing dusk, the sky empty of clouds but full of swooping birds. ask a man beside me, also looking at the birds, “Are they swallows or house martins?” I wanted to sound like I wasn’t completely ignorant.

“Neither.” he says. “They are sand martins.”

We continue to watch the birds and he goes on to describe the difference between the two. Despite the spontaneous lesson, I am not sure I could spot the difference. The birds move fast and almost randomly, but you can see them feasting on the glut of summer bugs.

Walkers, twitchers and wildlife enthusiasts are all migrating back towards the main track away from the expansive nature reserve. We smugly dawdle, knowing we are here for the night.

A unique retreat

Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent is the only national nature reserve where you can stay on overnight. The 3,300-acre site is family-owned and managed.

By day it welcomes wildlife seekers and walkers but come dusk, it transforms into a place where nature reveals itself quietly to those sleeping nearby. As well as chance encounters with wildlife, you can also sink into a cool pond or swim from a private beach.

Driving over The Swale from the mainland we cross over Kingsferry bridge in the shadow of the massive Sheppey Crossing. To our right there is a large concrete factory, the tide is out, so a large amount of mud is below us. My travelling companions look out the window and then at me with curious eyes. It doesn’t look great, and Sheppey’s reputation isn’t much better, but with the promise of a swim and immersing into nature for a couple of days I have faith we are beginning an adventure unlike any other.

We pull off the main road onto a dirt-gravel track. The adventure begins here. The two-mile long driveway to our destination offers a safari experience while we sit comfortably in our car.

Wild encounters

The Isle of Sheppey was once a group of isles, Elmley an island of its own. Today Elmley is the jewel in the crown, a captivating landscape that offers wildlife, undisturbed marshland and grasses. I spot a buzzard on the safari, but my interest starts to wane as we near our accommodation. A small cluster of white bell tents poke out of meadow grass with views across the wetlands and as I look across the grassland I spot two huge hares on their hind legs, peering at us. They are beautiful. I stop the car and we watch as they hop around each other before leaping away from us. Already it feels special to witness the creatures that make Elmley their home.

Elmley Nature Reserve
© Jim Higham

There are several accommodation options at Elmley and all of them have incredible views across the reserve. There are custom-made shepherd huts and cabins, bell tents and an 18th-century farmhouse. Each has been designed for retreat and escape, encouraging you to fully immerse in the surrounding nature. You stay right in the middle of the reserve so you can fully explore the area throughout your stay.

Safari-style glamping

We stayed in a meadow bell tent which faces east providing a spectacular sunrise. Each tent is positioned apart from others, so you have privacy and space to yourself. As well as the fun and beauty of sleeping under canvas each tent comes with a proper bed, comfy mattress, fresh linen, duvet, blankets and hot water bottles. If you have children, extra beds and linen are provided. A short walk away there are flushing toilets and hot, brilliant showers with beautiful toiletries – my kind of camping!

Each tent has its own fire pit with a grill for barbecues, or there is a nearby camp kitchen with enough equipment to cook a family meal. In the morning you can order hot breakfast delivered to your tent to be enjoyed with views from your bed. The camp kitchen has an endless supply of tea and coffee for you to take back to your tent with enamel teapots and mugs.

We arrived at the end of a hot week in August. The weather was due to turn so we made the most of the conditions and went to find the private beach and swimming pond. Elmley is renowned for its wading birds but also draws enthusiasts wanting to catch sight of bees, dragonflies and flora. Over 40 species of birds breed and raise their young at Elmley and at night you can seek out the owls from their calls.

Wildlife sensitive

Due to the conservation work, the beach only opens in summer and is only good for swimming at high tide. We found the water cool and clear, but wading in was muddy! Having the place to ourselves meant we saw so much more wildlife than you would at your standard swim spot. Laying low in the water meant we witnessed birds feeding from the water’s edge and swopping to pluck fish from in front of us. The pond was small and murky, but the insects were in abundance. Bright flashes of dragonfly and nattering of frogs made for a fun dip.

While there isn’t a traditional restaurant on site, there are lots of food options and the offer changes seasonally, much like the menu. We were offered a stunning three-course meal in the barn, which is the heart of the reserve. Popular for weddings, the barn is the main hub. It is where you check in and can find the bar. In the summer, evening meals are offered to guests at the barn, but picnic hampers and warm suppers can also be delivered to accommodation. The menu is curated with produce sourced locally and everything is cooked fresh on site. We devoured fresh fish with crab butter and local samphire washed down with Kent cider.

If you wanted to cook in the camp kitchen there are plenty of nearby farm shops and a supermarket not far away to stock up on what you might need.

Night falls

Back at our tent we enjoyed tea and toasted marshmallows around our fire pit before zipping up for the night. The tent felt warm despite the cool night, the duvet and extra blanket welcome. In the morning the sounds of the reserve waking were beautiful; bird calls and songs I hadn’t heard before. We pulled back our tent flaps and climbed back into bed to watch the day start before it rained, which didn’t bother us as we enjoyed the sound of it on canvas while we remained warm in our beds. The delivery of hot bacon sandwiches prompted a debate over who had to go and make the coffee.

Elmley Nature Reserve can be visited year-round; swimming opportunities are only offered in the summer months. To book, visit: elmleynaturereserve.co.uk

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Ella is renowned outdoor swimmer and journalist. As well as leading the editorial, digital and experiential outputs for Outdoor Swimmer she is also Director of Dip Advisor, a swim guiding business helping people enjoy wild water. Ella also teaches swimming to children and adults, is an Open Water Coach and RLSS Open Water Lifeguard.