Many developers have a reputation for knowing little about the locality in which they are about to build – and caring even less.
The same charge cannot be levelled against Liam Hopper, who is looking to develop a mixed retail and housing site in Tonbridge High Street.
The 37-year-old spent the first 12 years of his life in the town before moving with his family to Tunbridge Wells.
He suffers from dyslexia and left school at 16 with no qualifications whatsoever, but continued his studies at the London Metropolitan University and came away with an HND in Interior Design.
In 2008, while still in his 20s, he founded The Kitchen Group Retail Co after taking on and rebranding a company that had failed in the recession.
Over the next decade, he expanded taking on other companies and opening stores across the South East, along with supplying kitchens to FTSE house builders, his order book reached a peak of £30m. After further acquisitions, post-pandemic, he was able to sell in 2021 to German firm Nolte Kuchen GMBH.
Much of his trade had been selling into the construction market, putting kitchens into new homes.
That gave him the inspiration for his new business – Hopper Homes – and he was able to complete his first two houses, in Brookmead, Hildenborough, after only a six-month build.
He has now acquired 78c Tonbridge High Street.
Most recently, the building was a Poundland, but at one stage had been an International Stores supermarket.
Starting as a tea-importing company in 1878, International had become one of Britain’s first supermarket chains. The firm was closed in 1994, but the International supermarkets had already been sold off in 1984, with some eventually becoming Somerfields.
Mr Hopper’s first link to the site was through his mother, who had worked at the International.
But then he also discovered that before the supermarket had been built it was the site on the Tonbridge Baptist Church.
He said: “This site has a remarkable history. It was the church for more than 100 years, but following the Great Floods of Tonbridge in 1968, the building was ruined beyond repair.
“The Baptists decided to move location and sell the land for development, with the International opening in 1969.
“The Baptists moved to a new church at Darenth Avenue which is actually where my mother met my father and where they married.
“I feel really connected to 78C High Street and I’m so happy to be transforming it into a new modern scheme. But it is a scheme that will also reflect the past.”
Mr Hopper has spent hours at the Baptist Church researching its history and hopes to incorporate features in his new build that will be reminiscent of its history, beginning with its name – the development is to be known as The Nave.
He said: “We will be bringing the original front glass window of the Baptist Church into the logo of the scheme as well as other historic remembrance milestones.”
The existing 1970s building is being demolished. Piling for the next structure starts in the next few weeks, with completion targeted for the end of the year.
Mr Hopper plans a four-storey building to comprise six flats; four with one bedroom and two with two bedrooms.
There will be a pedestrian entrance for the flats on the High Street.
On the ground floor, there will be a single retail unit of 2,900 sq ft.
The Baptists first started meeting in Tonbridge in an upper room at the Town Hall. They declared themselves to be the Baptist Congregational Church on April 8, 1868, with the Rev J. Turner as their minister.
By 1872, they were able to raise the £1,500 needed to have Powell and Everest of Tonbridge build the church in the High Street.
Designed in Gothic style, it could seat 400 people. It had a gallery at its east end and was lit by gas lighting.
Heating wasn’t installed until around the turn of the century.
The first full-immersion baptism was held on May, 8, 1872.
In 1937, the church bought a cottage at the back of the building to use as a Sunday School and a meeting place for youth groups, later adding the cottage next door.
Unfortunately, the building was subjected to flooding several times, with the worst in 1911.
Then it all went wrong on September 15, 1968, when Tonbridge experienced a severe flood.
The church was flooded to a depth of four feet.
Although the church was initially able to reopen a fortnight after the water subsided, the Baptists had had enough.
It was decided to move to the Longmead Estate.
The High Street site was sold to the International Stores for £112,750 on November 17, 1969.