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Kent review of the year for 2019

As we bid farewell to 2019, Kent, once again, experienced another rollercoaster ride over the last 12 months. From visits by the Queen, to turmoil on our high streets, there's barely been a dull moment.

We take a look back at some of the highs – and the lows - of the year. (And, you may be pleased to hear, this will be a politics and Brexit free zone, well as much as possible anyway).

Kent review of the year 2019
Kent review of the year 2019

One of the recurring stories of 2019 has surely been migrants attempting to reach our shores.

The year dawned with mounting anxiety about the numbers risking their lives making the perilous journey across the English Channel and, despite multiple warnings, the unscrupulous trade in crossing the waterway shows little signs of slowing.

A flurry of attempts over the new year period was followed by a steady stream throughout the months – with many believing the surge was due to a desire to get in before Brexit became a reality.

At least one woman has died and there are fears another tragedy may occur.

It seems likely, sadly, to still be making headlines as we enter 2020.

Migrants found in Channel
Migrants found in Channel

It wouldn’t be a year in review if the words ‘Manston Airport saga’ were not uttered – and 2020 will certainly be an absolutely crucial chapter.

After on-going wrangling between the site’s owners, the developers behind the Stone Hill Park project, and RiverOak Strategic Partners, the group wanting to reclaim it and reopen it as an airport, Stone Hill Park suddenly revealed in July it had sold the site to… you guessed it, RiverOak for £16.9m.

However, it still needs the nod from the government to see planes return – a decision due in January.

Manston Airport
Manston Airport

The good folk of Thanet will be pleased or up-in-arms depending on their view point on this highly divisive issue.

Another perennial favourite was the issue of the SS Richard Montgomery - the sunken Second World War US munitions ship which lies off the coast of Sheerness.

David Alexander, professor of risk and disaster reduction at the University College London, tried to get a discussion on the danger posed in the House of Lords but, to the surprise of no one who has followed the issue over the years, the decision was "to do nothing". One day, we may live to regret our inaction.

The masts of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery bomb ship off Sheerness
The masts of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery bomb ship off Sheerness

Staying with transport, the government’s decision to award a £33 million ferry contract to Seaborne Ferries in 2018 (a ferry firm with no, erm, ferries) came back to bite it hard on its Brexit contingency planning backside.

Not only was the contract eventually scrapped, but Eurotunnel sued the government for not being involved in the process.

An out of court settlement was reached. For £33m. 2019 has certainly been a strange one.

To the surprise of precisely no one, the government turned down any suggestion of scrapping the tolls on the Dartford Crossing. Meanwhile work on the M20’s Junction 10a at Ashford was finally completed.

Prior to the election, Boris Johnson ruled out any revival of his ‘Boris Island’ airport plans.

Perhaps not surprisingly, folk on the Hoo Peninsula said they were pleased…but feared it would rear its ugly head again one day.

The Flyboard Air in action Picture: Zapata
The Flyboard Air in action Picture: Zapata

And while it may not become a widespread form of transport any time soon, French inventor Franky Zapata gave us perhaps a glimpse of the future when, in August, he flew across the Channel on a jet-powered hoverboard.

His first attempt saw him misjudge a mid-way point refuelling point and take a tumble into the water, but a second attempt saw him complete the mission in 22 minutes.

No such problems for Australian Rick Seirer, however, who, at 59, became the oldest person to swim across the Channel - and back again - in a remarkable feat which saw him in the water for almost 30 hours.

Rick Seirer in action as he swims towards the finish line in Dover
Rick Seirer in action as he swims towards the finish line in Dover

Expect to hear plenty about the Lower Thames Crossing, the tunnel linking east of Gravesend to Essex in order to alleviate the congestion around the Dartford Crossing, during 2020 with a planning application expected in the summer.

We should also learn about just what the plan is for the South Eastern rail franchise after the bidding process was called off in August.

Southeastern, the current holder, had its contract extended until April. After that, it remains to be seen just what will happen.

A Southeastern train
A Southeastern train

On a more frivolous note, the county had plenty of stardust sprinkled over it to as some of the biggest names were spotted on our doorstep.

There were the implausible sights of Johnny Depp getting out at Ashford in January after being on a Eurostar train from Paris and the equally odd news of Ed Sheeran popping into a fish and chip shop in Greatstone on the Romney Marsh.

Sharon Stone took a trip around Margate's Turner Contemporary while on holiday, Kate Winslet was in Charing, near Ashford, filming the upcoming movie Ammonite, Benedict Cumberbatch filmed in Deal, while stars of Games of Thrones appeared at ThroneFest in Birchington as viewers bid farewell to the TV epic.

Singer Ed Sheeran at the Greatstone Fish Bar
Singer Ed Sheeran at the Greatstone Fish Bar

Meanwhile, actor Tom Hardy went for lunch out in Tenterden and pop songstress Ellie Goulding shot a video for her latest single in Dungeness.

Just don’t ask Medway Council about Jess Glynne. The singer had swiftly sold out her show as part of the Castle Concerts in Rochester – an event desperately trying to shrug off poor ticket sales the previous year – but who then promptly pulled out just days before the show due to health issues.

She was replaced by Craig David but plenty of fans were left disappointed and the council paid a heavy price. So heavy, in fact, it is now off-loading the event to an outside agency.

Dave and Roxanne King with Johnny Depp
Dave and Roxanne King with Johnny Depp

The hunt for missing Sarah Wellgreen had already turned into a murder probe at the turn of the year, and by October, her former partner, Ben Lacomba, was starting a life term behind bars for her murder.

The mother-of-five had gone missing from her home in New Ash Green in October 2018, sparking a huge police search for her.

However, 2020 dawns with that hunt still continuing. Lacomba has continued to refuse to say where he disposed of her body, leaving her family longing for closure.

Sarah Wellgreen
Sarah Wellgreen

One of the county’s longest running cases was also resolved this year when Andrew Griggs was finally found guilty of the murder of his pregnant wife, Debbie, 20 years ago. The pair had lived in Deal.

He too has refused to reveal where her remains are – although the judge suspected the fisherman had dumped her at sea.

The tragic tale of twins Jake and Chloe Ford unfolded a little over a year ago with the two 23-month-olds both found dead at their mother’s home in Margate.

Chloe and Jake Ford
Chloe and Jake Ford

Samantha Ford admitted killing them and was jailed for 10 years for their manslaughter.

It was a sentence the twins’ father, Steven, had difficulty with – believing it far too lenient.

Knife crime continued to concern authorities and the public in equal measure – an issue highlighted when London student Andre Bent was killed after being stabbed in Maidstone in August.

Andre Bent died near Gallery nightclub in August
Andre Bent died near Gallery nightclub in August

Meanwhile, one of the county’s most notorious crooks – Kenneth Noye, convicted for the 1996 M25 road-rage killing of Dartford’s Stephen Cameron, was finally released.

One story which gripped the nation was that of little Lucas Dobson.

The six-year-old from Deal had been on a fishing trip with his father and friends when he slipped from a jetty into the water at Sandwich. Despite desperate efforts to save him, he was dragged under by the currents.

Lucas Dobson
Lucas Dobson

A search in which hundreds of volunteers took part, recovered his body some four days later.

In December, London was once again facing up to the impact of a terror attack after two young people were stabbed to death near London Bridge.

One of those who went to the aid of the injured, and hailed a hero, was murderer James Ford, on day release from an open prison.

He was serving time for the murder of Amanda Champion, 21, in Ashford in 2003.

Her family were furious he was allowed out and able to attend the prisoners' rehabilitation conference were the attack occurred.

After 2018’s extremes of weather – the Beast from the East brought heavy snow followed by one of the hottest summers on record – 2019 was a rather more sedate affair.

Snow on Blue Bell Hill
Snow on Blue Bell Hill

There was a sudden snow shower as February dawned which hit Medway particularly hard, but little else for sledge-fans.

As for the summer, it was another warm one, but nowhere close to the levels experienced 12 months before.

Easter was eggscellent, ahem, however, with the mercury soaring into the mid 20C.

It was even sunny as the Kent Show saw 75,000 people flock to the annual celebration of the county in June.

But the year ended up with heavy rains bringing flooding to the likes of Maidstone and Tonbridge – the perennial flooding pinch points.

The high street had another bruising year – most notably when Debenhams announced it was closing its stores in Ashford, Canterbury and Folkestone, blowing a hole through their retail offering.

Debenhams announced it was closing its stores in Ashford, Canterbury and Folkestone
Debenhams announced it was closing its stores in Ashford, Canterbury and Folkestone

It was far from alone. Thomas Cook bid farewell leaving plenty of passengers stranded, although plenty of their stores have since reopened under new management.

The roll of departing stores includes Mothercare, Bonmarche and Office Outlet.

Even Folkestone-based coach company Buzzlines ground to a halt much to the chagrin of those who had paid out for trips.

And talking of which, commercial radio station Heart Kent pulled the plug on its Whitstable studio – signalling the end of local programming on the station once known as Invicta.

It meant the end of James Heming’s nearly 20-year stint hosting the breakfast show. Kmfm is now the county’s only commercial radio station.

Education faced its on-going financial challenges throughout 2019 with one fall from grace dominating the landscape.

The Hadlow Group has come under scrutiny in 2019
The Hadlow Group has come under scrutiny in 2019

The Hadlow Group had, for so long, held itself up as one of the county's success stories.

Having successfully led Hadlow College, its portfolio had been expanded to include West Kent and Ashford colleges.

It was also the driving force behind the Betteshanger Country Park project near Deal.

But by February a crack the size of the San Andreas fault had opened up.

Both its chief executive, Paul Hannan, and his deputy, Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, were suspended and a major investigation into its financial conduct was initiated.

By May, the group which was responsible for the further education of 10,000 people had been put into 'educational administration' - the first institution in the country to do so.

Symbol of Brexit, the Banksy Mural in Dover
Symbol of Brexit, the Banksy Mural in Dover

And by July proposals were put forward to divide up its empire with the likes of West Kent and Hadlow colleges being taken on by North Kent College and the EKC Group consuming Ashford College.

Betteshanger Country Park, meanwhile, was sold in December to Quinn Estates.

However, there was good news too. Ambitious plans to turn a former railway works into movie studios for the likes of Netflix were revealed in Ashford, while the town’s Designer Outlet centre saw a massive expansion.

June saw a big surprise as Hollywood studio Paramount re-signed for the London Resort multi-billion pound theme park proposed for the Swanscombe Peninsula.

However, despite lots of positive headlines no work has yet to take place. When originally announced in 2012 its planned opening date was…2019.

Margate also saw the dividends of its investment in culture as a catalyst for regeneration when the Turner Prize was hosted in the town in December.

Her Majesty The Queen visits Centenary Village in Aylesford
Her Majesty The Queen visits Centenary Village in Aylesford

However, no one winner was named after those shortlisted decided they’d share the top prize.

The Channel Tunnel celebrated its 25th anniversary in May, while June saw KentOnline – the county’s leading news website – celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Staying with culture for a moment too, there was huge disappointment in August when street artist Banksy’s huge piece of art in Dover depicting a workman chiselling away a star from the EU flag disappeared overnight – apparently painted over.

Another anniversary marked this year was in September when 12,000 people attended a special concert to mark the 30th anniversary of the IRA bomb which killed 11 people at the Walmer barracks of the Royal Marines in 1989.

Rochester Cathedral saw a collective raising of eye-brows when it announced it was to host a crazy golf course over the summer holidays.

In the end, despite plenty of criticism, it proved a big hit.

A crazy golf course opened at Rochester Cathedral
A crazy golf course opened at Rochester Cathedral

Popular Bishop of Dover Trevor Willmott officially retired and was replaced by the Rt Revd Dr Rose Hudson-Wilkin. She has previously been Chaplain to the Speaker at the House of Commons.

The royal family gave us some highlights this year. The Duchess of Cornwall was in Dover in July to launch Folkestone firm Saga's latest cruise liner, while the Princess Royal paid a visit to both Maidstone and Medway Maritime hospitals in December.

But it was, inevitably, the visit by the Queen to the Royal British Legion Industries village in Aylesford in October which was perhaps the highlight.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent


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