Published: 08:53, 13 March 2021
| Updated: 18:30, 16 March 2021
Abandoned and overgrown, the once-popular Great Chart Golf and Leisure complex was fast becoming a forgotten part of Ashford's history.
That was until Wednesday morning, however, when about 150 Metropolitan Police officers began to search the sprawling site as the tragic case of Sarah Everard led them to the 44-acre facility.
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 the 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.
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.
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.
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.
Although it has not been confirmed exactly where Miss Everard's body was found on Wednesday, woodland 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 closed road.
A resident who lives nearby says the secluded plot has become a fly-tipping hotspot, particularly during lockdown.
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."
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."
In a statement, a Metropolitan Police spokesman said the force is "not discussing specific sites".
"Searches continue at a number of locations in Kent as part of the investigation," he said.
"However we can clarify that a local golf course/complex owner in Bears Lane has generously allowed police to use his land as a rendezvous point while operational activity is ongoing.
"There is no suggestion of any criminal activity linked to the golf course/complex."