Ashford in the farming heart of Kent was a place we had always tried to avoid. It was one of those towns that had a reputation for being dull, boring and not at all worth a visit, unless you were going there to catch a train, or maybe go to the shopping centre (the one you can see from the M20 travelling to Folkstone and the tunnel) but not a day out.
This biased opinion is now comfortably put to rest.
The problem was our perception of the parking situation, how to get there and once there what to see. We knew there was a church, and there was a lot of shops in the centre, but what we not prepared for was the layout, the old town and the pleasant pedestrianised areas. We were not surprised by the cost of parking which was high as is most town centres today, but we bit the bullet and forked up with the readies.
The town centre took us by surprise. It was busy, noisy on the outer fringes but easy to walk around and where the new development was begun pleasant to look at although you have to think past post modern to appreciate it. I liked the idea of the shared pedestrian motor vehicle areas and found most drivers respected the combination. The town looks clean and functional in part and yet when walking around the town centre within the ring of roads it was pleasant mess of streets and turnings that retained the old world
character of the place.
Best experience had to be the walk around the square of St Mary the Virgin with the impressive church in the centre. Pleasant, quiet walkways with trees and bluebells in the shade, a museum and little alleyways leading off. One of these we took to find Chilli Bites, a little cafe where we had a modest but delicious lunch. The cafe backs on to the church square and it is a pleasant place to eat – nice people too.
Worst experience was the blight of many towns today. A group of scruffy drinkers in the pristine park, a man who was sitting not far from the police station, and the magnificent council offices who offered to be pictured with his trousers off. We urged him to keep them on. And of course the empty shops.
On the last note, there were not that many empty places and the town was busy with shoppers, pub patrons who sat in the sun, and cafes doing good business.
However, after a mission completed to find toilets – the ones in the main shopping complex are excellent – we set off to wander, doing a willy-nilly walk that led us pat the WW1 tank that was privy to the company of three agile girls and covered by a strong roof, and from there to the shared area on the ring road.
We walked past the Debenhams’ building to cross the railway and on to Victoria park where there is a magnificent fountain and the river Stour. Surprise, despite the old industrial site, the gas storage tank and the railway, the park was pleasant and seemed to hide the noise of the town traffic in part.
From there we followed the river to where the Ashford International Railway Station sits flashily straddling the track and successfully hiding up the scruffy normal station. Gone are the railway workshops and servicing depots that in the days of steam produced many excellent tradesmen, and there is now empty space to use. Perhaps Ashford can afford eventually to turn some of the waste land into park and multi-use retail and dwelling with some extra parking or even public transport areas. The area is crying out for beautification. Some modern fountains perhaps? They have a good one in the shopping centre.
A further comment on the waste land area would be to plan for trees as well, of there are places we saw close to the town that needed trees. But a comment we both made was that from the town centre, as we walked around how deceptively high we were and what grand views there are of the North Downs and the country surrounding the town.
We took a walk to Barrow Hill and saw some pretty cottages built for the military, we must not forget that Ashford was not just a market town but also had a military history. From there we wandered around the streets in the suburbs discovering the newer houses close to town and finally returning via the main feeder road from the M20 to the A28 through road to the centre where we came in.
Passing along the road toward the centre, including the impressive chapel house at the cemetery, we agreed that the walk around Ashford was worth it. What capped it off was the pleasant seen of the old lady dozing in the sun outside her front door.
It was another visit to the excellent loo and then home. We found the way out quite easily imagining otherwise wandering around in confused circles to end up on the coast.
We had expected rain but although it was a bit chilly now and then there was no rain, and on the journey there and back we remarked on the vibrant colours of the countryside, the excessively bright, deep yellow of the rape, the deep green of wheat, the freshness of the trees and hedges and the wonderful scent of the Hawthorn, and the wild parsley as we travelled steadily using the A251 to get there and the A20 and the Hollingbourne road to return.
In all we liked our visit to Ashford.