Ashford is a town in the county of Kent, England. It lies on the River Great Stour at the south edge of the North Downs, about southeast of central London and northwest of Folkestone by road. In the 2011 census, it had a population of 74,204. The name comes from the Old English æscet, indicating a ford near a clump of ash trees. It has been a market town since the 13th century, and a regular market continues to be held.
Ashford has been a communications hub and has stood at the centre of five railway lines since the 19th century. The arrival of the railways became a source of employment and contributed to the town's growth. With the opening of the international passenger station it is now a European communications centre, with new lines running between London and the Channel Tunnel (via High Speed 1). The M20 motorway also links Ashford to those two destinations for road traffic.
The town has been marked as a place for expansion since the 1960s and appeared on several Government plans for growth. Changes have included the County Square shopping centre, the redevelopment of the Templer Barracks at Repton Park, and the award winning Ashford Designer Outlet. In the 1970s, a controversial ring road scheme and construction of the multi storey Charter House building destroyed significant parts of the old town, though some areas were spared and preserved.
St Mary's Church in Ashford has been a local landmark since the 13th century, and expanded in the 15th. Today, the church functions in a dual role as a centre for worship and entertainment. A grammar school was founded here in the 17th century, which is now part of Norton Knatchbull School.
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 1500 BC. During Roman Britain, iron ore was mined in the Weald and transported to Ashford where two ironworks processed the ore into a workable metal. Archaeological studies have revealed the existence of a Roman town to the north of the current centre, roughly at the junction of Albert Road and Wall Road.
The present town originates from an original settlement established in 893 AD by inhabitants escaping a Danish Viking raid, who were granted land by a Saxon Lord for their resistance. The name comes from the Old English æscet, indicating a ford near a clump of ash trees. At the time of the Domesday Book of 1086 it was still known by its original Saxon name of Essetesford (or Eshetisford, Esselesford, Asshatisforde, Essheford). The manor was owned by Hugh de Montford, Constable of England, and had a church, two mills and a value of 150 shillings (£7.50) at the time. One of the earliest houses in the area still in existence is Lake House at Eastwell Park to the north of the town, which contains the grave of Richard Plantagenet.
Ashford's importance as an agricultural and market town grew in the 13th century, and in 1243, Henry III granted the town a charter to hold a market for livestock. The pottery industry expanded in the 13th and 14th centuries, with the main works based at what is now Potter's Corner, a few miles west of the town centre. Later evidence from examining waste suggests that production was on a large scale. The Kent Archaeological society have discovered sandy ware at this location dating from around 1125 – 1250.
Jack Cade, who led the Cade's Rebellion against corrupt Royal officials in 1450, is believed to be from Ashford. In William Shakespeare's Henry VI, part 2, Cade is shown conversing with "Dick, the Butcher from Ashford".
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ashford became known for nonconformism. A local resident, John Brown was executed for heresy in 1511, and may have inspired the later namesake of the song "John Brown's Body". Thomas Smythe acquired the manor of Ashford as dowry from Queen Elizabeth I in the mid 16th century and is buried in the parish church.
Dr John Wallis, the internationally recognised mathematician and one of Isaac Newton's main tutors was born in Ashford in 1616, but moved to Tenterden in 1625 to avoid the plague. He was a promising student, and subsequently graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
By the 1780s, local farmers had begun to hold informal market days, and advertised the town's ideal location between London, Chatham and the Kent Coast. 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 had to be relocated outside of the town due to part of the 19th century site being demolished to make way for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. It is still used by around 5,000 farmers.
The Army first established a presence in Ashford in 1797 when it built a garrison on Barrow Hill, and storerooms along what is now Magazine Road. The military presence was scaled back during the 19th century, though the town was still considered strategically important in the event of an invasion. The Territorial Army established a presence in Ashford in 1910.
During World War I, Ashford's importance as a transport hub and its location between the continent and London made it a target for aerial bombing. On 25 March 1917, a bomb targeted for the railway works fell on the town, killing 61 people. The town was targeted again during the Battle of Britain in World War II including an attack on 15 September 1940.
The Joint Services School of Intelligence was based at Templer Barracks to the west of town. Robert Runcie, later to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, was stationed at Ashford during the war while Prince Andrew, Duke of York attended a course here in 1982 while he was stationed in the Royal Navy. The barracks closed in 1997 to build the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and the site was sold to developers in 2002, Repton Manor House, in the centre of the barracks, is a Grade II listed building and remains intact.
Ashford has been associated with the German town Bad Münstereifel since the 20th century. British forces occupied the town in 1919 under the command of Major J Goode, following the end of World War I. John Wiles, brother in law of Major Goode, later became mayor of New Romney in 1946, and subsequently arranged a visit to the Rhineland with Winston Churchill. Wiles was declared an honorary citizen of Bad Münstereifel in 1961, which led to the two towns being formally twinned in 1964.
During the early and mid 20th century, print and media became a noted industry in Ashford. The Headley Brothers, a printing services company, was founded in 1881 and by the mid-1950s were printing and exporting over 2 million books. The Letraset company set up an arts material factory in Ashford in the 1960s. It closed in 2013, following the decline of Letraset and the company's decision to relocate works abroad.
Little is left of the old Ashford town centre, apart from a cluster of medieval half-timbered buildings in Middle Row and around the churchyard in the town centre. A number of old buildings were removed to make way for the controversial ring road around the centre, including four public houses. Further demolition was required to build Charter House, an eight-story office building for Charter Consolidated, that opened in 1975. Charter subsequently moved back to London in 1985, and the building is now being converted into flats, though progress was stalled due to the discovery of asbestos. Charter compensated for the demolition by funding a restoration scheme on North Street, preserving several historic buildings.