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Town Spotlight – Love Ashford

Sitting in the heart of Kent, Ashford boasts a lively cosmopolitan centre, world-class shopping and international trainlinks, but despite this has managed to retain its cherished rural charm.

Ashford’s central location makes it one of the most convenient touring centres Kent has to offer, but with a plethora of restaurants, shops, local producers and cultural things to do, both in the buzzy town itself and scattered across the surrounding countryside, visitors will find plenty to make them stay put. 

A town once famous for its markets due to its prime position between London and the Kent coast, and later to be known for its printing industry thanks to the industrial revolution, Ashford has seen many a transition over the decades. First settled by humble Saxons who were escaping a Viking invasion, the town was originally named after a group of ash trees by a ford, but today boasts several modern redevelopments designed to bring affluence, tourism and creativity to the town – each a recipe for exciting rejuvenation. 

One of the first of these projects was Ashford Designer Outlet, a £90 million expansion development. Run by the McArthur Glen Group, the centre now has over 100 popular brands including All Saints, Kurt Geiger, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ted Baker, Tommy Hilfiger and more all at up to 60% off the RRP. The covered, decked circular walkway makes a brilliant visit whatever the weather. As well as shopping, there’s plenty of places to fuel yourself up too, as Ashford Outlet is home to lots of foodie favourites that include Pizza Express, Wagamama and a whole host of coffee shops. This wonderfully clean and bright centre also houses a children’s play area ensuring that little ones never get bored and even welcomes four-legged friends. Just look for the paw print sticker in the window of participating brands and pop into Guest Services for a dog biscuit and a drink from the doggy fountain.

As well as this modern-day metropolis, Ashford has not forgotten its idyllic, rural past which can be discovered when setting foot just outside the town and into the district’s sprawling green countryside that today remains lucious and fruitful, still growing much of the same agriculture that it has done for centuries. One of these crops are of course the grapes used for winemaking, a practice that gave Kent the title of ‘Wine Garden of England’. One of the best places to explore this heritage at the same time as admiring Kent’s beautiful rural landscape is at Balfour Winery, which is found on the breathtaking Hush Heath Estate. A 400-acre family owned estate with vast ancient woodlands, vineyards, apple orchards and wildflower meadows, Balfour Winery combines conservation with an unrivalled spirit of hospitality and generosity. With self-guided tours available, just pick up a map (and maybe a bottle or two) from their contemporary style Cellar Door building which also houses their visitor centre. Here, guided tours of the vineyard and winery are also available, as well as tastings and special workshops and events.

For those with younger children that still want to appreciate the beauty of Ashford’s surrounding countryside with a little excitement thrown in, a visit to the South of England Rare Breeds Centre is sure to be a brilliant day out. Set in 100 acres of farmland, enjoy a ‘Meet the Animals’ session where the children can pet friendly animals and ask staff questions. Enjoy a daily Birds of Prey display, a woodland assault course, a tube maze, zip wire and hill fort, or for a quieter time together, enjoy the tunnel of exotic butterflies and take a woodland walk. If walking is not for you, take a tractor ride! 

For history buffs and garden lovers, a trip to Belmont House is certain to satisfy and keep you enthralled. This beautiful Georgian house is set in its own parkland amid stunning views of the rolling Kent countryside and is a completely unspoilt and distinctive example of the work of the architect Samuel Wyatt. Belmont houses a collection of antiques that reflect six generations of continuous occupation by one family, containing fascinating mementos of the family’s history and travels – including the finest private collection of clocks and watches in Britain. The gardens at Belmont are full of interest throughout every season. The kitchen garden was originally designed by Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd and has beautiful Victorian greenhouses along with figs, hops, soft fruits and traditional apple and pear varieties. The walled garden contains a pond and is adjacent to the pinetum complete with grotto. Don’t leave without a cup of tea with a slice of delicious homemade cake in their courtyard tea rooms.

As well as these destinations surrounding Ashford that celebrate the heritage of the area and make for great days out, Ashford’s vibrant town centre is not to be missed. Aside from the new development Elwick Place (head to pages 40-41 to find out more) with its collection of artisan shops, great places to eat and drink and a whole host of activity-based venues, Ashford’s town is home to a traditional high street full of treasures. For light, guilt-free, but delicious bites during the day Salata (@salata_ashford) is the place to go. Serving delicious plates of fresh whole foods in the form of crunchy salads, buddha bowls, wraps, sandwiches and more, Salata caters for gluten free, vegan and vegetarian diets. After filling up on lots of goodness, wander over to Made in Ashford (@madeinashford), a collaborative shop of locally made gifts, crafts and more. From sweet seasonal decorations, such as personalised cat baubles, to handmade candles and cosmetic bags, you’re sure to find a treasure here.

Evenings spent in Ashford’s high street are sure to be full of fun and frivolity too. Start your night with a splendid home-cooked Italian meal by husband-and-wife run, Amici (@amici_ashford). An intimate welcoming venue that feels like a Tuscan home-away-from-home, Amici comes equipped with a neat bar ready to serve glasses of good wine as you scour over a menu created by celebrated chef Massimo Deidda. Some of Amici’s most popular favourites include the golden fried calamari fritti, complemented with garlic and lemon mayonnaise, and homemade arancini made from Sicilian smoked salmon, peas and rice with arrabbiata sauce. The mouth-watering starters make the perfect prelude for delectable main meals, all handmade with passion, craft and an original touch. These include dishes such as the ‘gamberi linguine’, a sautéed king prawn linguine with cherry tomatoes, garlic and chilli in a white wine and tomato sauce – bellissima! 

After eating to your heart’s content at Amici, step out of Tuscany and back into the streets of Ashford to pay a visit to Valerie’s (www.valerieswinebar.co.uk). A very stylish wine bar and a sophisticated haven in Ashford, Valerie’s is perfect for all occasions be it birthdays, anniversaries or just celebrating the end of the week. Visit them for a cocktail, wine and cheese, relaxed live music on Sundays or their soulful and funky DJ sessions on a Saturday. The staff at Valerie’s are warm and friendly and always on hand to suggest a wine or a cocktail, so if you can’t decide on your tipple they’ll happily help. Don’t miss the weekly offers and cocktails specials; there’s always something new to try, which is part of this wine bar’s effortless charm.

Step slightly away from the high street and you will find Coachworks, a newly refurbished, vibrant food and drinks destination and outdoor events space. Home to a variety of independent street food vendors, as well as a craft beer bottle shop and brilliant Coffee Shed (@coffeshed18), you can be assured that whatever cuisine you are craving you will find it at Coachworks. Khaza is inspired by South Asian street food, Il Pakero serves an array of woodfired pizzas, and Wild Souls Kitchen (@wildsoulskitchen_ashford) offers delicious burgers, halloumi fries and veggie and vegan options.

When it comes to boutique stays, there is nothing quite like the wonderfully historic yet supremely stylish Boys Hall. It is hard to believe that this charming country house with its rambling gardens is just a short drive away from Ashford’s bustling town centre; an air of countryside calm and nostalgic elegance forever descends upon the place. Boys Hall offers 10 unique bedrooms all telling their own intriguing tale and ranging in size and character. Each of their bedrooms are individually designed, all with super-king luxury beds, Egyptian cotton bedlinen, fluffy towels and the little touches to make you feel pampered and guide you into a dreamy stay. Have a relaxing soak in one of the roll top baths or gaze out of the stunning windows looking over the wild gardens. Downstairs, sink into an armchair in front of a roaring fire, lose yourself in the charming grounds, or enjoy the finest ingredients this diverse county has to offer at the beautiful restaurant and bar complete with a generously stocked wine cellar brimming with Kentish and international vintages.

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