Spotlight on Maidstone

With a bigger shopping centre than Bluewater, a beautiful river and the most sensational castle in the country on its doorstep, it's no wonder that Kent can be proud of its county town

Spotlight on Maidstone

With a bigger shopping centre than Bluewater, a beautiful river and the most sensational castle in the country on its doorstep, it’s no wonder that Kent can be proud of its county town

Maidstone combines tremendous modern facilities with unparalleled architecture and history: All Saints church dates back to the 14th century, as does the Archbishop’s Palace, there are timber-framed buildings in Lower Stone Street, Gabriel’s Hill has the oldest shoe shop in England and the museum boasts not only the largest collection of Japanese art in the country but also a 2,000-year-old Egyptian Mummy.

The ‘modern’ part of town has state-of-the-art shopping centres with all the High Street names represented, a fine theatre and exquisite architecture, while the grand river Medway and its beautiful riverside areas nestle comfortingly along the town’s edge. What’s more, the town is surrounded by wonderful countryside and villages.

GETTING AROUND

The oldest, central, part of town is bordered at the top by Fremlin Walk Shopping Centre and to the west by The Mall shopping emporium, with the river Medway beyond the curving main road that encloses the town centre; there are plenty of car parks.

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The heart of town comprises the High Street, top and bottom section, joined by Bank Street, where you’ll find the excellent Visitors Information Centre. Between this central artery and Fremlin Walk lie Pudding Lane, Market Buildings and Rose Yard, beyond which is Earl Street: the High Street is fairly steep, particularly at its bottom end. There is a shopmobility electric scooter/manual wheelchair loan scheme for the two main shopping centres, with lifts to all floors.

Maidstone is planning a new layout for the High Street, which include plans for Ramsgate-based artist Chris Tipping to produce a series of fascinating paving designs that cleverly evoke the area’s colourful history.

TOWN ATTRACTIONS

Visitor Information Centre (01622 602169) in the original town hall building.

Maidstone museum and Bentliff Art Gallery (01622 602838). Housed in the magnificent Elizabethan building that was Chillington Manor, it has the largest assembly of fine and applied arts in Kent, an Egyptian Mummy and collection of Japanese art. Hazlitt Theatre (01622 758611) Offering a vast and varied programme throughout the year; included amongst the daily shows in February are: Ruby Wax (5th), Gyles Brandreth (6th) T-Rextracy (19th) and Danny the Champion of the World, by the Hazlitt Youth Theatre (21 – 26th). Maidstone Leisure Centre (0845 155 2277) Among the best equipped such centres in the south east. Bank Street with its original medieval street layout: many of the shop buildings date from the 1400s to the 1600s. Above the post office are four life-sized white statues of local dignitaries, set into niches. Tyrwhitt Drake Carriage museum (01622 602838), a unique collection of horse-drawn vehicles (open summer only). All Saints church – see My Town. Archbishop’s Palace, now used as a civic building, but open to the public during Heritage Open days in September. Parks: Maidstone Millennium River Park, More Park and Whatman Park.

NEARBY

Leeds Castle (0870 600 8880) Fairy-tale castle set in 500 acres of parkland, with tapestries, paintings, antiques and special events.

Museum of Kent Life (01622 763936) a living farm, re-enacting agricultural practices of Victorian era, with Britain’s last working Oast house. The Friars (01622 717272) Restored set of medieval buildings surrounded by riverside gardens at nearby Aylesford, the site of England’s first Carmelite Priory (see Village Watch).

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

There’s a vast range of excellent restaurants, among which are: The White Horse (01622 738365) at nearby Bearsted, with 16th-century surroundings and offering a variety of English and European dishes and an excellent wine list. The Lime Tree on the Square (01622 859509) is an oak-beamed structure dating back to the 1300s, providing creative European cuisine and a superb wine list.

The Garden Restaurant and Bar at Best Western Russell Hotel (01622 692221) overlooks landscaped gardens and raised sun terraces and offers fine international cuisine. Tremendous pubs include The Flower Pot (01622 757705), awarded 2009 and 2010 CAMRA Maidstone and Mid-Kent Pub-of-the-year for their terrific range of real ales. And Style and Winch (01622 752351) is a friendly traditional hostelry, with a splendid beer garden.

WHERE TO SHOP

The two key shopping centres are Fremlin Walk and the Mall, which host all the main High Street names and have excellent parking facilities and shopmobility (01622 678777) schemes for the disabled. Just off the High street is Royal Star Arcade, featuring predominantly fashion outlets and The Market Building and Corn Exchange which has mainly caf�s and specialist shops. You’ll find plenty of independent traders in Bank Street and Gabriel’s Hill. The Lockmeadow Centre has a multiplex cinema, bowling alley, nightclubs and restaurants.

Fremlin Walk stores tend to specialise in fashion outlets, with 45 stores, restaurants and coffee shops, including Pink Flamingo, Next, Jane Norman, Wallis and Faith, and they subscribe to the Disabled go website (disabledgo.com), offering practical logistical information for the disabled. The Mall has around 60 shops on different floors.

VILLAGE WATCH

Coxheath

Small village based around a single road with few local shops and pubs. It came into existence in the late 17th century to service the needs of thousands of garrisoned solders. To the north are the outskirts of Maidstone, with farmland to the south. Coxheath is twinned with La Seguiniere in France, and was the birthplace of the World Custard Pie Throwing Championships.

Aylesford

This river settlement has some extremely old buildings, including the Chequers Inn and the George House plus some almshouses. Notable for a beautiful bridge (1390), great views of the river and the church. There are Stonehenge-type Neolithic burial chambers: Kit’s Coty House and little Kit’s Coty House. Nearby is The Friars, originally a Carmelite Monastery, with a book and gift shop, tea rooms and pottery.  

East Malling and Larkfield

These two villages form the above parish, and Larkfield’s name referred to the many skylarks in its fields. Set in a hop- and fruit-growing area. East Mailing’s church is St James the Great, and in Larkfield there’s Holy Trinity and a Methodist place of worship. Of the two villages, Larkfield is the more modern, with expanding housing estates. Two fine pubs in East Malling that are listed in the 2009 Good Beer Guide, are The King and Queen and the Rising Sun.

Loose

Pronounced ‘Lose’ this picturesque village is situated at the head of a valley of that name. It straddles the river Loose that runs through it, and has at its centre a stretch of beautiful serpentine causeway across the water, which is overlooked by All Saints church. Its two pubs are The Chequers, in the valley by the river, and The Walnut Tree on the main road.

Ditton

Its name means ‘Village on the Dyke’ – the eponymous dyke resulting from the Bradbourne Stream that passes through the settlement. Ditton is a long narrow village, bisected by the A20, and has a 15th-century church and is within a Conservation Area. It hosts the World Custard Pie Throwing Championships, and inaugurated the first ever ‘Duck Warning’ Sign, alerting drivers to the presence of road-crossing ducks. There’s a public nature reserve at Ditton Court Quarry.

Allington

This is a modern village, an overspill of Maidstone, with the Mid-Kent Shopping Centre at its heart. 11th-century Allington Castle was destroyed and successively rebuilt until it was restored in 1951, and although now in private hands, is a beautiful feature on the skyline, on the bank of the Medway.

TRADERS TALKING

Edward Martin belongs to the seventh generation of owners of The Golden Boot (01622 752349), the oldest shoe shop in the country, which was begun by his great-great-great grandmother in 1790 (above its premises in Gabriel Hill is a huge model of a Golden Boot.) “People come to us from all over the country because of our huge stock, and our service – we really know what we’re doing,” explains Edward. “For instance for men’s shoes our ‘entry’ price is the Clarks range at �49.99 going up to �400 Church hand-mades – we sell the exclusive Barkers, Loakes, Church and Jeffrey West brands. Regarding the town, logistically the traffic system isn’t well thought through. Ideally I’d like the system where the buses come in at the top of Gabriel’s Hill re-routed.”

Pam Drummond has run Buy the Book (01622 769763) for two years, and she has lived in Maidstone all her life. “In addition to a huge range of books, practically all of which are 60 per cent discounted, we sell pencils, cards, toys, and all manner of gifts and giftware,” she says. “You’re unlikely to find books cheaper anywhere else and our staff are particularly helpful and friendly, so we’ll go to great lengths to find whatever you want. Would I change anything about the town?  No. It’s fine as it is.”

Mr Huggins took over Newnham Court Craft Shop (01622 630886) in the Newnham Court Shopping Village, three-and a half years ago, but the shop had been established for 15 years. “We’re an Aladdin’s cave in the heart of Kent specialising in home crafts,” he says. “We’re independent, specialising in extra customer service, which you don’t get in the big shops, we sell everything connected with needlecrafts, papercrafts, beading and even dolls houses and everything else associated with home crafts. There are a lot of artistic people in the area. I really can’t think of anything I’d change about the town.”

CONSIDERING A MOVE?

There are plenty of good schools and property prices are reasonable when compared with London and the South East generally, with one-bedroom and two-bedroom flats costing around �101,000 and �141,000 respectively, a three-bedroom semi in the region of �224,000 and four-bedroom detached houses upwards of �360,000.

GETTING THERE

Maidstone is accessible from the M20 (close to the M25) via junctions 6 or 7, and is 38 miles from London and there are Park and Ride services at four sites outside the town. Regular rail links from Maidstone East station to London Victoria take an hour, plus there’s Maidstone West and Maidstone Barracks stations on the main Medway line for Kent towns and there are good bus and coach services. Call Traveline 0871 200 2233 for public transport details. Satnav postcode for the town centre is ME14 1TF.

MY TOWN

Christopher Morgan Jones, vicar of the parish of All Saints with St Philip, Maidstone and St Stephen, Tovil

Tell us about All Saints church

I think it is the finest perpendicular church in Kent, and there has been a church on the site since 650AD, the earliest called St Mary’s. It contains the John Wooton memorial (1418), the finest Medieval Tomb Wall painting in England, and also in the Astley Memorial, dating from the 1630s, is the finest group of figures wearing their death shrouds in England.

What do you like about your parish work?

I really enjoy the immense variety of people I encounter. I see so many people doing wonderful work in many area of life. At the moment we’re undertaking a significant restoration, and have raised and spent �2m, mostly on roofs and stonework. We’re now seeking �100,000 for the conservation of the chancel wall paintings.

What do you like about Maidstone?

It’s a good size: large enough to provide a wide range of shops, services and societies, yet small enough so as not to be overwhelming. It has a wonderful collection of interesting buildings. I also like the ease of rail travel to London and Canterbury.

What would you change about the town?

The traffic is terrible and I fear visitors have a hard time finding their way around. I’d like to see the quality of design of new buildings improved and more parking places.

Your favourite walk or view?

I very much like the river from Allington southwards, whether walking, cycling or going by boat.

Do you have a favourite place?

Two: The All Saints Conservation Area and the Council Chamber in the town hall.

Any restaurants you specially like?

The Horseshoes in Dean Street (01622 741683) and the Swan at West Peckham (01622 812271), though they’re just outside town.

Sum up Maidstone in a sentence

Maidstone has a rich heritage and is continually developing, mostly in good ways.

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