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A visit to Canterbury's Dane John Gardens at night


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As the film of mist blanketing Canterbury’s Dane John Gardens thickened, growing numbers of clubbers staggered along the stretch of city wall on the park’s edge. Among them, two young women gripped each other’s hands.

The pair, both in their 20s, tried to act like a couple deep in conversation, in a bid to stave off unwanted male attention en-route to Club Chemistry. They were aware of the Dane John’s reputation at night.

Residents say the park doesn't offer a warm welcome at night
Residents say the park doesn't offer a warm welcome at night

After I told them I was a journalist, they admitted, relieved, that just my presence in the park had unnerved them.

“When we saw you and your colleague approaching, I was like 'hold my hand while we walk past these guys'. We were going to pretend that we were together. It was the shadow, you know?” one of them laughed.

“During the day I don’t mind it, but when it’s dark, it’s quite a scary place. I was threatened here before when I was like 15 or 16. I was walking alone and a man said to me ‘if you carry on staring at me, I’ll ******* smash you over the head’. I wasn’t even looking at him.”

The park is a city beauty spot. It is bordered by the picturesque city wall on one side, while plush, white-fronted houses and blocks of flats line the other. The site once boasted Green Flag status after being enhanced with a £1 million lottery grant in 2003.

But in a dramatic fall from grace, it has become a magnet for crime. Over the last decade, there have been armed gang attacks, rapes and the fatal beating of a rough sleeper. The latest incident saw a man robbed of cash and cards, as two of his friends were assaulted by a group of 15 thugs late on New Year’s Eve.

And as I stepped through the ominously lit gardens, signs of this sinister issue quickly became apparent. “You’re going to get stabbed and raped,” one reveller muttered my way, unprovoked, feeling empowered by the presence of his five friends.

Our reporter Jack Dyson visited the Dane John Gardens in Canterbury on a Friday night
Our reporter Jack Dyson visited the Dane John Gardens in Canterbury on a Friday night

Meanwhile, a group of swaggering men chanted: “Oh Harry Saunders, he’s got a big **** and the b****** love him.” Their lewd yells were intermittently interrupted by the sounds of members of their mob peeling off to offload lumps of phlegm. “You heading to Chem, girls?” one of them later called.

There was a clear reluctance among passers-by to head through the centre of the park. It was almost exclusively used by rowdy men and cannabis smokers, while the vast majority of pedestrians opted to step along the city wall.

“It’s known you never walk through here by yourself,” a woman in her teens, walking arm-in-arm with a friend towards Canterbury East Station, explained.

“I feel horrified coming through here. I’ve never been followed, but I know others who have. It’s renowned for drugs here as well.”

A pair of 18-year-old girls heading the same way added: “We always walk along the wall. We don’t want to walk down there because of its reputation. We’re never alone when we come through here.”

But despite these fears, I failed to see a single police officer in the area, even though the county’s force insists the park is regularly patrolled.

The park was once the scene of almost 50 violent crimes in just three years
The park was once the scene of almost 50 violent crimes in just three years

My observations marry up with those of residents, who claim officers carry out few checks in the crime-hit park late at night.

An urgent meeting with police and Canterbury City Council was called by locals in July 2017, amid concerns crime in the gardens was worse than ever before. It was also attended by representatives of Canterbury’s two major universities, following claims some of the anti-social behaviour had been caused by students on their journeys to and from nightspots.

By the time the sound of drunken party-goers died down in the park, it was past midnight. Having spent almost three hours in the park, I rounded the bin kicked to the ground near its exit and headed towards the bus station.

There, I approached taxi driver Mondi Asllanaj, 44.

“At night-time it’s not safe. It has had a lot of crime over the last few years,” the driver remarked. “We’ve heard a lot of stories about things going on there, even rape.

The Dane John Gardens are overlooked by some of the city's most exclusive properties
The Dane John Gardens are overlooked by some of the city's most exclusive properties

“A lot of people hang around in there drinking, taking drugs. Customers have told me that you could get mugged in there, get abused, beaten up.

“Mainly we see police chasing people in that area every couple of weeks or so.

“I’ve been working here 16 years, and most of the time here on weekends. It was a lot better then - it’s got worse over the years. Now, you see teenagers gathered together, looking for fights from around 7pm to 11pm. There’s no control.”

While I didn’t witness this kind of trouble on Friday evening, it was clear that many treading through the Dane John in the dark did so with trepidation.

The attraction’s lengthy rap sheet has ensured it will be associated with crime. This cannot be allowed to continue - more needs to be done to combat this scourge and repair its damaged reputation.

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