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Ashford Designer Outlet in pictures as shopping centre hits 20

Twenty years have passed since the Ashford Designer Outlet first opened its doors, creating more than 800 jobs and bringing big-name brands to the town. Here, Dan Wright looks back at its history...

If you have never heard of the 'Ashford Meadows Leisure Park', you won't be alone.

The Designer Outlet's £90m extension pictured in September this year. Picture: Ady Kerry / Ashford Borough Council
The Designer Outlet's £90m extension pictured in September this year. Picture: Ady Kerry / Ashford Borough Council

But back in July 1991, that rather flowery title was the name given to the Ashford Designer Outlet, which was then just a sketch on a planning document submitted to the borough council.

Almost a decade later and after years of construction work, celebrity gardener Charlie Dimmock was cutting the ribbon and the first shoppers were filling the car park.

Now - as the recently-expanded centre reaches its 20th year - a series of photos from our archive capture its story.

Designed by Lord Richard Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, who was also responsible for the Lloyd’s building and The O2 in London, builders first started work on the huge McArthurGlen project in 1996.

The engineering firm behind the scheme was Buro Happold, which specialised in tensile structures and also built the Sydney Opera House – thought to be the inspiration for the outlet's distinctive white tent design.

Celebrity gardener Charlie Dimmock at the opening ceremony of the outlet in March 2000
Celebrity gardener Charlie Dimmock at the opening ceremony of the outlet in March 2000
An artist's impression of the original design for the Ashford Designer Outlet - or 'Ashford Meadows Leisure Park' as it was first known
An artist's impression of the original design for the Ashford Designer Outlet - or 'Ashford Meadows Leisure Park' as it was first known
Long before the extension was built, here's the outlet from above in 2007. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
Long before the extension was built, here's the outlet from above in 2007. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
The former 'wind tunnel' food court wasn't always the warmest of places
The former 'wind tunnel' food court wasn't always the warmest of places

Since it was named Retail Destination of the Year 2001 by readers of Retail Week magazine, the centre went on to win numerous design awards, with the highest point of the original structure hitting 324m, or 1,063ft.

In August 2013, Cllr Gerry Clarkson, leader of Ashford Borough Council, first hinted at plans to expand the shopping centre.

He revealed ambitious proposals to double the size of the outlet, adding 100,000 sq ft to the original 185,000 sq ft of retail space.

A full planning application for the expansion was given the green light by councillors in September 2015, when members voted overwhelmingly in support of the scheme.

It took until November last year for the long-awaited extension to open - two years after diggers first moved onto the site in autumn 2017 to begin construction work.

Construction work at the site before it opened in March 2000. Picture: Steve Salter
Construction work at the site before it opened in March 2000. Picture: Steve Salter
Pilgrims Hospice Pyjama Walk participants limber up for the event at the Ashford Designer Outlet in 2012
Pilgrims Hospice Pyjama Walk participants limber up for the event at the Ashford Designer Outlet in 2012
There was a marked difference in 2012 when abseilers replaced the roof for the first time
There was a marked difference in 2012 when abseilers replaced the roof for the first time
Neil Buchanan from TV show Art Attack with a giant mural of an Arab sailing boat in 2006
Neil Buchanan from TV show Art Attack with a giant mural of an Arab sailing boat in 2006
Bananas in Pyjamas at the outlet in 2002 - with gadget shop Gizmo pictured in the background
Bananas in Pyjamas at the outlet in 2002 - with gadget shop Gizmo pictured in the background
Plans for the centre were first revealed in July 1991. Picture: Steve Salter
Plans for the centre were first revealed in July 1991. Picture: Steve Salter

As well as the new shops, 725 new car parking spaces, Europe’s largest living wall and a £400,000 children’s play area were added to the site.

But the work wasn't without controversy as contractors were forced to close Newtown Road for months to allow for the expansion, which saw the original food court featuring McDonald's and Millie's Cookies ripped out.

The controversial road closures sparked months of delays - including a 32-week stint between April and November 2018.

Crowds queued outside The Fragrance Shop in 2014 when Towie star Sam Faiers launched her perfume La Bella
Crowds queued outside The Fragrance Shop in 2014 when Towie star Sam Faiers launched her perfume La Bella
The former Fila store - which once stocked a great array of West Ham United shirts - can be seen in the left of this 2003 photo
The former Fila store - which once stocked a great array of West Ham United shirts - can be seen in the left of this 2003 photo
Peter Andre turned on the Designer Outlet's Christmas lights in 2011
Peter Andre turned on the Designer Outlet's Christmas lights in 2011
More than 5,000 people packed into centre in November 2011 to catch a glimpse of Peter Andre
More than 5,000 people packed into centre in November 2011 to catch a glimpse of Peter Andre
Fans were excited to see Peter Andre at the site in 2011
Fans were excited to see Peter Andre at the site in 2011
The Designer Outlet under construction
The Designer Outlet under construction

Now, seven years after first mentioning plans for the £90m expansion, Cllr Clarkson says he is delighted the centre is still going strong.

"Everything that happens in Ashford - like the proposal for the film studios at Newtown and the brewery - brings vibrancy and jobs to the borough," he said.

"We are very pleased and grateful that they are here."

McDonald's was set to rejoin the Designer Outlet when the extension was built, but has not returned
McDonald's was set to rejoin the Designer Outlet when the extension was built, but has not returned
The Ian Shawcross Band entertaining shoppers in 2006
The Ian Shawcross Band entertaining shoppers in 2006
Fireman Sam meets the shoppers in 2007
Fireman Sam meets the shoppers in 2007
The extension has been built on the site of the former food court and coach drop-off point. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council
The extension has been built on the site of the former food court and coach drop-off point. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council

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