Published: 05:00, 21 January 2022
| Updated: 12:56, 21 January 2022
Gangs of feral youths continue to prowl a picturesque Kent park billed as an attraction for families and overlooked by some of the area's most exclusive properties.
The Dane John Gardens was once the pride of Canterbury, with green flag status to go with its scheduled ancient monument.
But for more than 10 years, its neat lawns and flowerbeds have provided the backdrop for a series of violent crimes and brutal attacks.
And the illicit activity shows no sign of abating.
In the most recent incident on New Year’s Eve, a man was robbed of money by a group of up to 15 teenagers who confronted him and his friends.
They threatened to assault the victim, forcing him to hand over cash and his bank card, and also attacked two of his pals.
The terrifying robbery is just the latest in an alarming series of unsavoury incidents to have taken place in the park over the last decade.
Lib Dem Councillor Nick Eden-Green says people have a right to feel safe while walking the streets
The rap sheet includes a rough sleeper kicked to death and a 21-year-old beaten so badly he was left with a footprint on his head.
As far back as 2013, KentOnline's sister paper the Kentish Gazette reported how the "showpiece gardens have become a magnet for violence, gang crime and drugs".
Officers insist the park, which is just yards from the city's police station and monitored by the council's CCTV, is regularly visited by patrols to check for anti-social behaviour, adding: "Canterbury is a safe place to live, work and visit."
But residents living in the gardens claim there is very little police presence late at night when most troubles occur.
Retired nursing lecturer Yvonne Hill founded and chairs the Friends of the Dane John group, which was set up to make the park a "a pleasant and safe space".
She recalls one incident in which a gang of youths started hammering and kicking at her door at night.
"To be honest, I was terrified," she says.
"I didn't know who they were or what they wanted, but the noise was incredibly loud and they kept coming back.
"I dialled 999 as it was happening and the call handler said she had logged the incident, but no police ever came out or even gave me a call afterwards to check if I was all right.
"Gangs of youths at night is not usually a good recipe..."
"It was pretty poor and I was very disappointed, so I wrote to the Crime Commissioner to complain and later got a letter of apology about the way my call was handled."
Mrs Hill was left so anxious by the incident that she has now installed CCTV cameras outside her home.
She says police do patrol the park during the day, but not when most needed late at night.
"Gangs of youths at night is not usually a good recipe," she said.
"It's a pity because most of the time the gardens are a delightful place."
John Ellerby has lived in the Dame John for more than 50 years and says the council's recent decision to end a trial period of locking the park gates at night was ill-considered.
"It was definitely quieter with them locked, " he said.
"We occasionally see police walking or driving through the park during the day, but that almost seems like a PR exercise because there's very little to worry about then.
"What we need is regular patrols late at night, although I appreciate their resources are under pressure."
City councillor Nick Eden-Green, who has lived in the Dane John for more than 20 years, says the same.
"Living in a public park, you expect a bit of noise and disturbance, but the violent incidents are a worry, and only more patrols at night are likely to act as a deterrent and actually catch offenders," he said.
"We used to have a park warden, which was some help, but I don't think they could be expected to approach a group of youths late at night.
"We have had problems with lights not working, but hopefully the new ones and CCTV will improve security."
Mrs Hill even goes as far as to suggest an hourly night-time patrol would be appropriate.
"People should feel safe walking through the park at night and clearly that's not the case, " she added.
Inspector Guy Thompson, of Canterbury Community Safety Unit, says he understands the recent robbery in the gardens "may have caused concern" and is urging anyone with information to come forward and help the investigation.
"We are currently working with Canterbury City Council to improve CCTV coverage in the gardens, to deter crime and assist investigations into any offences which are committed," he said.
"This will be paid for by the Safer Streets funding which was secured in 2021.
"I would like to assure residents and visitors that Canterbury is a safe place to live, work and visit ..."
"Our town centre officers also regularly patrol the area to check for anti-social behaviour and speak to anyone with concerns.
"The park's existing CCTV is monitored 24 hours a day by Canterbury City Council and any criminal or anti-social behaviour is reported to us a matter of course. Every incident is fully investigated."
He added: "I would like to assure residents and visitors that Canterbury is a safe place to live, work and visit and Kent Police is working with partners to ensure it stays that way."
The city council says it hopes CCTV cameras and better lighting in the park will improve security.
Spokesman Rob Davies said: "We were concerned to hear of the recent incident in the Dane John and hope the victim is recovering. We will support the police with their investigation as required.
"Funding was secured last year for more cameras in the park. These will have the same enhanced capability to provide images in low-light situations as the existing cameras have.
"Initial technical surveys have been completed and we are now working with Historic England to secure their permission to install them, as the Dane John is a scheduled ancient monument.
"We also have plans to improve the lighting in the park as part of a wider package of measures, which includes the new play area and enhanced paths, and we continue to promote the safer routes initiative which recommends particular ways to navigate your way around the city."
Dane John rap sheet
The past record of incidents and continuing troubles in the gardens make depressing reading.
In July 2013, homeless alcoholic David Wilkes was kicked to death in the Peace Garden by Watling Street, with his killers jailed for nine and 10 years.
WARNING: graphic image below
In February 2015, a gang of teenagers attempted to throw a young man from the city wall after he tried to stop them harassing a young girl.
The 21-year-old was beaten so severely he needed a brain scan and was left with a footprint on his head.
Just three months later two young men were set upon by a gang of youths armed with a metal bar, a chain and a knuckle duster as they walked home after a night out.
One had his right ear ripped in half and was knocked out while the other suffered a broken nose and chipped teeth. Together the pair needed 20 stitches for their wounds.
Back then, a Freedom of Information request revealed there had been 46 violent crimes in just three years, with 20 reported drugs offences involving cannabis and ecstasy.
More recently in 2017, the Gazette wrote how "the park is being blighted by gangs, prompting residents to avoid it at night" following a series of violent crimes, including reports of an armed robbery involving knives and a hammer.
In September last year, a gang of up to 12 teenagers launched a vicious and unprovoked attack on three men in the park in the early hours.
One of them was kicked unconscious on the ground and two of his friends suffered serious cuts and bruises as they tried to protect him.
Many more incidents are likely to have gone unreported.