A rummage through the bushes.
When I was growing up in rural Kent, one persistent rumour that dominated the school gossip network was that one kid’s mum would organise an orgy in an ancient woodland just off the M25 after every parents’ evening. Heavy stuff, but par for the course for playground banter.
I never knew who the boy in question was. Nevertheless, its location did always stick out to me. The orgy was said to take place in Farningham Wood Nature Reserve, around a 20 minute walk from my childhood home. The reserve is one of the very few places of open green space in Swanley – an otherwise drab and grey town, centred around a derelict high street held together by two betting shops and a Turkish barbers. The reserve, while small, has a unique soil composition that makes it home to a rare assemblage of flora and fauna, notably the Deptford pink wildflower and the small-leaved lime tree. As a result, it is classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest – one that draws in hundreds of nature enthusiasts and amateur botanists every year. But I hadn’t thought about those schoolyard rumours until recently.
For like so many, I was pulled back home to Kent by the ructions of the pandemic, and found myself trapped in one of those inexorable Zoom quizzes, when the old rumour about Farningham Wood re-emerged.
‘It still goes on there!’ insisted my friend Alex, who recalled coming across three dildos and an empty bottle of lube while walking his dog one Sunday afternoon. Though having had a tendency to over-exaggerate in his youth – particularly when it came to how many girls he’d gotten off with at under-18 clubs – most in our group were prone to believing him. After all, Kent has long had a reputation for being a prime location for ‘dogging’, the not-so-graceful term associated with having or watching people have sex in public. The county markets itself as the Garden of England, whispering that Blighty of old: sleepy, quiet villages marked by Victorian country pubs, winding country roads and acres of pristine farmland. For the UK’s dogging community, it is precisely these features that make Kent so lucrative. Its seclusion, lack of public transport and coterie of unused farms – alongside its numerous connections to the country’s major motorways – make it an ideal place to have an outdoor sex party.
I was curious about Alex’s assertions, and the boldness with which he made them. So the following week, I used my allotted daily mental health walk to visit Farningham Wood in search of more clues. To get there required traipsing through an array of narrow country roads, nearly getting clipped by speeding cars. Next, I passed by a row of quaint, thatched cottages, and finally slipped through an industrial park purposed for tractor and combine harvester maintenance.
It was there I came across the first set of open condom wrappers, nestled in a pile of McDonald’s burger wrappers, cigarette butts and empty canisters of nitrous oxide. A fairly unremarkable scene considering this was suburban England, so I decided to venture deeper. I stared deeply into every thorny bush, checked behind every tree in sight. My hands were stung by nettles as I carefully separated weeds, in the hope I’d find any remnant of Kubrickian theatre masks or cheaply produced leather lingerie – admittedly, the only things I could associate with dogging. Two hours later – and conscious that my neighbour could be about to call the police for breaking COVID guidelines – I began walking back, accepting that I had once again been taken in by Alex’s bullshit.
That was, until this summer, as I spooled out an August evening on the internet, where I came across a bizarre post on my Nextdoor page. A user was complaining: they had taken their family to Farningham Wood to go star-gazing, only to accidentally stumble across an orgy. The comments under the post were a mix of moralistic disdain (‘disgraceful!’ and ‘no wonder nobody respects the English’) and less-than-subtle requests to find out more information about where these orgies take place – and how regularly they took place. It seemed Alex was right. I scrolled further, hardly believing what I was reading.
It was a hyperlink posted near the bottom of the thread that led me to a locked Facebook group. After months of lurking and sending unanswered interview requests, I finally had a stroke of luck: a pair of doggers agreed to speak with me.
I met Harry and Eva at a Costa Coffee on Dartford high street. Both in their early sixties, they have been married for close to 40 years and have two children, both in their twenties. They grew up near each other in north-west Kent, and are active in their local communities. They volunteer at bake sales and partake in local litter picks. And they have also been semi-regulars in Kent’s dogging scene since the aughts, and confirmed that they had gone to Farningham Wood a couple of times.
‘We’d been looking for something different that could make us feel excited,’ Harry tells me, while looking at Eva, slim, with curly brown hair and wearing a wool-knit jumper underneath a bright purple raincoat. ‘Obviously, we tried things most married couples do when they hit a dead end – I don’t want to go into the details of course – and none of it worked. We had started to wonder whether we would have to accept not having sex anymore.’
It was through one of Harry’s friends that he got the idea of trying out voyeurism. ‘Back then you didn’t have Facebook, it was all word of mouth!’ Harry laughs, recalling the stories he’d heard of orgies in the back of vans and early-morning ‘parking lot parties’, organised through a clandestine network of doggers over emails and text messages. Harry wasn’t sure how much of it was true, of course. But he was intrigued when a former work colleague had told him that most people came as couples to watch – and that for some attendees, going to these events had re-sparked their sex lives again.
Harry and Eva, who in her words, ‘needed some convincing’ but ‘had always been quite open minded’, went to their first dogging site – an abandoned and poorly maintained public park in Gravesend – one evening in the summer of 2006. ‘It felt more like an outdoor party than anything else,’ Eva remembers. ‘Spent most of our time socialising, drinking and smoking… I don’t remember much else, other than that there were two couples who invited the rest of the group to watch. It was quite exciting!’
In the years that they have visited dogging sites, Harry and Eva have always been, in their words, ‘polite watchers’. They don’t get too close to the couples shagging, and certainly don’t touch them. Believing that intimacy – even in public – should still be a somewhat private affair, they have never photographed or recorded others having sex – an issue which Harry believes has divided Kent’s dogging community.
‘Not that long ago, if people wanted to film themselves having sex to put on the internet, everyone in the group would know that someone with a camera would be there,’ Harry says. ‘Now that everyone’s got a camera on their phone, people don’t even ask permission to video anymore – they just go and do it.’ The impulse to film has meant some people leaving the group, fearful that they may be identified via public porn sites. For Harry and Eva, the ubiquity of smartphones has made the voyeuristic experience less pleasant – not least because in already confined spaces, their views are often obstructed by overly-bright smart phones trying to get the best view. ‘If I wanted to see the video afterwards, we could see all that on the internet already!’ Harry laughs.
It’s not just wannabe porn directors that have made nights out at dogging sites less fun either. According to Harry and Eva, dogging in Kent has become more difficult for logistical reasons. A combination of unusable farmland being developed into residential property means that many noted dogging sites are either closed off by construction companies, or no longer provide adequate cover. Meanwhile, expanded road projects by Kent County Council – designed to ease traffic flows from freight and lorries looking for easier routes to and from Dover – mean that once secluded woodlands and country roads aren’t as private as they used to be.
These days, Harry and Eva go to dogging spots a few times a year at most. Though it has less impact on their sex lives, they cite the hobby as one that offered a unique social experience, where they made valuable long-term friendships, and in online groups, had a useful network of contacts they could tap into if they ever needed a handyman or a mechanic. Beyond that, they value it as a truly egalitarian space – one where, in seeing people at their most vulnerable, ‘there was no judgement, it didn’t matter who you were, your background or how much money you had.’
Of course, a touching note to end on. But before I left them, I did have one more question to ask them, one that I hoped would put the decades-old rumour to bed. Did any of these parties ever happen after a parents’ evening?
‘Not that I know of,’ Harry says. ‘It was usually quite difficult to arrange it on weekdays.’