Probably founded in the 9th Century during the Danish occupation of England, Ashford has changed in the last ten years from an unremarkable market town in the Kentish Weald to an unremarkable town earmarked for expansion by both the Ashford Borough Council and the Government.
Over the next 20 years, John Prescott1 wants to see an extra 150,000 people living in Ashford in an attempt to take the pressure off the rest of the South East. Already thousands have flocked to the town, attracted by its easy access to London by both rail and on the M20, and its links with Europe. The trouble is, Ashford is decidedly lacking in any of the basic facilities that many people need in order to live fulfilled and happy lives.
Sure, it has four gigantic supermarkets (including two Tesco stores and an Asda unbelievably built within a mile of each other) and, yes, it has got a 12-screen cinema complex complete with KFC, Burger King and other fast food outlets, but the town seems utterly devoid of culture or the quaintness that makes other Kent towns nice places to be.
Ashford's current economic strength comes from its unique position: just 15 minutes by motorway from the Channel Tunnel and with the Eurostar international station in the town, it is a convenient gateway for those who can't face getting themselves to Waterloo International in London. Half the Eurostar trains going to Paris (two hours away) and a third headed for Brussels (two hours 45 minutes by train) stop at Ashford.
Lille, the beautiful capital of Northern France, is just an hour by train from Ashford and, once there, you can change on to high speed trains that serve nearly every major city in France and beyond.
Kvaerner, the Norwegian construction giant, is currently engaged in Europe's largest single construction project: driving the high speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link through the centre of the town to allow 186mph trains to speed on their way to London. But the upheaval, which will go on until 2002 when the first part of the line is opened, will be of no benefit to Ashford - it will shave just two or three minutes off the time from the station to the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone. Residents of Ashford and the pretty villages surrounding have put up with and will continue to put up with the destruction of a once tranquil area.
Is There Anything to do There?
In short, very little apart from wandering around the bleak town centre or visiting Ashford's 'new jewel in the crown', the McArthur Glen Designer Outlet (that's factory shopping to the rest of us).
This bizarre tented structure, two miles outside town, contains more than 100 shops offering designer names at discounted prices. If you like shopping, and, sadly, most people seem to, then there are worse places to spend your days off work. A bus will take you from the town centre to factory shopping in just a few minutes.
And when you get there, the contrast could not be more stark: while Ashford town centre dies on its feet, the council went out of its way to attract this monument to consumerism to suck yet more trade away from the beleaguered business owners in the centre. Ask any Ashfordian, as they call themselves, and they will tell you that the town, despite its booming outskirts, is in poor shape.
There is also 'Cineworld' - the obligatory American multiplex just off junction nine with its satellite troughing stations: Burger King, KFC, Frankie and Benny's and Pizza Hut. But, if you're staying in Ashford and haven't got a car or don't want to pay for a taxi, forget taking in the pictures, because there is no bus service to the cinema and it is three miles outside the town centre.
If you do find yourself in Ashford, try the excellent Italian coffee at Gran Caffe in the Lower High Street which puts all the 'Prets' and Starbucks firmly in their place. Also check out a new restaurant and take-away - The Chilli Bite - run by a South African couple who really know what they're doing.
Where to Stay
As far away as possible, some might say, but, if you know what you're looking for then there are decent places in and around the town. Try the Croft Hotel on Canterbury Road, The New Flying Horse in nearby delightful Wye, The Dering Arms at Pluckley or The Royal Oak at Charing. If not there are always the usual Posthouses, Travel Inns, Holiday Inns and assorted other bland establishments including the truly uninspiring Ashford International, just off junction nine of the M20.
Feel like splashing out? Then for real luxury, real service and quality that oozes from every original leather Chesterfield try the four-star Eastwell Manor at Boughton Aluph, five minutes drive from Ashford. It really is wonderful and is gunning to be Britain's best hotel.