Spotlight on Ashford

Ashford Designer Outlet

Ashford Designer Outlet - Credit: Archant

With fabulous discount shopping at the expanding Designer Outlet and superb transport links (London is 37 minutes by high-speed train), Ashford is the place to head for your January bargains laced with a dash of history

Ashford is well-known for its international rail links and has been called the ‘gateway to Europe’ - yet for a lot of us it is a place to pass through rather than visit itself. Unless you’re shopping for bargains, that is.

Almost as famous now for its Ashford Designer Outlet, a huge shopping centre with more than 120 brands sold at discounted prices, the town is also a mecca for shoppers seeking a bargain.

Between 1981 and 2006 Ashford was the fastest growing town in the south east, growing by 28 per cent. But with thousands of new homes, and another 5,700 planned over the next 20 years, the town has had to work hard to keep up with its expansion.

Now the town centre is also going through a renaissance. Retail royalty Mary Portas has been involved in the creation of a new team tasked with keeping the town centre looking its best and launching new and innovative projects, including a monthly Farmers’ Market.

And for a modern and booming area Ashford still retains a historic town centre, with ancient buildings, quaint pedestrian alleyways known as Middle Row and the 13th-century St Mary’s Church at its heart.

There is even a town jail, while nearby an attractive fountain commemorates Ashford’s history as a railway town and a First World War tank remembers its involvement in the conflict.

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Ashford Borough Museum (TN23 1QG, 01233 631511), which is housed in a 17th-century listed building, strives to preserve the town’s heritage.

Situated as it is in the middle of the county, there are also plenty of things to do in the beautiful ‘Darling Buds of May’ countryside surrounding the town.

Godinton House (TN23 3BP, 01233 643854) is a delightful Jacobean country home with 12 acres of gardens set close to the centre of Ashford.

And Eastwell Manor, in Boughton Lees, is a country mansion converted to a high-end hotel (TN25 4HR, 01233 213000) with stunning grounds to explore and a renowned formal restaurant.

Nearby Woodchurch has a treat in store for families with young children. The Rare Breeds Centre (TN26 3RJ, 01233 861493) makes a fun day out with plenty of farms animals to pat and tractors to ride.

Shopping and eating

The town centre has two large shopping malls, County Square and Park Mall, both offering many of the usual chains, including M&S, Boots, BHS, Next, River Island and H&M. But if it’s a designer bargain you’re after, there are hundreds to be had at the Ashford Designer Outlet centre, just on the outskirts of the town (TN24 0SD, 01233 895900). See fact file below for the latest expansion news.

There is also now a thriving monthly Farmers’ Market on the Lower High Street held on the first Sunday of the month.

Another piece of Ashford’s development and expansion puzzle is falling into place with the creation of a new country park at Conningbrook Lakes (above) planned for Spring 2015. The picturesque 34 hectare park – which involves sensitively restoring an area of former gravel workings – will provide a fabulous new family and sports amenity to enhance leisure provision for Kent’s fast-expanding international town.

When it comes to dining, there are many of the usual chain restaurants to be found in the centre of Ashford. But independents feature too – including the family-run Amici Italian (01233 666945) and The Press Room Bistro (01233 624276). Indian food is represented at Bombay Street (01233 634116) and Little Raj (01233 626373) and for something a little more quirky, there’s the Riverview Diner (01233 878141) at Bybrook Barn Garden Centre, where you can order a stack of pancakes, a burger and a shake in a genuine 1950’s diner.

The surrounding villages offer several great pub restaurants, including The Black Horse (01303 812182) in nearby Monks Horton and The Flying Horse (01233 620914) at Boughton Aluph, one of the finalists in the 2014 Kent Life and Kent on Sunday Food & Drink Awards.

My Town

Melissa Dawkins from Aye Aye Boutique

How long have you lived in Ashford?

I’ve lived in Ashford for nearly three years, the community is my favourite thing and I’ve made lots of friends in a relatively short space of time who have encouraged and supported me. I also like the cultural diversity, transport links and architecture.

Tell us about your business.

My business is called Aye Aye and I create hand-made ladies’ and children’s clothing and matching gifts in a mixture of vintage and modern fabrics with a retro flare.

My business was created here in Ashford and very much nurtured by it. I started selling a few things I had made at the Emporia Vintage and Craft market in town a year ago and with the success of that I then went on to be part of PopUp Ashford.

What are your favourite shops?

I love Emporia Fabric and Craft (07958 232199). It has an abundance of beautiful modern and vintage fabrics, haberdashery, creative workshops and local craft.

I love going into Cross’s art and craft shop (01233 635684), an Aladdin’s cave of creative splendour. And Elegance Lingerie (01233 643818) is a fantastic independent underwear boutique where you get a brilliant service and great advice.

Your favourite places to eat?

The Trattoria Romana (01233 638033) is my favourite place, it’s always busy and has a warm, friendly atmosphere. The food is traditional Italian and beautifully cooked.

Singleton Environmental Centre (01233 666519) is a lovely eco centre you can walk around – and the food is amazing.

Your favourite walks locally?

I love going to Hothfield Common where there are highland cattle and wild horses.

Closer to home Victoria Park is a large area with a beautiful fountain and play areas for children of all ages. n

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