What to do, see and eat in Ashford
PUBLISHED: 10:08 04 February 2020
Gerardo Jaconelli 2018
With its international rail station and increasing appeal as a business hub, Ashford is fast becoming one of the south-east’s largest and most vibrant towns
Today it's one of our county's most rapidly expanding and modern towns, but the ancient market town of Ashford has plenty of history to uncover.
Granted its market charter in the 13th century, it went through a period of rapid expansion in the 1800s when the railway reached the town. Similarly, it's been going through more growth since the Channel Tunnel opened.
For a real taste of its past, head to Middle Row, lined with original timber-framed buildings. Formerly called the Butchers' Shambles, it was the heart of the town's market area and has been preserved for the past 500 years.
Elsewhere, Ashford's oldest building is thought to be the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, dating from the 1200s.
Look further into the area's past at Ashford Borough Museum. This small but perfectly formed local museum is set in the former grammar school building founded in the grounds of St Mary's in the 17th century. And there are plenty of other spots to look out for too; you can download a heritage trail from ashfordsheritage.uk.
The town's wartime history is remembered thanks to its First World War tank monument. Set in St George's Square for the last 100 years, the tank was originally gifted in recognition of the area's splendid response to the National War Savings appeal in 1919.
Last August saw the celebration of its centenary with a host of special events held beside the Mark IV tank.
There are several attractions in the area. Lovers of historic houses will want to seek out the nearby Godinton House, with its stunning gardens, while those seeking outdoor adventures can head to Conningbrook Lakes Country Park.
The former gravel pit site just outside Ashford has been running with temporary facilities since it was opened in 2014, but a new masterplan for the country park was recently revealed.
The future improvements will include a children's play area, public art, and car parking, and will be funded by the new housing development being built on land adjacent to it.
The town is also lucky enough to have an unbroken green space through its centre; a series of parks and open land along the banks of the River Stour.
Its main green space is the 17-acre Victoria Park. There are exciting plans for that too, thanks to funding of more than £3million from the National Heritage Lottery. The plans include a new children's play area, improvements to the river, improved lighting and a new community hub with café. The iconic Grade II-Listed Hubert Fountain and the surrounding piazza area will also be restored.
Other attractions include the thriving music and arts venue set within the historic St Mary's Church. Known as Revelation St Mary's, the centre puts on all sorts of live music, drama and comedy events.
The town also has an exciting new six-screen boutique cinema, the Picturehouse Cinema, as part of the new Elwick Place leisure scheme. And the new Curious Brewery in Victoria Road (Winner of the 2019 Kent Life Newcomer of the Year Award) is much more than a state-of-the-art brewing facility, with its fabulous restaurant, bar and tours of its architect-designed 'cathedral of brewing'.
Part of Ashford's appeal is that it has been recognised as a successful hub for social enterprises. There are a wide range of social enterprises in the borough, covering small craft businesses, environmental organisations, multi-million pound healthcare businesses, and many more. There's a particular focus on small, independent businesses in the town centre, and they receive great support both from the local council and their customers.
There's a dizzying amount of development in Ashford at the moment. For a start, its newest business park, Carlton Road Business Park, has recently opened, offering 47,000 sq ft of space across 28 warehouses and industrial units.
Meanwhile, the latest addition to Ashford's burgeoning food and drink scene has been opening in phases, with a decked open-air yard the first section to welcome visitors. Located in Dover Place, around the corner from the international station, The Coachworks provides a business start-up centre, an exciting indoor food and drink hub, and flexible events spaces.
And restaurants and retailers have been moving into another of Ashford's new complexes - Elwick Place. Independent food and drink specialist Macknade led the way with its trendy new restaurant, bar and deli, closely followed by the UK's first Dansaki Afro-Caribbean restaurant, and Snap Fitness. The openings have created a real buzz in the development, which is anchored by the Picturehouse Cinema and a Travelodge hotel.
The ever-popular McArthurGlen Ashford Designer Outlet has also benefited from a massive £90million expansion. A new food piazza includes a Yo! Sushi and a Five Guys, and there's a new digitally enhanced children's play area. There's also a new entry promenade, which features what is said to be Europe's largest living wall - tens of thousands of plants stacked vertically. Brands such as Dr Marten's, Dune and Armani have joined existing residents like Cath Kidston and Hugo Boss.
The latest major planning application in the town comes in the form of an ambitious film and TV studio scheme - including plans for Ashford's tallest building.
Quinn Estates recently applied to turn the old Newtown railway works site into a huge new complex featuring four studios, a 120-bedroom hotel and 303 apartments in the derelict engine sheds. Entertainment giants including Netflix, Amazon and HBO could take on the studios.
The annual Create Festival is held each July in Victoria Park, and is one of the south east's biggest free music festivals. Last year saw 13,000 visitors enjoy a host of attractions, including headline act The Lightning Seeds. With four stages and dozens of great music acts, there are also food markets, outdoor theatre events and family entertainment. 2020 will see the festival's 25th anniversary.
Shopping and eating
Ashford Designer Outlet is the big shopping attraction here, seeing an estimated 3.6 million shoppers hunting for bargains each year. But head into the town centre and you'll find County Square shopping centre too - with brands such as Next, H&M, Oasis and River Island.
If you're looking for some of Ashford's booming independent businesses, then look no further than Park Mall shopping centre. Headed up by the charming Made in Ashford store, a place for around 30 local craftspeople to offer their products under one roof, there is everything from Emporia Fabric & Craft and Jane's Boutique to The Record Store and The Little Teapot tea room. Look out for The Beehive in North Street - an excellent community second hand clothes store and café - and the new One You health and wellbeing centre in Park Mall.
There are many of the usual chain restaurants to dine out in, but also a fair number of interesting independents. Look out for local favourites including Amici, Trattoria Romana, Everest Inn and Po Thai.
In the surrounding villages try out The Compasses Inn in Crundale, The Tiger Inn in Stowting, The King's Head and The Wife of Bath both in Wye and Footprints Café Bistro at the Singleton Environment Centre.
Ashford is centrally located, on the southern edge of the North Downs and not far from the coast. One of Kent's best-connected towns in terms of travel, it's home to the busy Ashford International Station, with access across the Channel. By train it's just a 38-minute trip into London; by car it's easily accessible off the M20.
Ashford is surprisingly affordable, considering its commuter links. Expect prices to start at around £90,000 for a one-bed flat, with two-bed houses starting at £160,000. Three-bed semi-detached houses are priced between £190,000 and £450,000. Large detached properties in the surrounding villages are priced up to £1.35m