Published: 06:00, 17 July 2021
The eerie remains of a once-bustling Christian holiday camp on the outskirts of a Kent town would be the perfect setting for a horror film.
The sounds of hymns being belted out within the confines of the majestic Herne Bay Court in Eddington have since been replaced with the ruckus of boozy trespassers.
Low walls and gaps in fencing makes it all too easy for revellers to enter the neglected site and hold "parties" - or for yobs to swipe lead from the main building.
But despite it being a hotspot for anti-social behaviour, for the residents of neighbouring Parsonage Road it is still a beloved landmark.
However, they are keen to see it developed, with few people objecting to recent plans for a sprawling £35 million retirement village at the site.
The former Herne Bay Christian Centre was once a striking landscape, where visitors enjoyed its facilities for almost 60 years.
The spectacular main building overlooked lawns, a swimming pool and tennis courts.
"The only time it really affected us was normally on a weekend on a Saturday night - especially this time of year - when you could hear all the singing," Parsonage Road resident Chris Harry said.
"We used to see people walking up and down, and the people were really pleasant. There were no problems or trouble."
Mr Harry, 74, supported the plans for the retirement village, which he said would have been "brilliant".
But now he is among residents frustrated at the ongoing battle with anti-social behaviour and vandalism at the site.
"There are huge problems," he said. "I’ve heard second hand that one of our neighbours had their house valued by an estate agent and it was lower than expected because of the amount of police visits that we’ve had. The kids go through or over the fence at the bottom of the estate.
"But if you say anything you just get abuse, your property damaged or God knows what.
"The police are pretty responsive if you call and give them a good old talking to."
Petula Jones, 48, also wants to see Herne Bay Court redeveloped.
"It's sad there is nothing going on," she said. "When you try to find out what's happening, nobody knows.
"We get a lot of trouble with the kids, especially during the summer holidays.
"They do get in but the security is incredibly tight. They have cameras and barriers all the way round."
Another resident, who didn't want to be named, said: "I really like it at the moment because it's very peaceful, except every so often there are incidents which is not great.
"This is a no through-road and we got a lot of passing people who are not based on this road.
"They are damaging a lot of stuff. From what I understand from speaking to the managing company is it's been stripped bare and there are parties there.
"There isn't that many of them and probably less than 10, but it's the same sort of people every time."
The building has stood as a local landmark from the start of the 20th century until 2008.
It was originally run as a college specialising in engineering, according to John Clancy’s book, Herne Bay Through Time.
However, in 1939 it was taken over for the Second World War effort.
Sadly, its engineering equipment was lost so the school could not reopen following the end of the conflict and the building was sold.
It was reopened in 1949 as Herne Bay Court, a Christian conference centre.
The 10 acres of land was one of the most majestic spaces away from the town's seafront, with manicured lawns, a swimming pool, tennis courts and grand dwelling.
Its facilities provided a haven of tranquillity to thousands of visitors from across the world for almost 60 years.
Old postcards - which are still available to buy online - show families enjoying themselves in the large grounds.
But in 2007, it was reported the conference centre would close.
Dwindling demand and the prospect of housing developments near the site influenced the decision by owners Centre Ministries Office, based in Shropshire, to sell up.
At the time, former chief executive Peter Bevington said: "The demand for this type of holiday has been replaced by holiday weeks at large venues or smaller ones at better resourced centres in southern Europe."
Despite a campaign by its supporters, the centre shut its doors in Christmas 2007.
But in 2012, plans for a sprawling £30 million retirement village were revealed by KentOnline's sister paper, the Herne Bay Gazette.
The ambitious scheme included 150 apartments, a health and wellbeing centre and club house.
A consultation on the proposals took place that year and it was hoped construction could start in 2014 - with the village creating 150 jobs.
But these initial plans were knocked back by council officers in November 2012 as concerns were raised about the size, layout and scale.
Councillors also feared it would jar with the nearby Eddington conservation zone.
A revised £35 million bid was submitted the following year which included 117 homes.
It was subject to a raft of conditions, including a contribution by the developer of £350,000 towards enhancing open spaces and the environment in Herne Bay.
About 60 letters were sent to neighbours notifying them of the plans, with just two objections.
The plans were finally approved in December 2013.
Cllr Ashley Clark said at the time: “When I first looked at this [application] my instant reaction was ‘no’, this is protected open space and it’s special. I thought it should be protected at all costs."
But he added: “This is not the Serengeti - I don’t think any self-respecting badger would choose to live there. From the soundings I get the people of Herne Bay are largely in support.”
Work was set to start in January 2015, but it was announced it would be delayed until the following year.
A striking new image was revealed in January 2016 as developers called on residents to register their interest in moving there.
But despite support among locals, in 2017 bosses at Bethel Retirement Villages pulled the plug on the project.
Spokesman Michael Taylor said: "Recent changes in the regional care market, including the type of care provision and the advent of new specialised care entrants to the local marketplace, have been contributing factors to the decision."
The site was acquired by the Xiros Ltd company and was expected to be used for conventional housing.
Now, fours years after it was announced the project would be scrapped, residents have been left in limbo about how the site will be transformed.
What is clear is despite the area being described as peaceful - albeit with some incidents of anti-social behaviour - many want to see it developed and were widely supportive of the retirement village plans.
They can only hope someone puts forward a proposal soon to inject life back into the beloved landmark and bring Herne Bay Court back to its former glory.