TEA AND SYMPATHY Volunteers protest against the oast’s closure on Sunday PHOTO: Derek Barr

THE Bough Beech Oast House visitors’ centre at Winkhurst Green near Ide Hill was forced to close its doors to the public on Sunday [December 17] after more than 30 years.

The iconic 19th-century Kentish oast, which remains in its original condition, complete with large barn, is rented by the Kent Wildlife Trust [KWT] and had previously been run by its West Kent branch.

KWT announced at the end of November that it intends to keep the site open as an education centre for organised groups and a base for its Forest School.

However, the decision means that it will close the shop – which offers -refreshments – and toilet facilities, to the consternation of the scores of volunteers who help out there.

The centre receives more than 13,000 visitors a year and takes over £27,000 in the shop. The KWT Manager who operated there has been relocated to Sevenoaks.

The centre offered a rich variety of activities for schools, local communities and tourists. The apple festival was particularly well-known and popular, with around 400 people attending.

There were also woodcraft days, musical performances, bat walks and star-gazing evenings for the general public, while seven footpaths around the vicinity begin at the oast house’s car park.

‘These volunteers have been working for years and are really upset. It came out of the blue and with very little notice’

It was a focal point for ornithologists, who observed the birds at the 285-acre reservoir nearby. Children were invited to go pond-dipping and explore nature trails, while there were also hop-picking themes.

This plethora of services and events were hosted by more than 80 volunteers.

Jenny Macpherson, Chair of the KWT’s West Kent Local Group, said: “We are so disappointed – the membership wasn’t consulted at all.

“These volunteers have been working for years and are really upset. It came out of the blue and with very little notice.”

She added: “People come here from London and Brighton, all over the place, because it’s unique, it’s in the countryside, there’s a warm welcome from the volunteers and it’s a hub of interest in wildlife.

“It’s not posh or flashy, there are no hot meals available here, but after a long walk you want a nice cup of tea.

“People come here to get away from all the pressure – they can escape from their tablets and mobile phones, and they bring their children to run in the meadow.”

KWT defended its decision to close the site to the public, saying: “The oast building lacks the potential that our other visitor centres have for enhancement and development.

“The size, state and nature of the building have an impact on maintenance and improvement and it is difficult to meet requirements for accessibility.

“Similarly, opportunities are limited at this site to improve our commercial and catering offer.

“We strive always to deliver a high-quality visitor experience and the oast, unfortunately, does not grant us the opportunity to do so.”