Ashford - Gateway to Europe? Well I guess that's not a bad tagline as it suggests that the town's main purpose is enabling people to get to somewhere better. Fortunately after 19 years of living there I did manage to get somewhere better; although I do return to Ashford several times a year to visit friends and family.
Ashford is a medium-sized Kentish town on the train line and motorway from London to Dover and the South Coast. It has an international station through which the Eurostar passes to London, France and Belgium. I've never really understood why anyone would want to get off at Ashford; although it is a convenience for those needing to go to the continent and not wanting to travel to London to do so. Transport in and around Ashford is a major issue: there are very limited spaces in the town centre although this is improving gradually. The ring-road around the centre was for a long time a boy-racer's paradise but the council have now stopped this with a two-way system which includes less traffic lights and signs. Although this was aimed at making the centre a little safer, it is definitely confusing for any visitors and any safety benefits were hilariously outweighed by the council's road-sharing system where pedestrians were encouraged to walk out in front of traffic! Apparently this was meant to make drivers more careful.
Shopping in Ashford has definitely improved over the last 10 years but still isn't particularly great. Next to the station is the Mcarthur Glen shopping centre which looks like a huge tent and is full of mostly uninspiring retail outlets. This place is just outside the town centre and much more easily accessible than the town centre. Its highlights include a Gap, M&S and Benetton with a food court and children play-area but most of the shops are not at the top-end of their respective brand categories. Ashford's centre itself is a little better with a Debenhams, HMV, H&M, Waterstones and TopShop as well as branches of most of the big banks. The real problem I have with Ashford shopping is it lacks anything to make it stand out. It doesn't have any really exclusive fashion shops or any quirky craft shops, 2nd hand bookshops, music shops or even alternative fashion shops. I guess what I'm getting at is that you could shop in any number of places with exactly the same choices on offer.
Eating in Ashford is limited to a few decent restaurants, a few bad ones and lots of chains. I've heard that Utopia on the bank street has really good reviews and atmosphere and Wednesday nights are very cheap as the chef tries out new recipes. The Harvester just outside the centre is pretty decent too but the real problem is the lack of variety. A mile outside the town centre is the cinema complex with a few more chains and a night club. For the best eating experience, try the pubs or restaurants in the local villages around Ashford. The New Flying Horse or Devil's kneading trough in nearby Wye are very good.
The nightlife has always been pretty average in Ashford. For years there was only one nightclub and this is still the main venue on Friday and Saturday nights. It is situated in an old mill and now comprises two venues: Liquid and Life Bar. These have done well to shake off their reputation as a haven for chavs and underage drinkers and offer a decent night out to clubbers. The M20 night club which is next to the cinema (and which may have changed its name) has been through various closures and revamps over the years. Both of these clubs offer a limited clubbing experience with a mixture of chart music, dance classics and cheese for the majority of nights. Anyone wanting a different kind of music would need to try Canterbury or hope one of the town's pubs has a decent band on.
If you're thinking of visiting Ashford then I'd really suggest somewhere else first: Canterbury or one of the nearby villages are much more interesting and friendly. Living in Ashford isn't such a bad proposition for adults: it has good links with London and is surrounded by pretty countryside and villages. It's well supplied by supermarkets and shops and has a bowling alley, cinema and is about to open a new and improved sports centre. The schools in the area include a private school as well as two selective grammar schools; although all the comprehensives in the area have been rated as at least good by Ofsted. Ashford has definitely improved over the last 15 years but it's still an unremarkable place with only the basic attractions to offer residents and visitors.
I have been to Ashford in Kent-the Gateway to Europe-on numerous occasions since it is the birthplace of my father. Usually he goes to watch Ashford Town at the Homelands and although I have been there twice,usually I wriggle out of having to watch soccer and go off and explore the town. Clearly Ashford is a fast expanding town and certainly possesses a good infracture including an Orbital road, a sparkling International rail station,a huge factory outlet known as McArthur Glen, a multiplex cinema,modern athletics stadium-the Julie Rose Stadium- numerous hotels and a number of industrial parks. The signage in the town is very good and it is easy to find your way to the main attractions. I visited the large Indoor Market and was very impressed. After that I drove to the outskirts of the town and saw the new cineplex which even shows Bollywood classics.The factory outlet is massive,very,very ,modern and I reserved its exploration for a future trip. I have spent a few afternoons shopping in the town centre and thought Ashford had quite a good shopping centre,although Canterbury is better. There are two one stop shopping malls called County Square and Park Mall;the former is considerably larger. They seemed to me to be fairly good but again I have seen better in Kent. There are several good book shops in town such as W.H. Smith and Geerings and the place also appears to be full of estate agents. I guess a lot of people are moving into the town in search of employment and I understand that Ashford has the lowest unemployment rate of any town in Kent. Architecturally the town is not that distinctive but I will give high marks to the railway station and the athletics stadium. The main church and Middle Row are also quite attractive. What does impress me about Ashford are its hotels. There is Ashford International which I think is a 4 star hotel and several excellent hotels in the Kennington area and the famed Eastwell
Manor. Just outside the town at Hothfield there is a Holiday Inn. The surrounding countryside is delightful. There are very picturesque villages such as Wye,Chilham, Bethersden, Aldington, Lympne, Brook and Westwell,all nearby and a bit further afield gems of small towns such as Biddenden and Tenderden. These places ooze prosperity and are well worth a day visit. Ashford economically is booming and is attracting more and more international companies to locate in the town. There is no doubt the place has a nigh perfect location close to the Channel Tunnel. For Ashford it seems location,location and location really does apply.
Ashford maintains a serious hold on my affections; nevermind that it's nothing like the town I grew up in from 1960 until I left for the big wide world in 1979. No other town I know has changed so much in the last 25 years. I still visit regularly as my parents live just outside in the ancestral seat (well, 4 generations of the family know it) and there always seems to be something new or something missing. As a boy in the '60s, I can remember going to town and walking down the broad High St (at 120' one of the widest in the country, built originally to accommodate the market, the oldest chartered company in the country) to have a cup of coffee with mum in Gizzi's. We'd probably been in Stranges, Lilley and Skinner or Lewis and Hyland for some school uniform for the new term. Then we'd walk back through the churchyard, stopping off at Rabson's, the toyshop in Middle Row on the way. We'd cross Tufton Street opposite the old police station and down Church Road ducking through the funny sculpture outside the new county library. Crossing over, we'd go down through the memorial gardens to the bus station where we'd catch either the 112 or 119 for the 15 minute trip back home. The bus would leave the station and turn right into Station Road. We'd cross over the railway bridge with the station on our left. In the background, the vast railway works around which Newtown sprung up. On the other side of the bridge the line went through the other railway works at Chart Leacon. Just as you left Ashford on the Kingsnorth Road, you could see the Stanhope housing estate going up on your right along with the new Duncan Bowen secondary school. These were for the Londoners coming down, an overspill estate. Ashford's first experiment of many. The town only really had two claims to fame, the railway works and the Intelligence Corps School Throughout the '70s, Ashford tried, rather unsucce
ssfully, to sell itself as the gateway to Europe. Indeed, that legend appeared on envelopes franked at the sorting office in Newtown Road throughout that period; a black dot struck through by an arrow from the NW to SE - a symbol of the hope engendered by the country's recent entry to into Europe and the building of the channel tunnel, later cancelled by the labour government. Firstly, the council decided the town needed a by-pass so the A20 was duly re-routed. Access into the town would now be from the Canterbury Road and a swathe of old houses and a distinctive pub, the Saracen's Head (or was it the Marlborough?) was demolished in order to connect Somerset Road, Canterbury Road and Station Road. This was the beginning of the end of old Ashford. Then the notorious ring road was built. This was to take through traffic away from the town centre, instead it served to isolated the town centre and meant that any new central development was going to have to be the subject of stringent planning enquiries as it would mean the destruction of architecturally sensitive buildings. Nevertheless, a massive new building went up, a provincial version of the Berlaymont in Brussels, home at the time of Charter Consolidated the international mining consortium. Another huge glass edifice had already gone up near the station but had remained empty for years, housing only the DHSS on the ground floor. (This would soon be the busiest office in the town) A new sports centre, The Stour Centre, was built, alongside the new civic offices, in Tannery Lane. The fact that these were built on the flood plain of the River Stour seemed indicative of the ineptitude of the town's planners. It seemed Ashford would never take advantage of its position. Finally, the go ahead for the new Channel Tunnel was given and Ashford lobbied hard and ultimately successfully for an international railhead to be built there. Ashford was by now in dire need of an injection
of hope. The railway works had gone, the vision of a huge Disneyland type theme park to the SE had also gone. The town centre was dying, unable to attract any significant new businesses. There wasn't even a big name department store in the newish but steadily deteriorating Tufton Centre. If this didn't come off, even the last remaining cinema ("The Cinema") would be lost as it was to be demolished to make way for a car park for the award winning international station. (Doubly tragic as this is where the wife and I spent many happy hours when we first met). At about the same time, the final section of the M20 was finished, this now linked London and the channel ports. The south-east of the town is now ringed by the outer ring road connecting the A2070, the main road down to Romney Marsh and Dungeness with the motorway. Along this ring road are the ubiquitous car dealerships that always seem to spring up in these locations, the DIY superstores, the white goods warehouses and also the new market. New business has been attracted to the area with a lot of French companies moving in. In fact, Ashford is fostering ever greater links with France. There is a French market every week and an ever increasing French population. The ring road is also home to the well publicised Macarthur Glen factory outlet. This is a collection of factory shops brought together in a teardrop shaped complex with a tented roof a la the Mound Stand at Lords with a giant car park in the middle. It was designed by Lord Rogers and is said to have more 'under canvas' than the Dome although I find this hard to believe as the shops themselves are not much bigger than kiosks. It is very impressive to see by night as you drive past but I think Rogers might have lost the plot rather. If I want to go to an out of town shopping centre, I want to be inside and not subject to the elements. Anyway, Bluewater is only 40 minutes away. To the north-east i
s the new Julie Rose athletics stadium, built after many years' struggle trying to convince the borough that such a facility was needed and much hard work fundraising. This is a small but world class track and has already hosted a couple of B internationals. Nearby is the new Cineworld multiplex and leisure complex although I do wish the cinema would go back to the centre.(The nightspots can stay out in the wilderness for all I care). The old bus station in the town is now a bowling alley, a vision in purple neon. If you're into supermarkets, you couldn't wish for a better place. 2 Sainsburys, 3 Tescos, a Lidl, an Asda and quite possibly many more that I've not noticed. There are also many hotels in and around the town - good as Ashford is a supremely placed tourist base; an hour from London, 3 from Paris and loads of attractions within an hours' drive. There used to be about 60 pubs but these seem to be thinning out, especially in the town centre. The town centre is actually a little gem. If you look up at the buildings and not the shopfronts you'll be met with an unusual but entertaining mixture of late medieval (the church) Tudor and Jacobean (the churchyard and Middle Row) and English provincial with some Georgian chucked in (upper High Street). There are some interesting thirties deco pastiches also. Sadly a lot of the more rustic buildings I remember around the back of North Street and Boots are long gone although bits do still remain. I think I've waffled on for far too long but one thing remains to be said. Ashford was a town with immense promise. Lack of co-ordination between government (a designated overspill town), the council, planners and developers served to wrench the heart and character out of it. It is ever spreading and threatens to engulf the villages of Kingsnorth and Shadoxhurst to the south and Great Chart to the north-west. It is becoming nothing but a formula provincial town with fa
cilities such as the multiplex and the chain pubs that you can see anywhere. Award winning architecture won't bring the soul of the town back but there is hope that its new found situation can help it develop a new character without it destroying the surrounding area. I almost forgot - famous Ashfordians include Sir Malcom Sargent (born in Beaver Road but just passing through), Kent and England cricketer Mark Ealham (and his dad, Alan who subbed for England once or twice), Roger Dean (he of the Yes album covers) and the stupendously legendary "I'll have a P please, Bob" Holness. The last 2 both ex-Ashford Grammar, as am I.