History of Ashford’s Great Chart Golf and Leisure complex at centre of case

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Abandoned and overgrown, the once-popular Great Chart Golf and Leisure complex was quickly becoming a forgotten part of Ashford’s history.

That all changed on Wednesday morning, however, when about 150 Metropolitan Police officers began scouring the sprawling site as the tragic case of Sarah Everard led them to the 44-acre facility.

Police searching the grounds on Wednesday morning. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Police and television helicopters hovered overhead as scores of reporters decamped to the site entrance in Bears Lane – a quiet country route next to the Ashford to Charing Cross railway line, about four miles from the town centre.

Officers turned the former car park into an operation base within hours, installing temporary welfare centres and floodlights while sniffer dogs and a diving team joined a meticulous search of the area.

Having started with just a field of cows in 1989, the site’s owners had run the complex for more than 25 years before it closed unexpectedly in April 2019.

Facilities included a nine-hole golf course and 20-bay driving range, with visitors also able to try paintballing, archery and zorbing.

Run by brothers Grant and John Kay, the pair gained planning approval in August 2019 for 10 executive homes on the golf course in the hope it would secure the future of the attraction.

Paintballing was added to the site in the mid-2000s and proved popular
Paintballing was added to the site in the mid-2000s and proved popular
Police have been searching this area since Wednesday; one resident said the Fridd Lane search site has become a fly-tipping hotspot recently
Police have been searching this area since Wednesday; one resident said the Fridd Lane search site has become a fly-tipping hotspot recently

Following the planning approval, John Kay said he hoped to sell off the course to allow a developer to build the homes, but there has never been any sign of construction starting.

Just a few months before the facility shut, the owners were hauled before Sevenoaks Magistrates’ Court after an investigation found 42,000 tonnes of waste had been illegally dumped at their site.

The brothers were fined after they had allowed a number of hauliers to dump waste at the attraction in exchange for payment, using the waste to create bunds around the driving range and to build the zorbing ramp.

But before the site closed for good, it was popular with residents from Ashford and further afield, with the owners promoting the “cheapest paintball centre in the country”.

The plot was originally part of a larger piece of land called Bridge Farm and was acquired by Leonard and Iris Kay, along with Grant and John, in 1989.

The centre closed in 2019 due to "unforeseen circumstances". Picture: Andy Jones
The centre closed in 2019 due to “unforeseen circumstances”. Picture: Andy Jones
Officers on part of the nine-hole pitch and putt on Wednesday morning. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Officers on part of the nine-hole pitch and putt on Wednesday morning. Picture: Barry Goodwin
How one of the executive homes was set to look - developers submitted this image to Ashford Borough Council in 2017
How one of the executive homes was set to look – developers submitted this image to Ashford Borough Council in 2017

Inspired by Grant’s time as a professional golfer, the family opened the floodlit driving range in 1990 alongside a clubhouse, cafe and merchandise shop, before expanding the business over the following years.

They bought the adjoining piece of land to the north of the railway and turned the redundant grade 3 agricultural spot into the nine-hole Great Chart Golf Club, creating the small nine-hole golf course they later planned to build homes on.

For a time the club proved to be a success and its membership exceeded 200, but bosses said the demand for nine-hole courses was badly affected by a “decline in the traditional golf industry” in the mid-2000s.

Some of the illegally dumped waste after the owners allowed hauliers to use the site. Picture: Environment Agency
Some of the illegally dumped waste after the owners allowed hauliers to use the site. Picture: Environment Agency
Welfare units arrived on the back of a lorry on Thursday
Welfare units arrived on the back of a lorry on Thursday
Police vehicles parked on the former car park on Thursday morning
Police vehicles parked on the former car park on Thursday morning

They then looked at alternative means of income and added archery, paintballing and family pitch and putt to the complex.

In later years, it even featured a beach volleyball court that was used as a training ground for the London 2012 Olympics.

The centre was also home to two famous bear mascots – Boris and Bernie – who were known to stand by the side of Ashford ring-road, dancing and waving to drivers.

Boris and Bernie, the famous Great Chart bears
Boris and Bernie, the famous Great Chart bears
Flowers left by the public at the entrance to the search site in Great Chart. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Flowers left by the public at the entrance to the search site in Great Chart. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Paintball teams recreated the D-Day landings to support the Poppy Appeal in 2008
Paintball teams recreated the D-Day landings to support the Poppy Appeal in 2008

Although it has not been confirmed exactly where Miss Everard’s body was found on Wednesday, the wooded area behind the complex has been a key area of focus.

Four police vans and unmarked vehicles were parked in Fridd Lane yesterday afternoon, with a blue shipping container-like structure and portaloo set up at the side of the road.

A resident who lives nearby says the secluded plot has become a fly-tipping hotspot, particularly during lockdown.

Police searching woodland off Fridd Lane behind the Great Chart Golf and Leisure complex. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Police searching woodland off Fridd Lane behind the Great Chart Golf and Leisure complex. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Sarah Everard was just 33 years old
Sarah Everard was just 33 years old
Police have closed off Fridd Lane behind the leisure complex. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Police have closed off Fridd Lane behind the leisure complex. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Reflecting on the week’s events, Great Chart with Singleton Parish Council clerk Aniko Szocs says it is unclear why work is yet to start on the leisure complex homes development.

“I don’t know if Covid interrupted their plans to reopen or not, but it used to be a big part of the community,” she said.

“It used to be a great venue and it’s sad it hasn’t reopened.

“Now we will always be reminded that someone was found in that area. It is extremely sad – we’re all in a state of shock.”

An aerial shot of the Great Chart site taken on Wednesday; the woodland off Fridd Lane is pictured at the back of the complex, behind the former driving range and paintball area. Picture: UKNIP
An aerial shot of the Great Chart site taken on Wednesday; the woodland off Fridd Lane is pictured at the back of the complex, behind the former driving range and paintball area. Picture: UKNIP
One of many floral tributes at the site entrance
One of many floral tributes at the site entrance
Media in Bears Lane on Thursday
Media in Bears Lane on Thursday

Since Thursday morning, Bears Lane has been closed, with only police and press allowed access.

Many floral tributes have been left at the site entrance over recent days, with one reading: “Sarah, wherever you are… I wish I could be there.”

The gates were padlocked in July last year
The gates were padlocked in July last year
Bosses have planning permission for 10 homes on the Great Chart Golf Club
Bosses have planning permission for 10 homes on the Great Chart Golf Club
A number of junctions around the Great Chart area remain blocked by police. Picture: Barry Goodwin
A number of junctions around the Great Chart area remain blocked by police. Picture: Barry Goodwin
One of the temporary welfare units is lifted into place on Thursday afternoon
One of the temporary welfare units is lifted into place on Thursday afternoon
Officers searching the grounds on Wednesday morning. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Officers searching the grounds on Wednesday morning. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Last night, serving police officer Wayne Couzens, 48, was charged with the kidnap and murder of Miss Everard, 33.

He is due to appear in custody at Westminster Magistrates’ Court today.

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