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What stood before Westwood Cross, Bluewater, Hempstead Valley, Fremlin Walk, Whitefriars and the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet?

By: Chris Britcher

Published: 05:00, 27 August 2023

Development is something we’ve all become used to over recent years – with sites being turned into housing left, right and centre.

But what once stood where our established shopping centres are now sited? We take a look at some of the biggest in the county so you can imagine what life was like before the shops arrived.

Westwood Cross has been a huge success. Picture: Phil Houghton

Westwood Cross, Thanet

Thanet’s premier shopping centre remains hugely popular – even if it did deliver an enormous blow to the town centres of neighbouring Margate and Ramsgate when it opened for business in 2005.

In fact, it could be said it put them on life support...which is ironic given that Westwood Cross is sat on top of a former hospital site.


Haine Hospital was opened in 1902 and catered for patients from across Thanet and, eventually, Canterbury. During both world wars, it cared for injured servicemen – courtesy of its proximity to nearby Manston Airport, then known simply as RAF Manston.

There remain relics around the shopping centre site which are easy to miss but provide a glimpse into the past.

The old gateway to Haine Hospital at Westwood Cross - one of the last remaining relics of its past
Engravings made by servicemen treated at the hospital can still be seen on the wall

Sections of curved walls in the main car park and on the perimeter of the site include engravings – many of which were made by servicemen who were recuperating on the site.

The hospital closed in 1986 – the building was left abandoned until the site was sold in 2002 for the shopping centre.

Fremlin Walk, Maidstone

The mid-2000s was something of a boom for new shopping centres. Fuelled by the threat of Bluewater’s opening in 1999, many towns realised they needed to up their game. Just a shame the traditional high street model was about to experience such a massive shake-up over the following decade.

Fremlin Walk, slap bang in Maidstone town centre, opened in 2005 and was seen as a major move towards the county town reclaiming its status as a shoppers' paradise.

Fremlin Walk has ensured Maidstone has a compelling town centre offering

It was constructed – and took its name – from the former Fremlin brewery which originally sat on the site.


First opened in 1861, at one stage it was Kent’s biggest. But after being taken over by Whitbread in 1967 production started to decline and the site was downgraded until eventually closing for good in the 1970s. The bulk of the site was demolished in 1981.

Fremlin Walk under construction on the site of the former brewery

As town chiefs looked to revitalise the town, the remaining relics of the site were demolished and Fremlin Walk shopping centre emerged in its place.

The only remaining part of the old brewery building is the distinctive arch entrance on Earl Street.

The town’s Royal Star Arcade, meanwhile, was formerly the town’s swanky hotel – firstly known as The Star, before it acquired a ‘royal’ prefix courtesy of a visit by a young Queen Victoria – before it was repurposed into a shopping precinct in the mid to late 1980s.

The Royal Star Hotel in Maidstone – now a shopping centre

Royal Victoria Place, Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells was never short of a shop of two. Across its sprawling town centre – linking the top and bottom of the town – it was always big on retail.

Royal Victoria Place in Tunbridge Wells. Picture: RVP/ David Dettmann

But in the mid-1980s it decided it wanted to increase its reputation as a shopping destination for west Kent as well as pulling in punters from nearby East Sussex.

So the Victoria Project was formed – designed to bring the town into the modern era with a big covered shopping complex. Over time it evolved into being known as Royal Victoria Place – being officially opened in 1992 by none other than Princess Diana.

Princess Diana arriving to cut the ribbon at the then-new Royal Victoria Place in Tunbridge Wells

The centre is just off the town’s traditional high street, Calverley Road. The RVP site nestles behind it and was previously a selection of terraced houses, a car park and smaller shops – all of which were subject to compulsory purchase orders as part of the development plans.

Whitefriars, Canterbury

Canterbury is a city rich in history and there is perhaps no better example of that than worth pondering as you stroll around the shops in Whitefriars.

Whitefriars under construction in 2002. Picture: BAM

Because the site has, over time, been a monastery (dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538), the original site of two grammar schools – both Simon Langton boys’ and girls’ – and then extensively bombed during the Second World War. Rebuilt into shops, offices and an ugly multistorey car park, many still have fond memories of the old bridge which linked the upper floors of the car park to the shops and boasted Morelli’s ‘coffee shoppe’.

Shoppers at Whitefriars in Canterbury

Come the 1990s, the city was keen to give the city centre a modern revamp – work on the shopping centre started in 1999. As work got underway, archaeologists got the chance for a rare look at what lay beneath the medieval city.

Six years after work began, the shopping complex officially opened to the public.

Bluewater, Greenhithe

For all the success Bluewater has enjoyed over the years, perhaps its single biggest achievement was to ensure the rest of the county’s retail hubs were all forced to up their game as it leached customers from across Kent town centres.

Aerial view of the construction work at Bluewater in April 1998

Huge, free, car parks, cinemas and a massive covered retail and restaurant area meant folk from across Kent got in their cars, and spent a day – and their money – there instead.

Opened in 1999, it immediately trumped rival Lakeside just over the other side of the Thames in Essex.

It’s a remarkable transformation for the site which, when the diggers moved in, was a vast abandoned chalk quarry. The cutaway cliff walls of which are still clearly visible to shoppers.

The sheer sides of the former quarry surround Bluewater today

Its life as a quarry dates back to the 19th century, with work continuing at the site until the 1980s by which time it had spent several decades producing cement. Coincidentally, a host of fossils were found at the site over the years – among them the ancient remains of mammoth, bison and even rhinoceros.

Ashford Designer Outlet

For many years, Ashford’s retail offering was all rather beige. The town centre was functional and ticked the box when it came to all the once dominant chains, but it lacked being a real destination. If you wanted a day out at the shops, residents tended to head to Canterbury.

An aerial view of the Designer Outlet Centre with its distinctive design. Picture: Ady Kerry / Ashford Borough Council

But that all changed when the Designer Outlet opened for business in 2000. Originally called the Ashford Meadows Leisure Park, planning began at the dawn of the 1990s.

The well-designed – its distinctive ‘tent’ like canopies making it rather eye-catching – and easily accessible site saw those arriving by car parked at the heart of the complex and cocooned by cut-price designer gear.

While Tunbridge Wells’ Royal Victoria Place had Princess Diana cut the ribbon, Ashford had gardener Charlie Dimmock officially declare it open for business.

The development in Ashford sits on former railway works. Picture: McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Ashford

It is a remarkable transformation for what was once part of the town’s sprawling railway industry.

The town was largely built up as a consequence of its rail heritage, with many areas around the mainline tracks dedicated to sidings and engineering sheds – which is exactly what was once sited where the McArthurGlen site now occupies.

Chatham Dockside Outlet

For much of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Medway found itself somewhat bereft. The industry which had defined it – the once thriving dockyard in Chatham – had left and taken with it the area’s economic backbone.

Dockside Outlet Centre has helped transform the waterfront in Chatham

But over the years it has been revived. The huge complexes which only hummed to the constant throb of industry have now been transformed, repurposed or simply cleared to make way for a modern-day offering; be it education, residential or retail.

Which brings us to the Chatham Dockside Outlet. It sits within a refurbished Grade II-listed boiler shop which once formed part of the sprawling dockyard complex. As part of the modern, yet drenched in history, Chatham Maritime site, it is situated close to the Historic Dockyard – the repurposed tourism arm of the transformation – and the berths and piers which were once so essential to the shipyard.

The Dockside Outlet was created from the former dockyard Old Boiler Shop

Opened in 2003, it is the living embodiment of repurposing for a modern era.

Hempsted Valley, Gillingham

Opened in 1978, Hempstead Valley was, in its day, a pioneer when it came to destination shopping complexes.

Taking a leaf out of the sprawling indoor malls in the US, it claims to be the first out-of-town shopping centre in the South East and was only the second to offer a now-obligatory food court.

Hempstead Valley in 1982

Initially known as the Hempstead Savacentre, it was just off the M2 and its early marketing described itself as “having a whole town in one store”, with free car parking and even boasting of the “cheapest petrol around”.

Aerial view of Hempstead Valley in 1997

As with all out-of-town centres since, its opening had an impact on the town centres of the other Medway towns.

As to what was there before? It was open fields and farmland – all of which was transformed into the shopping complex which remains today.

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