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Then and now pictures of Ashford town centre

The growth of out-of-town retail parks, the creation of the ring-road, the pedestrianisation of the high street.

Ask any Ashford resident why the town centre 'isn't what it used to be' and at least one of the above responses will almost certainly come up.

A splendid view of Ashford's Upper High Street in 1970 looking towards New Rents. Pictures: Steve Salter
A splendid view of Ashford's Upper High Street in 1970 looking towards New Rents. Pictures: Steve Salter

Having lost big-name chains such as M&S and Debenhams in recent times, Ashford's current offering does come in for its fair share of criticism from frustrated shoppers, with many highlighting the sheer number of nail bars and barbers.

Amid the grumbles, it can be easy to overlook the rich history of the high street which, in parts, has changed almost beyond recognition over the decades.

In previous weeks on KentOnline, we have included 'now and then' photos from Sittingbourne, Rochester, Gravesend, Sheerness, Maidstone and West Malling.

Here, we delve into the archives to see how much Ashford town centre has altered, featuring the ban on high street traffic in the 1970s to the former Odeon cinema now at the centre of the council's controversial redevelopment plan.

Slide the white dot across the pictures to see how Ashford has changed over the years

New Rents

Every building to the left of this 1972 picture was demolished between 1973 and 1976 for phase two of the Tufton Centre (now known as County Square).

That included the department store Lewis and Hyland, which moved to the Tufton Centre in 1975, only to disappear five years later.

Four decades on, further demolition is planned as bosses want to build a 92-bed hotel, bar and restaurant in New Rents.

If approved, one empty unit and five shops - Game, PDSA, Betfred, British Heart Foundation and HomePlus - will be flattened.

Upper High Street

Shortly before the town centre's pedestrianised area was revamped and extended, this shot shows the high street in 1988.

The street had originally been part-pedestrianised in 1976 together with part of the Lower High Street.

This was followed by a gradual full ban of traffic during business hours which is still in force to this day.

In this shot, the then-new Park Mall shopping centre can be seen in the background, with the ex-Woolworths store - now B&M - on the right.

Tufton Centre/County Square

Now known as County Square, this view illustrates the old Tufton Centre in 1977, less than three years after it opened.

The site, which lost its flagship stores of Debenhams and M&S in recent months, was originally designed as a part covered/part open-air development which was built largely on the former residential and business area of Hempsted Street.

By 1989, the centre was deemed too old fashioned and became the fully-covered County Square.

The centre was further extended in 2008 as part of a multi-million pound project.

High street/Middle Row

Turning the clock back to 1905, this photo shows the town's old pump which was reputed to have been melted down before the First World War.

An unlikely business combination today, the Stevenson’s fishmonger and greengrocer site can be seen to the left of St Mary's Church.

The building was redeveloped in 1957 and is now the home of Mann estate agents, while Ward and Partners occupies the building on the right.

While the businesses may have changed, Middle Row in the background has barely altered at all over the decades.

Park Mall shopping centre

What is now the main entrance to the Park Mall shopping centre was once home to the Kentish Express.

Pictured here in 1962 next to the International Stores supermarket, the Ashford newspaper was based at 94 high street at a time when the paper was separate to the KM Media Group.

When the title was bought by the group in 1971, the publication moved to 69 high street before switching to 'Express House' in North Street in later years.

In 2017, the Kentish Express left its North Street home and relocated to a vacant unit in the Ashford Borough Council-owned Park Mall, where it is still produced to this day.

Lower High Street

This shot from the 1930s clearly shows the Headley grocers shop at number 46.

Henry Headley's family took over this business in 1860 and it operated from the premises until 1976.

In 1978, with the grocery business moving to Cobbs Wood, the printing side of the family opened their stationery and bookshop in the refurbished and redeveloped building, remaining there until 1988.

The former Headley’s premises became the town's first McDonald's in 1989.

Odeon cinema

The former Odeon cinema in the Lower High Street is pictured here shortly after its opening in 1936.

Forty years later, there was public outcry when the cinema closed and became a Top Rank bingo hall.

Until July 2018, Mecca Bingo had operated from the site, which is now owned by ABC.

The council wants to knock down the rear of the building and redevelop the Vicarage Lane car park as part of its controversial 'Odeon Square' project, but the plans are currently on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Upper High Street

The Upper High Street was once home to the International Stores supermarket, a popular destination for shoppers when this photo was taken in 1977.

Eight years later, though, the store was demolished along with the former Kentish Express office to create the entrance to the Park Mall shopping centre.

Before the M20 and other main roads were built, the high street was a main thoroughfare from the coast to London, but that stopped in the 1970s when highways chiefs started to pedestrianise the route.

Ashford's Woolworths store - which closed on New Year's Eve in 2008 - can also be seen in this photo.

Bank Street

A busy Bank Street in 1961 long before a barrier was put across the road to stop drivers accessing the high street.

Pictured here at its junction with Tufton Street, the road was a bustling artery for both shoppers and traffic.

Nowadays, only pass holders and delivery vehicles are allowed through the barrier during business hours.

Although the lower section of Bank Street is still served by buses, the upper part of the road is now a lot quieter than this archive photo shows.

Vicarage Lane car park

Parking charges have always been a major issue and attracted protests in 1982 when Vicarage Lane prices were increased.

In the same decade, the car park was earmarked for a new department store for BHS, but the plans never came to fruition.

Now, though, ABC wants to redevelop the site, turning it into a public square featuring a large outdoor cinema screen, surrounded by cafes and bars.

If it does get built on, the authority is looking to offset the lost spaces by constructing a huge multi-storey car park in Station Road behind the bowling alley.

Lower High Street

Before the high street became completely traffic-free (except for pass holders) in the late 1990s, this archive photo shows the road at a time when the street was split.

Buses would serve one side outside the former Co-op department store - now Sports Direct - while domestic traffic would use the other side.

Unlike today, the street has a variety of individual traders in this photo from 1974.

The 1930s-built Odeon cinema to the right closed less than two years after this picture was taken to become the Top Rank bingo hall.

With thanks to Ashford historian Steve Salter for his help with this feature.

What are your memories of Ashford town centre? Comment below or email kentishexpress@thekmgroup.co.uk

Read more: All the latest news from Ashford

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