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History of County Square shopping centre in Ashford as Primark rumours persist


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The future of Ashford's County Square shopping centre is anything but clear.

Hit by the loss of both M&S and Debenhams not long before the pandemic began, KentOnline revealed earlier this month how the whole site is now on the market for £13.5 million, sparking much speculation across the town.

The main square in 1995, featuring New Look, Early Learning Centre and Littlewoods
The main square in 1995, featuring New Look, Early Learning Centre and Littlewoods
The Tufton Centre in 1975, showing the opening day of the Tesco Home and Wear store. Picture: Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre in 1975, showing the opening day of the Tesco Home and Wear store. Picture: Steve Salter
Shoppers rush into the centre's extension on its opening day in March 2008
Shoppers rush into the centre's extension on its opening day in March 2008
Inside the Tufton Centre in November 1977
Inside the Tufton Centre in November 1977

Ashford MP Damian Green thinks a number of restaurants could work well alongside the shops, while others claim Primark is missing a huge opportunity by not moving in.

At this stage, though, how the centre will look when its 50th anniversary comes around in 2025 is anyone's guess.

Built on a large residential area comprising Hempsted Street, Tufton Street, Middle Street and Apsley Street, plans for the development were first drawn up in the mid-1960s.

Once the site had been cleared, which included the demolition of two pubs, numerous homes and businesses as well as the Elwick Club, work started on the complex in late 1972.

Upon its completion three years later, the site was named the Tufton Centre, with Tesco and department store Lewis & Hyland taking the two central spots off the main square, which was then uncovered.

Work on the Tufton Centre site in 1973. This was taken from the Telephone Exchange roof looking towards Godinton Road. Picture: Steve Salter
Work on the Tufton Centre site in 1973. This was taken from the Telephone Exchange roof looking towards Godinton Road. Picture: Steve Salter
Thirteen years after this photo was taken, the River Island unit now houses a Jobcentre
Thirteen years after this photo was taken, the River Island unit now houses a Jobcentre
The main entrance to the centre in 2003; Clarks is on the left with Clintons on the right. Nationwide and Metro Bank now occupy the units
The main entrance to the centre in 2003; Clarks is on the left with Clintons on the right. Nationwide and Metro Bank now occupy the units
Shoppers enjoying the three-storey Debenhams on its opening day
Shoppers enjoying the three-storey Debenhams on its opening day
Wigwam kiosks outside Tesco in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
Wigwam kiosks outside Tesco in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
This 1972 view of Hempsted Street (now buried beneath County Square) shows the former Wesleyan Chapel, which was for many years used as a storage space for furnisher WH Gibbs. Many of the residential dwellings in the street had already been demolished at this time to make way for the shopping centre. Picture: Steve Salter
This 1972 view of Hempsted Street (now buried beneath County Square) shows the former Wesleyan Chapel, which was for many years used as a storage space for furnisher WH Gibbs. Many of the residential dwellings in the street had already been demolished at this time to make way for the shopping centre. Picture: Steve Salter
From left to right: Christine Sbielut, Sarah Ditcher, Ellie Ibbetson and Emily Hinckes inside Next in March 2008
From left to right: Christine Sbielut, Sarah Ditcher, Ellie Ibbetson and Emily Hinckes inside Next in March 2008
1976 - One of the Tufton Centre service areas behind Bank Street being used for parking before such acts were banned by landowners. Picture: Steve Salter
1976 - One of the Tufton Centre service areas behind Bank Street being used for parking before such acts were banned by landowners. Picture: Steve Salter

Comprising two enclosed malls and two open, planted squares, the development also featured the Zodiac pub – a unit that effectively replaced the Coach and Horses and Wellington Hotel which were both lost during construction.

By the latter part of the decade, a second phase had been completed, with M&S joining the centre in 1978.

But other traders came and went and in 1987 both Tesco and its fellow supermarket chain Presto left the centre in favour of out-of-town sites.

Two years later, the then owners CIN Properties invested more than £2m in the centre, replacing the dark flat roofs with light and airy pitched glass.

Even before the upgrade was completed in the summer of 1990, the centre had been renamed County Square, with bosses looking to improve the image of what had become a somewhat dated site.

HMV left County Square in March 2013; the unit now features The Entertainer
HMV left County Square in March 2013; the unit now features The Entertainer
The open courtyard of the Tufton Centre is seen here during the conversion works in 1989. Picture: Steve Salter
The open courtyard of the Tufton Centre is seen here during the conversion works in 1989. Picture: Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre in February 1977
The Tufton Centre in February 1977
Almost 55,000 shoppers visited the upgraded County Square during its first three days in March 2008
Almost 55,000 shoppers visited the upgraded County Square during its first three days in March 2008
A rare view from 1972 showing the town’s former Elwick Club adjacent to the Post Office in Tufton Street. The club was demolished to make way for the Tufton Centre. A new club still runs to this day in Church Road opposite the Ashford library. Picture: Steve Salter
A rare view from 1972 showing the town’s former Elwick Club adjacent to the Post Office in Tufton Street. The club was demolished to make way for the Tufton Centre. A new club still runs to this day in Church Road opposite the Ashford library. Picture: Steve Salter
Developers released this artist's impression of the centre's extension in 2003
Developers released this artist's impression of the centre's extension in 2003
The high street entrance to the Tufton Centre in 1988 shortly before conversion work started. Picture: Steve Salter
The high street entrance to the Tufton Centre in 1988 shortly before conversion work started. Picture: Steve Salter
An autumn fashion show in September 2011
An autumn fashion show in September 2011

During this time, they put forward plans to build behind the centre on the original Ashford Market site in Elwick Road.

Part of the design was to link both sites by building a bridge over the ring road and blocking the bottom of Bank Street, forming a new entrance.

The project, named Market Plaza, never came to fruition.

An aerial view of the Tufton Centre in 1974. Picture: Steve Salter
An aerial view of the Tufton Centre in 1974. Picture: Steve Salter
1975 - Flares, bell-bottomed trousers and kipper ties were the trend in this picture of the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter
1975 - Flares, bell-bottomed trousers and kipper ties were the trend in this picture of the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter
Demolished in 1973 to make way for the Tufton Centre, the Coach and Horses pub, on the corner of Hempsted Street and Regents Place, is pictured here in 1972. Poundland now sits on this site. Picture: Steve Salter
Demolished in 1973 to make way for the Tufton Centre, the Coach and Horses pub, on the corner of Hempsted Street and Regents Place, is pictured here in 1972. Poundland now sits on this site. Picture: Steve Salter
The south square of the Tufton Centre in 1987. Picture: Steve Salter
The south square of the Tufton Centre in 1987. Picture: Steve Salter
Inside Ashford's Marks & Spencer in 1978. Picture: Steve Salter
Inside Ashford's Marks & Spencer in 1978. Picture: Steve Salter
The original roof was replaced with airy pitched glass in 1990
The original roof was replaced with airy pitched glass in 1990
The top of Elwick Road at the junction of Godinton Road and the crossing over to the former Ashford Market site pictured in 1973. Until January 2020, Debenhams - the flagship store of the County Square extension - occupied the site. The illustrated buildings were demolished 45 years ago. Picture: Steve Salter
The top of Elwick Road at the junction of Godinton Road and the crossing over to the former Ashford Market site pictured in 1973. Until January 2020, Debenhams - the flagship store of the County Square extension - occupied the site. The illustrated buildings were demolished 45 years ago. Picture: Steve Salter
A colourful artist's impression from October 2005
A colourful artist's impression from October 2005

But in March 2004, County Square chiefs did gain permission to extend the centre, using land that housed the Stanhay and Godinton Road car parks behind the site.

Work started more than a year later, with Debenhams lined up to take the largest, three-storey unit at the bottom of Bank Street.

When the extension finally opened in March 2008, Next, River Island, H&M, New Look and Jane Norman all joined Debenhams in the £60m development.

Four years after the plans were approved, County Square's extension opened in 2008. Picture: Ady Kerry
Four years after the plans were approved, County Square's extension opened in 2008. Picture: Ady Kerry
The Tufton Centre in 1979. Picture: Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre in 1979. Picture: Steve Salter
A 1974 aerial shot of the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter
A 1974 aerial shot of the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter
Shoppers inside the new extension in March 2008
Shoppers inside the new extension in March 2008
Edward and Lily Cager outside the Coach and Horses pub in Hempsted Street before it closed to make way for the construction of the Tufton Centre
Edward and Lily Cager outside the Coach and Horses pub in Hempsted Street before it closed to make way for the construction of the Tufton Centre
1972 - New Rents and Lewis & Hyland shortly before the bulldozers moved in. Everything in view to the left of the photograph was demolished for phase two of the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter
1972 - New Rents and Lewis & Hyland shortly before the bulldozers moved in. Everything in view to the left of the photograph was demolished for phase two of the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter
An artist's impression from 2005 showing inside the extension
An artist's impression from 2005 showing inside the extension
The Tufton Centre in 1988, showing the Littlewoods store which replaced Tesco. Picture: Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre in 1988, showing the Littlewoods store which replaced Tesco. Picture: Steve Salter

In its first three days, almost 55,000 people paid a visit, with shuttle buses laid on to ferry shoppers from Dover Place to Tufton Street.

"There will no longer be a need for shoppers to travel to Canterbury and it will bring more people into Ashford," County Square spokesman Adrienne Robins said at the time.

Thirteen years on, some of the 21 new units added to the centre have never been filled, including those facing Apsley Street.

The original Tufton Centre
The original Tufton Centre
An artist's impression of the extension to County Square as seen from Godinton Road
An artist's impression of the extension to County Square as seen from Godinton Road
Hempsted Street with its junctions of Middle Street and Tufton Street during the land clearance for the Tufton Centre in 1972. The former Wellington Hotel can be seen next to the demolished houses (centre left) with the former Elwick Club in Tufton Street (centre right). Picture: Steve Salter
Hempsted Street with its junctions of Middle Street and Tufton Street during the land clearance for the Tufton Centre in 1972. The former Wellington Hotel can be seen next to the demolished houses (centre left) with the former Elwick Club in Tufton Street (centre right). Picture: Steve Salter
A crowd stands outside County Square after the site was evacuated in 2006
A crowd stands outside County Square after the site was evacuated in 2006
The extension under construction. Picture: Steve Salter
The extension under construction. Picture: Steve Salter
The south mall at the Tufton Centre in 1976. Picture: Steve Salter
The south mall at the Tufton Centre in 1976. Picture: Steve Salter
The site of the County Square extension in 2005; the former Fabric Warehouse can be seen in the left of the photo. Picture: Steve Salter
The site of the County Square extension in 2005; the former Fabric Warehouse can be seen in the left of the photo. Picture: Steve Salter
The County Square extension, which doubled the size of the centre, in March 2008
The County Square extension, which doubled the size of the centre, in March 2008
A November 1977 shot of the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter
A November 1977 shot of the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter

And now, with the abandoned Debenhams store left empty for almost two years, calls for Primark to fill the former department store are only growing louder.

But while the clothing giant says it "continually reviews opportunities for expansion of the Primark business", it will not, rather inevitably, "comment on speculation about where or when we might open our next stores".

1976 - The entrance to the Tufton Centre underground car park in Hempsted Street (left) with the busy council-run open-air car park in Godinton Road (right). Picture: Steve Salter
1976 - The entrance to the Tufton Centre underground car park in Hempsted Street (left) with the busy council-run open-air car park in Godinton Road (right). Picture: Steve Salter
Looking from Apsley Street/Elwick Road, this artist's impression was produced in July 2003
Looking from Apsley Street/Elwick Road, this artist's impression was produced in July 2003
Work is well under way building the County Square extension and flagship Debenhams department store in January 2007. Picture: Steve Salter
Work is well under way building the County Square extension and flagship Debenhams department store in January 2007. Picture: Steve Salter
1963 - One of the casualties of the redevelopment of New Rents to make way for the Tufton Centre, the historic business premises of Lewis & Hyland moved into the shopping centre in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
1963 - One of the casualties of the redevelopment of New Rents to make way for the Tufton Centre, the historic business premises of Lewis & Hyland moved into the shopping centre in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
Shoppers waiting to get in the centre's new extension in March 2008
Shoppers waiting to get in the centre's new extension in March 2008
This 1975 view shows the high street entrance of the Tufton Centre before traffic was totally banned. Picture: Steve Salter
This 1975 view shows the high street entrance of the Tufton Centre before traffic was totally banned. Picture: Steve Salter
County Square in January 2009. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
County Square in January 2009. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
Thorntons left County Square in 2013
Thorntons left County Square in 2013
Long-lost chains Harris Furnishing and Rumbelows are seen here in the south mall of the Tufton Centre in 1987. Picture: Steve Salter
Long-lost chains Harris Furnishing and Rumbelows are seen here in the south mall of the Tufton Centre in 1987. Picture: Steve Salter
The high street entrance to the Tufton Centre in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
The high street entrance to the Tufton Centre in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter

Such a statement won't stop the gossip though – something Mr Green has heard for many years now.

"There is obviously a lot of talk about trying to get Primark to set up in Debenhams but unfortunately it doesn't work like that, people will only set up businesses themselves, the council can’t force any businesses to set up there," he said.

"I think County Square could do with a couple of restaurants as well as shops but in the end a space like that has to be mostly retail.

"As we emerge from the pandemic, the big chains will be wondering how much retail will be coming back and how much will be going online.

"I hope to see growth in the future."

1975 - Now the lifts to the underground car park of County Square, this picture from 1975 illustrates the south mall and south square. Picture: Steve Salter
1975 - Now the lifts to the underground car park of County Square, this picture from 1975 illustrates the south mall and south square. Picture: Steve Salter
Shoppers who arrived at 9am for the opening of the extension in 2008 were left waiting as the fire safety officer was yet to sign off the paperwork
Shoppers who arrived at 9am for the opening of the extension in 2008 were left waiting as the fire safety officer was yet to sign off the paperwork
The Tufton Centre branch of Marks & Spencer on its opening day in 1979. Picture: M&S Archive/Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre branch of Marks & Spencer on its opening day in 1979. Picture: M&S Archive/Steve Salter
1988 - A final look at the south square of the Tufton Centre before demolition contractors moved in to excavate a lift shaft in this area. Waterstones now fills the Index catalogue shop illustrated here. Before that, the Presto supermarket occupied this unit, with the Carlton Restaurant above. Picture: Steve Salter
1988 - A final look at the south square of the Tufton Centre before demolition contractors moved in to excavate a lift shaft in this area. Waterstones now fills the Index catalogue shop illustrated here. Before that, the Presto supermarket occupied this unit, with the Carlton Restaurant above. Picture: Steve Salter
Foundations are laid for Ashford's first shopping centre. Picture: Steve Salter
Foundations are laid for Ashford's first shopping centre. Picture: Steve Salter
The south mall of the Tufton Centre looking towards the south square in 1987. Picture: Steve Salter
The south mall of the Tufton Centre looking towards the south square in 1987. Picture: Steve Salter
Work on the County Square extension in 2006. Trafalgar House in Bank Street can be seen in the background. Picture: Steve Salter
Work on the County Square extension in 2006. Trafalgar House in Bank Street can be seen in the background. Picture: Steve Salter
The upper high street in December 1975 when traffic was still passing the entrance to the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter
The upper high street in December 1975 when traffic was still passing the entrance to the Tufton Centre. Picture: Steve Salter

Last year, bosses behind the Ashford International Model Railway Excellence Centre (AIMREC) revealed they were in discussions with the owners of County Square about taking over one of the ex-Debenhams floors, but the plans have not progressed.

The team is currently setting up a studio and workshop in Bethersden, but director Fred Garner says its bid for a large visitor centre in Ashford "remains as relevant as ever with the current news about County Square and the challenges of creating footfall in town centres".

An artist's impression of the extension from July 2003
An artist's impression of the extension from July 2003
Tesco in the Tufton Centre in 1979. Picture: Steve Salter
Tesco in the Tufton Centre in 1979. Picture: Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre in 1977
The Tufton Centre in 1977
The Tufton Centre site in 1973. Picture: Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre site in 1973. Picture: Steve Salter
1975 - The Zodiac at the Tufton Centre was said to be a replacement for the two public houses that made way for the said shopping centre - the Wellington Hotel and the Coach and Horses. Upon the upgrade of the shopping centre in 1989, which saw a name change to County Square, the public house closed. Picture: Steve Salter
1975 - The Zodiac at the Tufton Centre was said to be a replacement for the two public houses that made way for the said shopping centre - the Wellington Hotel and the Coach and Horses. Upon the upgrade of the shopping centre in 1989, which saw a name change to County Square, the public house closed. Picture: Steve Salter
Jessops closed its County Square site in 2013. The unit is now home to The Works
Jessops closed its County Square site in 2013. The unit is now home to The Works
Construction of the County Square extension together with its basement service area and car park is well under way in this view from 2006. Picture: Steve Salter
Construction of the County Square extension together with its basement service area and car park is well under way in this view from 2006. Picture: Steve Salter
An empty County Square shopping centre after it was evacuated in August 2006
An empty County Square shopping centre after it was evacuated in August 2006
Department store Lewis & Hyland in the Tufton Centre in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
Department store Lewis & Hyland in the Tufton Centre in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
The extension under construction in April 2007
The extension under construction in April 2007

Away from the ghostly Debenhams store, one deal that has been confirmed is the arrival of HomePlus Furniture, which will fill the former M&S unit that has been empty since May 2019.

It comes not long after a Jobcentre filled the ex-River Island site and YMCA took up the former BrightHouse unit next to Poundland – the first charity shop to open in County Square.

How HomePlus could look in the former M&S unit
How HomePlus could look in the former M&S unit
Godinton Road, looking towards Bank Street, in 1969. This rare colour view shows the ready-stripped business of Wye Fisheries at the top of Gasworks Lane. The 2008 extension to County Square covers this street today. Picture: Steve Salter
Godinton Road, looking towards Bank Street, in 1969. This rare colour view shows the ready-stripped business of Wye Fisheries at the top of Gasworks Lane. The 2008 extension to County Square covers this street today. Picture: Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre is being converted to County Square in this photo from 1989. Picture: Steve Salter
The Tufton Centre is being converted to County Square in this photo from 1989. Picture: Steve Salter
The County Square extension under construction in December 2006; note the former Oranges pub in the background
The County Square extension under construction in December 2006; note the former Oranges pub in the background
Another view of the Tufton Centre central square taken outside Littlewoods. It shows Peacocks and the Marshall shop beyond the trees and Manfield Shoes on the right. Picture: Steve Salter
Another view of the Tufton Centre central square taken outside Littlewoods. It shows Peacocks and the Marshall shop beyond the trees and Manfield Shoes on the right. Picture: Steve Salter
The original high street entrance to the open-air Tufton Centre illustrating a bustling north mall in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
The original high street entrance to the open-air Tufton Centre illustrating a bustling north mall in 1975. Picture: Steve Salter
Hawkin's Bazaar in County Square in 2011; this unit now houses Card Factory
Hawkin's Bazaar in County Square in 2011; this unit now houses Card Factory
The Market Hotel in Ashford's Elwick Road in 1975. The hostelry became the Wig and Gavel in the early 1980s and was subsequently demolished somewhat prematurely in 1993, as it wasn't until 2005 that work started on the County Square extension. Picture: Steve Salter
The Market Hotel in Ashford's Elwick Road in 1975. The hostelry became the Wig and Gavel in the early 1980s and was subsequently demolished somewhat prematurely in 1993, as it wasn't until 2005 that work started on the County Square extension. Picture: Steve Salter

HomePlus owner Martin Rose says he is not disappointed about the centre, which has been owned by international investment firm Kennedy Wilson since 2013, going up for sale.

"If someone has got the right vision, they can do a lot with it," he said.

"We all want the major retail players to be in the town centre, but there's such a lot of uncertainty at the moment.

"I can't predict what the vagaries of retail will be, but give it another 12 to 18 months and I am sure a major player – or players – will come and set themselves up in County Square.

"Ashford is getting bigger and bigger – there's going to be a need for retail in Ashford and it will be in the town centre. I don't think it will all go online."

Work taking place to upgrade the County Square shopping centre in 1989. Picture: Steve Salter
Work taking place to upgrade the County Square shopping centre in 1989. Picture: Steve Salter
A mock-up of the extension from 2005
A mock-up of the extension from 2005
Work on the extension from the air in October 2006. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
Work on the extension from the air in October 2006. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
Godinton Road pictured in September 2005; this area now houses the County Square extension. Picture: Steve Salter
Godinton Road pictured in September 2005; this area now houses the County Square extension. Picture: Steve Salter
Avian pest controller Gary Railton took a male Harris Hawk to the centre in June 2010 to keep the seagulls away. He's pictured with centre manager Frances Burt
Avian pest controller Gary Railton took a male Harris Hawk to the centre in June 2010 to keep the seagulls away. He's pictured with centre manager Frances Burt
The original model in 1963 showing the proposed shopping centre development. At this stage, the scheme was called the Hempsted Street shopping centre. Picture: Steve Salter
The original model in 1963 showing the proposed shopping centre development. At this stage, the scheme was called the Hempsted Street shopping centre. Picture: Steve Salter
After a delay with the final signing off from fire officers following teething problems with the CCTV system, Debenhams opened its doors for the first time at about 9.45am in March 2008
After a delay with the final signing off from fire officers following teething problems with the CCTV system, Debenhams opened its doors for the first time at about 9.45am in March 2008
Construction of the County Square extension. Picture: Steve Salter
Construction of the County Square extension. Picture: Steve Salter
The upper high street showing work on the Tufton Centre in 1972. Picture: Steve Salter
The upper high street showing work on the Tufton Centre in 1972. Picture: Steve Salter
The Debenhams lettering can still be seen on the outside of the centre
The Debenhams lettering can still be seen on the outside of the centre

Mr Rose has signed a 15-year lease for his unit and hopes to open the store by the end of November.

"In the end, I am sure somewhere like Ashford will start to see shoppers return," he said.

"We are happy to be moving into the centre and are pleased to have the opportunity.

"I think there is a future here and I am committed to it – it's got my vote."

Do you have any memories or old photos of the centre you'd like to share with us? Email dwright@thekmgroup.co.uk

For another Ashford archive feature, click here

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