Spread across 400 acres of Kentish countryside, the ancient woods of Dering have long been rife with tales of ghosts and ghouls, making them a prime destination for documentaries about the paranormal.
But the popularity of shows such as Celebrity Haunted Hotel Live and ITV’s Strange But True has forced the Woodland Trust to hire a security firm to deter hundreds of ‘ghost hunters’ who have descended on the woods, leaving mayhem in their wake.
The trust has spent £41,000 protecting Dering Woods from the damage caused by visitors pitching camp in the hope of witnessing the apparition of a gypsy woman who accidentally burnt herself to death or a schoolmaster who hung himself and is now said to haunt a local lane.
It has also been forced to spend £6,000 on clearing litter and debris left behind by the ghost hunters who, after spending the night in the woods, abandon their tents and fires the following day.
The Trust, which saved the wood from development when it bought it in 1997, said: “People have always been drawn to Dering Wood because of its haunted reputation. But a number of recent TV programmes has led to a significant increase in overnight visitors.
“A lot of damage is being done to the local habitat, with flowers and bushes being trampled and nocturnal wildlife being disturbed. We want everyone to be able to enjoy the woods responsibly, but these people are not only causing a nuisance, they are also abandoning all their equipment for us to get rid of.”
For years people with an interest in the paranormal have visited Dering Wood and the nearby community of Pluckley, said to be the most haunted village in Britain.
It’s reputation has drawn film crews and documentary makers and, in their wake, teams of self-appointed ghost hunters equipped with night cameras and microphones, poised to pick up the clip-clopping of hooves or the rustle of a ghostly gown.
Clive Steward, the Woodland Trust’s site manager, said: “The damage being caused by these overnight visits is unsustainable.
“We have to employ security guards to evict people from the wood after dark and then we have to break up camps and deal with the damage caused by fires or vandalism.
“As a charity we rely on donations. We shouldn’t have to dig into our much-needed funds to patrol the woods and clear up the mess left behind by irresponsible visitors.”
His concerns have been echoed by the village’s Neighbourhood Watch and the Parish Council, who fear that programmes such as Celebrity Haunted Hotel Live, which was filmed at nearby Elvey Farm Country Hotel last year, will leave a blight on the village.
Martin Chambers, Pluckley’s Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator, said: “In the past we’ve had ghost-hunters coming to the village and scaring themselves witless in the woods or in the churchyard.
“It’s not just at Halloween either, it tends to continue in the weeks running up to and following on from the night, with people shouting and screaming at two o’clock in the morning.
“Dormice, bats and badgers are all nocturnal animals which live at Dering. All have European Protected status, and all are at risk of being disturbed. We want to drive out the anti-social behaviour, not our wildlife.”
But if anyone persists in visiting Dering Wood at night, convinced they will hear the screams of the men and women said to have perished there, lost amid the trees, or the horse drawn coach reputed to haunt the area, they are likely to be disappointed.
“Dering has always attracted ghost hunters due to the noises that come out of the woods,” said Mr Steward. “But the screams they hear are nothing more than amorous foxes.”