Town guide: what to do, see and eat in Ashford
PUBLISHED: 10:31 15 January 2019
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
With high-speed rail links, a rejuvenated high street and £590m worth of investment in new developments, Ashford's expansion continues
The ancient market town of Ashford is ideally placed at the heart of our county, on the southern edge of the North Downs and only 15 miles from the coast. Probably best known today for its excellent rail links with London and Europe, from humble beginnings Ashford is fast becoming one of the biggest towns in the south east.
Well known as a market town since the 13th century, in 1856 local farmers and business owners formed the Ashford Cattle Market Company Ltd – thought to be the UK’s oldest-surviving registered company.
After the railway reached the town in the mid-1800s, it began to grow rapidly and continued to do so when the Channel Tunnel opened the rail link to Europe.
Now a modern and booming town, there are still plenty of examples of Ashford’s historic roots if you look for them. The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin is probably its oldest building, dating from the 13th century. In the 17th century a grammar school was founded in its grounds but later moved to a larger site. The original school building is now known as the Doctor Wilks Memorial Hall and is home to Ashford Borough Museum. Today, the town is proud of the £26m campus opened in 2017 by the Hadlow Group for Ashford College, and independents such as Ashford School and Spring Grove in Wye.
On Middle Row you’ll get a glimpse of how Ashford once looked. Previously known as the Butchers’ Shambles and lined with timber-framed buildings, it was the heart of the market area and has changed little in 500 years. Download a town-centre heritage trail online.
It points out spots like Bull Yard Passage, one of the original cattle droving routes to the market, and Queen Mother’s Park, where ‘The Martyr’s Seat’ commemorates the local people executed for heresy during the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary I.
In St George’s Square there’s the somewhat unexpected sight of a First World War tank with a canopy over it. Presented to the town in recognition of its fundraising efforts for the National War Savings appeal, it has now stood proudly in place for exactly 100 years.
Visit surrounding villages for more history. Eastwell Manor, now a Champneys hotel and spa, was built in the mid-1500s, but largely rebuilt in neo-Elizabethan style around 1800. For a time it was home to Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, and the Royal Family often visited.
And that’s not Eastwell’s only royal link. Its ruined church includes the grave of one Richard Plantagenet – thought to be the illegitimate son of Richard III.
Also close to Ashford is Godinton House. Now a popular visitor attraction with stunning gardens to explore, the Jacobean red brick manor house sits on the site of a medieval courtyard house and incorporates some of its original features.
But it’s impossible to talk about Ashford these days without mentioning the massive projects going on. The town is said to have a total of £590m worth of developments taking place, including the Commercial Quarter, Elwick Place, Ashford College, Chapel Down Group’s Curious Brewery (which will also have a bar, restaurant and gardens once completed), The Coachworks and Ashford Designer Outlet.
The first building to open as part of the Commercial Quarter development was Connect 38, in June 2018. The office block, designed by Canterbury’s Clague Architects, is the largest to be built in Kent for 20 years. Next to Ashford International Station, the building delivers 80,500sq ft of office, restaurant and retail space, with the creation of around 481 jobs. Connect 38 will be part of what will ultimately become a 600,000sq ft office and retail campus.
Meanwhile, Ashford Designer Outlet has been working on its £90m expansion. Due for completion in the autumn, it will add a further 100,000sq ft to the popular shopping centre. Along with 50 new luxury outlet stores, there will be a new food piazza, 725 additional parking spaces and a digitally enhanced play area for children.
You would be forgiven for thinking all this building is likely to make Ashford more congested with traffic, but there’s even a plan to tackle that. Work started last year on a new £104m junction on the
M20 for Ashford.
But it is Ashford’s reinvigorated high street that locals are most proud of. Identified in 2012 as having a flagging town centre, it was one of the towns involved in Mary Portas’ scheme to bring local businesses, community groups and residents to its rescue. As a ‘Portas Pilot’ town, Ashford Town Team was set up to harness the growing sense of community, and the loveashford.com website was launched – the UK’s first digital high street.
Independent shops have thrived in this new landscape, and start-ups have been given the time and space to flourish. Around 58 per cent of the town’s retailers are independents and vacancy rates have fallen to an historic low. A successful monthly Farmers’ Market was also introduced to bring a vibrant feel to the lower High Street, with its regular traders, entertainment and healthy crowds.
Footfall has increased across the town centre and one of the biggest success stories in its turnaround has been Park Mall. When the council bought the ailing shopping centre in June 2015, one third of the 33 units were empty. Today Park Mall is home to all sorts of independents.
Companies are expanding, too. Family run stove and fireplace shop Ablaze has just opened a showroom in Mersham-Le-Hatch, while on the Ashford Orbital Park, The Barn also has a new fireplace showroom.
Another initiative that has really taken off is Made In Ashford. When it opened in 2015 it signalled that quality independent shops would form the backbone of the revitalised Park Mall. It sees local independent start-ups come together as a collective to showcase their products in the shop on flexible tenancies. This gives them a real chance to test their business on the high street for longer and offers shoppers a unique craft and gift-buying experience.
Shopping and eating
In Ashford itself there are most of the usual big chain restaurants and some interesting independents. Try Italian restaurants Amici and Trattoria Romana, Indian restaurant Everest Inn, Po Thai, The Riverside Inn, Aji Japanese restaurant, The Little Teapot, Stag Coffee, Bauhaus Café (a community pop-up café run by an art collective) and By The Tank. There’s also a new micro bar and artisan eatery called Made Inn at the Old Music Shop.
In the surrounding villages look out for places including The Wife of Bath and The King’s Head in Wye, Footprints Café Bistro at Singleton Environment Centre, The Blue & White Café in Smeeth, Airport Café in Sellindge, The Bowl Inn in Charing, The Farrier’s Arms and The Secret Garden in Mersham, The Old Mill in Kennington, The Compasses Inn in Crundale, Frasers and The Barrow House, both in Egerton, and The Tiger Inn in Stowting.
Big-brand shoppers flock to Ashford Designer Outlet and County Square shopping centres. Head to Park Mall for the unique independents and the excellent Made In Ashford store. Ashford Farmers’ market takes place on the first Sunday of every month on the cobbles of the lower high street.
5 things to do in Ashford
• Victoria Park
The 17-acre park is Ashford’s largest and most central. The Hubert Fountain, made for the Second Great International Exhibition in 1862, is at one end, a memorial garden and riverside walk at the other. There are plans to improve the park, partly funded by the National Lottery.
• Create Festival
The annual Create Festival, one of the south east’s biggest free music festivals, is held each July in Victoria Park. With four stages and many great music acts, there are also food markets, outdoor theatre events and lots of family fun, www.createfestival.co.uk
• Conningbrook Lakes Country Park
Set in a former quarry, this 85-acre nature reserve is made up of a series of lakes and ponds, linked by paths. There is a lakeside housing development being built nearby at the moment, but it remains a great place for a family walk.
• Revelation St Mary’s
A music and arts venue set in Ashford’s historic St Mary’s Church and delivered by the St Mary’s Arts Trust, Revelation offers an up-close-and-personal experience with a range of events, from live music to theatre and comedy, www.revelationashford.co.uk
• Ashford Picturehouse
At the time of writing, the town’s new six-screen boutique cinema was due to open as part of the Elwick Place leisure scheme. The development’s restaurants are behind schedule but are planning to open later in the year, www.picturehouses.com