Ashford is a town in the borough of Ashford in Kent, England. In 2005 it was voted the fourth-best place to live in the United Kingdom. It lies on the River Great Stour, the M20 motorway, and the South Eastern Main Line and High Speed 1 railways. Its agricultural market is one of the most important in the county. Ashford is a relatively common English placename: it goes back to Old English æscet, indicating a ford near a clump of ash-trees.
Ashford lies at the intersection of two valleys in Kent - the south edge of the North Downs and the valley of the River Stour. This made it an ideal place for a settlement. The Borough of Ashford lies on the eastern edge of the ancient forest of "Andredsweald" or "Anderida". This originally stretched as far west as Hampshire and formed the basis from which the Weald is formed. There has been evidence of human habitation around Ashford since the iron age, with a barrow on what is now Barrow Hill dating back to 1500BC. During Roman Britain, iron ore was mined in the Weald and transported to Ashford where two ironworks processed the ore into a workable metal.
The present town originates from an original settlement established in 893 AD by inhabitants escaping a Danish Viking raid on the nearby ancient village of Great Chart (Seleberhtes Cert in 762AD). It is listed in the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, as having a church, two mills and a value of 150 shillings (£7.50), under its original Saxon name of "Essetesford" (or "Eshetisford," "Esselesford", "Asshatisforde", "Essheford"). The manor was owned by Hugh de Montford, Constable of England at the time. Writer Philpot believed Essetesford stood for "ash trees growing near a ford", while Lampard, a 16th-century local historian, suggested that it meant "a ford over the River Eshe or Eshet", which was the old name for the tributary of the River Stour between Lenham and Ashford.
Ashford’s importance as a growing agricultural and market town was confirmed in 1243 when it was incorporated, and by the end of the 16th century it had risen to become an important market town, primarily for livestock. The market was held in the High Street until 1856 when local farmers and businessmen relocated to Elwick Road and formed a market company that is the oldest surviving registered company in England and Wales. There is still a regular street market in the town, although the market company has relocated outside the town and is used by some 5,000 farmers. Ashford has a quite interesting industrial heritage, from being the world headquarters of Letraset, the way to create posters prior to desktop publishing. There was also the company which was the colonial supply company for Zambia. The Ashford Cattle Market Company, the oldest registered company in Britain, was founded in 1856.
Parts of the parish church date from the 13th century but was substantially restored in the 15th century with many alterations since. In 1638 a free grammar school was founded here, it was built on the churchyard’s west side, and remained there until 1846, now used as a museum.
Its closeness to London has always made Kent a strong influence on the capital, and vice versa. Thus by the end of the 16th century Cade (of Cade’s Rebellion) was credited by William Shakespeare in Henry VI, part 2 as being from Ashford. The play includes an Ashford butcher called "Dick" who looks forward to removing officialdom after the rebellion and says: first thing, let’s kill all the lawyers.
As a market town, Ashford has for centuries been a local communications hub for surrounding villages and has stood at the centre of five railway lines, (Ashford to Ramsgate (via Canterbury West) line, Swanley to Ashford (via Maidstone East) Line, South Eastern Main Line, Kent Coast Line and the Marshlink Line) since the 19th century. With the opening of the international passenger station it is now an important European communications centre, with new lines running between London and the Channel Tunnel (via High Speed 1).
During World War II Ashford's importance as a transport (railway) hub and its location between the continent and London made it a target for bombing by the Luftwaffe. The Joint Services School of Intelligence was based at Templer Barracks in Ashford, until the barracks were decommissioned in 1997 and then demolished to make way for High Speed 1. In 1982, Prince Andrew, Duke of York was involved with the "School".