This heritage text was produced with the help of community groups, Ashford residents and Oak Tree Primary School in Ashford and compiled by the Ashford Green Corridor Officer. The Ashford Green Corridor is part of the Kentish Stour Countryside Project, which aims to conserve, protect and promote the Stour Valley. Funding for this heritage project was made available by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Special thanks to the teachers and pupils at Oak Tree Primary School for all their hard work and to the residents and community groups of Ashford for their entertaining tales over endless cups of tea!
(Please note that this is only a reduced version of the final project and a copy of the project in full is available for viewing in the reference section of Ashford Library).
This heritage text concerns an area of green space called the Ashford Green Corridor (AGC) that sits alongside the River Stour in Ashford. Although at risk of flooding from the River Stour, the flood plain role of the AGC has actually helped secure the land’s very survival as green space. A periodic flow of water over the riverbanks during heavy rainfall has ensured nature prevails and with it an abundance of wildlife has remained, or even taken up residence where habitats have been improved.
The Ashford Green Corridor is exactly as the name suggests - a ‘corridor’ and should not therefore be seen as an isolated piece of land. This corridor through Ashford creates a line for wildlife to either reside in or pass through on a migratory basis. Isolated pockets of habitat vegetation are of course important, but a link between them that extends out of an individual park creates migration paths and interwoven links for wildlife that are far more beneficial.
As for the human element, green spaces such as the AGC offer people a chance to escape busy urban environments into the peaceful tranquillity and richness of nature. Equally the AGC is important for community groups such as ramblers, environmental groups, nature enthusiasts, health walkers and fishermen. Children can experience organised activities or schools visits or simply use the space for their own recreation.
As much as the corridor acts a physical 'chain' of green spaces, it is also a corridor linking the area to its past. For while the appearance of bank side vegetation and adjacent land parcels may have changed, the course of the river has altered relatively little in many parts, making it a direct link to the past. In similar historical terms, the Ashford Green Corridor is both a product of and influencing factor over the surrounding area, shaping past and future. This project’s aim therefore is to discover more of the Ashford Green Corridor’s development by recording the land use history and man-made heritage surrounding its individual sites.
The findings of this heritage project will be presented as a journey following the river. As we follow its path, stops will be made to look a specific AGC sites their environs. Along the way a tale or two will be shared about both the characters that worked the land and the land itself.
Major themes that shaped the present need and usage of the green space - such as the agricultural market, the railways and WW2 - are explored. There will be facts you may have heard before and some that may prove new to you, but all need to be preserved, before they are lost forever. Let not the pass-time of storytelling in Ashford become a dying trait, but instead live on to ensure the importance of the Ashford Green Corridor continues to be recognised once the project that takes its name ends this year.
The Ashford Green Corridor
In order to describe the AGC, it seems fitting to start with the three main rivers that flow through Ashford - the Great Stour, the East Stour and the Aylesford Stream. The word ‘Stour’ means ‘Strong and powerful’ in Latin, and was originally recorded as Stur in 686 AD. The Great Stour begins its journey close to the village of Lenham. Heading south-east, it passes through the beautiful estate of Godinton Park and enters the Green Corridor at Great Chart. At neighbouring Buxford the river makes an abrupt 45 degree change in direction, continuing initially north-easterly, then south-easterly, through the AGC sites of Singleton Lake, Watercress Fields, Victoria Park and Bowen’s Field. Once again the Great Stour has a change of mind and alters its navigation northwards through Civic Centre South Park. At the far end of adjacent Civic Centre North Park the Great Stour teams up with the East Stour.
The East Stour's source is close to the village of Postling near Folkestone. It travels in the opposite direction to the Great Stour, on a north-easterly course. Having passed several old watermills, passed almost unnoticed through villages and open spaces, South Willesborough is the first part of the AGC that it reaches. Once in the region of the South Willesborough Dykes, it turns north, flowing alongside the Great Stour through Civic Centre North Park. Ultimately the East Sour ends its journey and flow into the Great Stour at Queens Mother’s park. The Great Stour then heads off north, out of Ashford towards the chalk of the North Downs.
The Aylesford Stream runs through the heart of Willesborough and South Willesborough.
The rivers, streams and Dykes of Ashford have sought assistance from the surrounding low lying flat land, as much needed flood plain after heavy rainfall. The result is a corridor rich in habitat and attractive to the eye with a network of parks and open spaces. Water voles, breeding birds, white clawed crayfish, moths, butterflies, flowering plants, reptiles and amphibians are just a taster of the wildlife that takes delight in such a cared for riverside location. The management is varied, depending upon its human usage and wildlife. For example meadows have been created in some areas, with grassland being allowed to grow long for wildlife and then cut once in late summer.
In 2002 Ashford Borough Council officially declared parts of the AGC as a Local Nature Reserve (LNR). LNRs are places that are recognised for their wildlife interest and nature conservation value. The fact that the AGC has such wildlife rich habitats in such close proximity to where people live, makes the area all the more important. The AGC runs right through the heart of Ashford’s centre; close to commerce, residential areas and busy transport links. The AGC can also lead a person along the riverside from the town into the countryside. The parts of the green corridor on the outskirts of the town have therefore been likened to gateways to the countryside - ideal places to start exploring the rural areas surrounding Ashford.
Now let's start exploring some of the individual sites and areas within and close to the Green Corridor.
The journey of this heritage project begins at the outer fringes of the Ashford Green Corridor – at Godinton Park.
Godinton House remained in the Toke family until Colonel John Leslie Toke was forced to sell it in 1896 to Ashley Dodd, having gambled away his families inheritance. The great grandfather of Great Chart resident Marjorie Brissenden was head gamekeeper to Ashley Dodd and recalls him having a wonderful time while employed in this position. There were several gamekeepers employed and as head gamekeeper Marjorie’s great grandfather lived in ‘Fir Lodge’, now called ‘Keepers Cottage’ and no longer a gamekeeper's house. Her great grandfather would accompany Ashley Dodd on his fishing and shooting excursions including trips to Scotland. One of Marjorie’s aunts was also a maid up at the house for a short while and her father used to undertake carpentry and decoration work at Godinton House; thus it is clear to see how Marjorie’s ancestry is rooted deep in the heart of the area.
One of Godinton’s present day estate workers is tenant farmer John Smith - also a member of The Great Chart Society set up in 1989. At the age of eleven John Smith moved to Ashford when his father became a tenant farmer on the Godinton estate in 1948. One of John Smith’s fondest memories of the Godinton estate was an avenue of trees planted in a triple row, along an access route in its southern boundary area. John Smith recalls how ‘The Avenue’, as it became known, would “shiver making a gorgeous and magnificent sound”, reminiscent of the Tennyson poem:
Willows white, aspen quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Tho’ the wave that runs forever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot
Tennyson (‘The Lady of Shallot’)
Sadly the 1987 hurricane brought ‘The Avenue’ down and it has since been replanted as a single row - now a less dramatic shiver, yet a shiver to nudge the senses. John Smith recalls how the wind used to cause a different kind of destruction on the Godinton estate, in the form of fire. Steam trains would create sparks in their wake as they accelerated out of Ashford station; the sparks would land among crops and the wind would spread the fire. The sight of smoke caused neighbours to jump into their cars and race out to the spot to help beat the fire out. Eleven such fires occurred on the Godinton estate in the space of seventeen years.
The weather played a key role in the second job that John Smith’s father upheld, as insurance assessor for the National Farmers Union. One particular part of this job entailed assessing whether a cow had been struck by lightning - a single mark running from head to foot was the confirmation sign. Evidently cattle sheltering under trees and then proceeding to be struck by lightning was a far more common occurrence when John Smith was a child, with six to eight deaths in the Ashford area per year. He stressed that this was far more of a rarity these days - perhaps the word had spread amongst the cattle community or rubber soled boots are now supplied! On warmer days his father inserted a long thermometer into numerous haystacks around Ashford to check they were not too hot. If a ‘hot-stack’ was discovered, the owner would have to turn or move it to avoid the outbreak of fire.
John Smith’s Wife, Chris, recalls the large wrought iron gates into Ashford market (Elwick road) where her father worked from an office. Brown’s Fruits were always positioned just inside the gates on the right hand side, and the large buildings for cattle and sheep sales towered in the background. Her father’s office stood amongst a row of others - a sign of the many businesses associated with the agricultural market. John Smith points out that even though the market used to be a great deal larger, it is still the largest in the south-east.
Just as farmers from around Ashford would make their way into the town centre for the market, so too would the younger generation to meet for the Young Farmers Club. John Smith explains that farm units used to be much smaller, meaning more people once lived directly off the Godinton estate and as a consequence there were far more farmer’s sons or daughters to attend the Ashford Young Farmers Club. In today’s climate the farm units need to be far larger in order to survive. One of John Smith’s leading memories of the club was its president - Dustin Schilbeck (also principal of Wye College) and his regular instruction to the members to “Keep breeding. Keep breeding, indoors and out!”
In John Smith’s teenage years, leisure time was often spent practising his rifle shooting for the Home Guard. The location for this target practice was one of the old quarries in Great Chart. Although only sixteen years old at the time, he claimed to be older in order to be permitted to fire a Bren gun. On one occasion the officer in charge of the Home Guard, Alley Watts, left hastily to open his pub and instructed John Smith to take the Bren gun home with him until they next met. Thus the gun remained in his bedroom for weeks - an exciting time for an enthusiastic home guard and a far cry from the strict weapon control of modern times. Godinton farm tenant Jim Kerr (also a member of the Great Chart Society) explained that these quarries, where John Smith practised his rifle shooting, have since been filled with soil taken from the Charter House site (central Ashford) during excavation for its foundations.
One final recollection John Smith shared concerned a gentleman called Fred Coley - alias the ‘bread and cheese’ man. Fred Coley lived in New Lane in Great Chart and there built himself an old pram frame with a small engine inside. The contraption was attached to the back of his bike and used to transport his shearing equipment and of course the all important bread and cheese. However far Fred cycled to the job in hand, however physically demanding the job may have transpired, however hot or cold the day proved, bread and cheese washed down with a flask of cold tea remained his set lunch time intake. On one occasion, in those days of non-mechanical ditch digging, Fred and John Smith’s father were strenuously digging ditches in the Godinton estate. At lunch time Fred declined the offer of hot soup for lunch or at the very least to escape the freezing whether conditions and instead crouched down in one of the ditches, put his coat over his head and enjoyed his bread, cheese and cold tea. Fred was an incredibly fit and healthy man who seemed to escape colds and other such illness - clearly a man who would not have been impressed by modern day excessive central heating use.
For Godinton farm tenant Jim Kerr, it is the memories of wartime rationing that will never leave him. Before moving to Great Chart, Jim Kerr lived as a young boy in neighbouring Chilmington. With American servicemen commandeering his father’s land for an airstrip and residing in the spare rooms of his father’s farm house, issues of food were always on the agenda. On one occasion Jim's mother heard the catering officer for the American camp heading through the house towards the kitchen. Unbeknown to the officer, his sergeant cook was trading food for the wartime luxury of eggs and on this occasion it had been for the 200 weight of sugar now resting at Jim Kerr’s mother’s feet. Unable to move the heavy sugar, she sat on the pile and spread her skirt out over it. On entering the kitchen the officer said “Hey Mrs Kerr, how are you?”. “Oh I’m not feeling too good. I’m just going to take a rest” she replied. “Can I help?” the officer asked. “No, no I’ll be all right”. So off he went through to his room and Mrs Kerr was up and instructing the sugar to be carried out, as fast as Mr Kerr could carry it!
The luxury of eggs also caused a light hearted race for the chickens whenever a ‘cackle’ was heard. Jim Kerr explained that many of the soldiers came from farms and therefore knew this cackle meant the possibility of an egg. On one occasion Jim Kerr’s mother caught one of the soldiers just putting his hand into his shirt (to hide an egg of course). In order to imply he was merely admiring the chickens, he turned to Jim Kerr’s mother and said, “That’s a fine chicken you’ve got ma'm, a fine chicken,” before walking away!
The servicemen brought further amusement to the family with their idea of shooting. Having requested Jim Kerr’s father for an afternoon of partridge shooting, Mr Kerr was more than a little shocked to find them turning up with Thompson sub-machine guns. With bullets flying everywhere, a whole new light was introduced to the sport of pheasant shooting - although as to what the Shooting Times would make of it, who knows!
One of the soldiers moved out leaving all his rubbish in the room in his wake. Following his departure, a lady went up to clear it all out and innocently picked up some gelignite and detonators. She took them downstairs and placed them by the stove before turning to Jim Kerr’s father to check they were fine to burn. “Can you look at this because there’s some funny things in there”, she said. Jim Kerr’s father recognised them straight away and quickly carried them out of the house. The bomb disposal team arrived and confirmed there was enough explosives in there to blow the house sky high. Right to the other side of Great Chart no doubt!
In 1936 Jim Kerr and his family first moved to Great Chart, when his father became a tenant of the Godinton estate and in 1952 Jim Kerr entered into partnership with his uncle, again on land that lay within the park estate. His early memories echo those of John Smith with regards to field size - they were far smaller then. Prior to the installation of a dam, part of Kim Kerr’s farm on the Godinton estate was prone to flooding from the Great Stour. Jim knew that within three hours of heavy rain, the riverbanks would overflow and the sheep would therefore need to be moved. On one occasion the sheep had already become stranded on a bank surrounded by water. The shepherd waded across the water armed with a rope to tie around one of the sheep. Jim and his wife Anne pulled the other end of the rope from dry land and, in the true spirit of sheep, where one ventured, the rest followed. Unbeknown to Jim and Anne, in trying to pull the first sheep to safety, its head had been submerged in the water and they feared the worst. As they turned to assist the other sheep, the one presumed dead stood up and walked away as if nothing had happened – making for a one hundred percent successful rescue mission.
Jim Kerr’s father would transport cattle to Ashford market by trailer, whilst his uncle would drove them by foot along Godinton Road. On one occasion one of the bullocks, clearly intent on doing a spot of shopping, strayed into a local shop selling pictures and re-appeared into the street with a picture on his horns. As Jim put it, “All hell was to pay!”
Arriving at Ashford market (with or without additional pictures on horns) has always been a time Jim Kerr looks forward to with eagerness. It’s a chance to have a gossip and catch up on the price of wheat, cattle and the like, and every Tuesday Jim is there. Unfortunately with food and milk prices for farmers low and showing no signs of improvement, many of the younger generation are opting not to enter into farming as a career - a situation that clearly presents itself at the weekly market with few young faces among those attending.
For Godinton estate manager, Nick Sandford, managing the house and land requires a very different approach in these modern times. During a presentation for the Great Chart Society in March 2007 Nick revealed that the estate now plays host to a number of community based activities such as outdoor theatre performances, exhibitions (ranging from sculptures to Rolls Royce rallies) and workshops on gardening, working with willow and longbow shooting. He added that since the Christmas decoration workshop glitter is still being found in the strangest of places. Farming is also approached progressively, with experimentation in growing biofuel crops (willow) and rainwater storage for irrigation.
Now residing in Brabourne Lees, Donald Woolley was born in 1921 and lived in Godinton Road, Great Chart until the age of 22. A cottage in Singleton Road, Great Chart was home to relatives of Donald from approximately 1850 until 2004, so he feels a great association with the village. In Donald’s eyes the bypass saved Great Chart, permitting it to remain relatively unchanged from his childhood memories. “I’ve seen pictures taken from the top and you could take the same picture today,” he says. The four stone cottages that were once the only dwellings along Singleton Road still exist.
Donald’s earliest memories of Great Chart include sitting on the front of this father’s bike and heading off to collect wild flowers from around the area to bring home and press. It is a great pleasure for him to see these wildflowers growing again, such as those planted in various Ashford Green Corridor sites. Donald remembers that at the end of Godinton Road there were allotments, a cricket field, and beyond them pasture fields occupied by sheep. The man who looked after the sheep lived in the village. He was short in stature, as was his wife, and as the pair walked down the road together he was always a few steps ahead, with his wife trailing behind. Donald and friends referred to the pair as ‘Mr Bean and his little lamb’. Whilst the sheep grazing made for a beautiful countryside landscape on one side of the road, the other side housed a brickworks and the familiar scars of excavation. To Donald and his friends these excavations were a source of great fun, creating a series of islands for them to jump between.
Donald’s maternal grandmother was from the Sinden family and her brother farmed a great deal of the farmland on the Godinton estate. In fact he planted a long row of chestnut trees along either side of the A28 all the way to Great Chart and around the cricket ground. Unfortunately many were lost to the 1987 hurricane.
Donald’s grandfather on his mother’s side was the Great Chart signal man - the signal box once stood close to the present day recycling premises. His journey to work consisted of a short walk down the road and over the bridge from his cottage. There were two such cottages that occupied this isolated area and his grandfather’s neighbour worked on the Godinton estate. Donald remembers as a child his grandmother feeding the chickens she kept at the cottage and is sure that the painting by Jemmett of a lady feeding her chickens, is actually his grandmother. Many of the roads in Ashford are named after Jemmett, for he was a highly influential man and ‘quite a character’ as Donald put it!
After marrying at the age of twenty-two, Donald and his wife moved to Victoria Crescent and then Hythe Road. For many Christmas days to follow, they would return to Great Chart to visit their family. Their travels were always by foot along a similar route that is now an official foot/cycle path through the Ashford Green Corridor. At this stage in Donald’s life he worked for Ashford Urban District Council in a building in Kings Parade. He recalls the impressive nature of the building with its high balcony, where speeches would be delivered on special occasions. The fire brigade was also located in Kings Parade, run by a gentleman named Harry Shorter - owner of a shop that sold tobacco and pipes and which still exists as a tobacconist today. Many of the young men working in the offices and shops worked part-time for the fire brigade, changing into their protective clothing and dashing off as soon as the siren was heard. The Ashford fire brigade is thought to be the oldest in Britain and Donald revealed that a further business resident of Kings Parade, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, was the first of its kind in Kent.
With the proposed building of the M20, Donald and his wife moved from Hythe Road to Brabourne Lees and Donald is now a member of the Brabourne and Smeeth Footpath Association. The group was established in 1973 and seeks to promote the waymarking, protection and use of local footpaths in the two parishes. He explained that the Brabourne Lees and Smeeth area was important in the Napoleonic war with a hospital field close to the present day village green. Evidently the parish boundary between Brabourne Lees and Smeeth lies across this village green; Smeeth garage is in Smeeth Parish while the house next door is in Brabourne. Donald further explained that the stream used to be the official boundary, before man altered its route. Donald remarked that Brabourne is a highly viable village with a good village shop (unfortunately the general store selling everything from a tic-tac to a lawn-mower has closed), a hairdresser, four churches and four pubs!
Enter into a discussion of the history of Great Chart and there is no escaping the subject of World War II. The memoirs of Great Chart residents Marjorie Brissenden and John Baker are no exception to this rule. They spoke of landing strips dotted in and around Great Chart and of a search light in nearby Singleton. They explained that Stanhope estate was once a prisoner of war camp and that the prisoners themselves were often forced to work on farms. They recalled heavy anti aircraft guns being fired in nearby Goldwell which shook the whole of Great Chart village. They also relayed the happy memory of trains stopping at the Great Chart signal box (where the grandfather of Donald Woolley worked), allowing service men to pick the ox-eye daises.
The war also introduced Marjorie Brissenden to someone who still remains her friend today. One day during World War II many of the Great Chart village children were sat on the grass bank opposite the village hall, waiting for a coach to arrive with evacuee children on board from London. Evacuee Frances was chosen to lodge at the Brissenden’s home on account of the fact she was taking piano lessons and the family owned a piano. Frances (13 years old) shared a bedroom with Marjorie (9 years old) until the threat of invasion and enemy shelling across the channel meant Frances was relocated to Wales.
Marjorie Brissenden explained that with no television in the days of World War II, children were not really aware of the dangers involved in war and thus it was seen more as fun than anything else. John Baker added that to children war was realistically their main source of fun, it was more like an ongoing adventure. In fact he wanders how many children managed to escape injury in view of their inquisitive nature towards enemy plane crashes and bombs!
Marjorie can remember cycling home from the hop gardens with her friends after an afternoon spent picking, only to find that all the American soldiers along the route were laying or crouched down in ditches. With planes fighting up above, the Americans cried out to the girls, “Get Down. Get Down!” Unperturbed the girls replied, “No, we’re going home to tea!”.
One evening John Baker and a friend were walking up Hill Crest in order to reach Chilmington from Great Chart. Along the route they came into company with an old colonel who used to enjoy talking with the local people. He asked John Baker, “What are you looking at boy?” John replied, “Those black dots in the sky over there”. “Get down, get down,” cried the colonel, realising it was a doodle bug (a V1 ‘flying bomb’). John Baker wondered whether he was ever going to see his family again as it flew straight over him, landing just over the railway bridge. V1s, although intended for London, often ran out of fuel before they reached the city; when the noise of their engine stopped, that was the sign that it was about to drop from the sky.
Marjorie’s father was witness to one of the first doodle bugs as he sat outside the air raid shelter one evening. He was unable to identify the object that appeared to be travelling through the air with a flame at its rear and making a loud noise. By then Marjorie was going to school in Ashford and would travel by bike with her friends. On arriving at school one morning, the air was black with doodle bugs and the school was almost deserted. Marjorie and friends were thus told to return home and off they pedalled with little concern or worry.
The garden belonging to Marjorie’s family home used to back onto the village allotments. In the event of any aircraft flying over head, Marjorie’s father would assist her mother and herself into the air raid shelter in the garden, plus any neighbours seeking refuge, and he would then sit on bench outside. On one occasion a horrible crash was heard and everyone thought a parachutist had landed in the allotments. Quite scared by this prospect, a search to find out was held off until the following morning, at which point it was discovered that the noise had been somebody’s runner beans blowing over!
Her father (the village builder, carpenter and undertaker) owned a car, which unfortunately at the outbreak of the war had to be stored away and have its wheels removed in case the enemy discovered it. Meanwhile down at the cricket pitch, the war meant few men were left in great Chart to play the sport. Before the war, the cricket pitch was forbidden territory to children and had fencing all around it. The war relaxed this rule and children took up the sport in place of their fathers, continuing to play after the war’s end. On one such occasion at the end of the war Marjorie was looking forward to her first ride in her father’s car since the war had broken out and was expressing this delight to her fellow cricket companions. “Cor, you’re lucky. I wish I could go out in the car,” responded playmate Colin Mercer. Having returned home for dinner, there was a knock at Marjorie’s front door. Colin had fallen over, breaking his arm and now needed a lift to hospital in the car. So he got his ride after all!
At Great Chart playing fields the Ashford Green Corridor project has helped plant a hedge and improve access. In the land around the nearby Great Chart Rifle Club, the Ashford Green Corridor project has created a small wildlife pond. The pond now attracts a range of amphibians to its water and a whole host of wildlife to its diverse bank side vegetation.
Venture through the A28 underpass from Great Chart and you will arrive at the next point in this heritage project - Buxford Meadow. Buxford Meadow is a small area of wet grassland and woodland. It is certainly a wildlife hotspot, home to 12 different dragonflies and damselflies, 59 moths, over 100 different plants and a great variety of birds. Field vole and pygmy shrew enjoy the grassland, whilst wood mouse and bank vole prefer the woodland. Wellington boots are a must in the woodland during wet periods. It is likely that this is a secondary woodland for no woodland is shown in this area on the 1876 Ordinance Survey map. Similarly the pond in the middle of the meadow, supporting frogs, toads and smooth newts, does not exist on this map. Wet meadow surrounds the pond, within which a variety of willows can be seen - white willow, crack willow and goat willow.
The Great Stour divides the meadow from a nearby mill stream that has been the site of a mill since at least the 13th century. The name Buxford is also very old and refers to the presence of bucks (male deer) at a ford (a crossing point on the river), indicating that the estate had a deer park. Buxford Manor was built in the 17th century as a dower house of the Toke family of Godinton. Whilst in the ownership of Mrs Toke, the house was in need of a gardener, and the father of Great Chart resident, John Baker filled the position. John Baker’s father remained in the post until he was later offered a higher paid job with the railway and having a family to feed, decided to take the offer.
Directly opposite Buxford meadow is the large lake of Singleton. Although the lake sits with ease amongst its surroundings, its history is relatively recent. It is actually a man-made fishing lake, constructed as a pleasant environment for residents of the nearby housing estate. Despite this, Singleton Lake has quickly developed into a wildlife haven in the Ashford Green Corridor. The depth of the lake makes it ideal for diving birds such as the great crested grebe. At night Daubenton's bats fly over the water, whilst a more permanent feature is visible by day - a sculpture of a heron by Anthony Gormley, creator of the ‘Angel of the North’.
Councillor Alan Allcock (ABC Member for Beaver Ward) commented that those living close to Singleton Lake for some years may find it hard now to ever think of it not being there. There was a time when locals would see grassland, thoroughbred horses grazing and enjoy a pleasant rural walk along Buxford Lane on past the mill. As a London commuter this provided Alan Allcock with quiet and peace after his train journey. It was a big surprise to one day find a digger excavating the lake. It has taken some years to settle down but now it continues to provide a much needed green space for the community and looks like it has always been there. Alan concluded that, “Surely it sends out a message, an environmental message, for current developers to do likewise.”
The name singleton is a corruption of the Old English shyngle tone, meaning a farmstead with a shingled roof. The origins of the name of the lake therefore can be traced to nearby Singleton Manor, a former 14th century farmstead. The picturesque moat of Singleton Manor dates back far earlier to a time when the original manor house was located towards the back of the present day gardens and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Sylvia Roberts, member of The Great Chart Society, takes an active role in trying to piece together the history of Great Chart and its surrounding area. Sylvia takes great delight in both learning new historical facts from those around her about the place that has become her home and in sharing her own knowledge with others. Sylvia explained that Elizabeth Quinton Strouts moved into Singleton Manor in 1906, following her marriage to Richard Stanley Strouts. In January 1915, during World War I, Elizabeth Strouts decided to help the men in the Armed Forces. Having set up a small committee, Elizabeth and other ladies began sending regular parcels and letters to those servicemen from the Great Chart area. The project was funded by local means such as farmers’ gift sales and the cottage gardens’ annual show. These funds helped ensure that an amazing total of 5921 parcels and 989 letters were sent! Sylvia Roberts pointed out that the Strouts of Singleton were renowned for another great achievement –they were pioneers of the Romney Marsh sheep breed!
As with many large houses during the war, Singleton Manor was taken over by the Army. On one occasion during this occupation, Marjorie undertook a spot of fishing in Singleton Moat. Whilst sat on the edge rejoicing her catch of a Perch, Marjorie turned her head to discover a bull staring straight at her. No doubt wishing this was an occasion when the army was outside rather than in, she sat motionless until the bull finally lost interest and walked away.
Great Chart resident John Baker recalls that an avenue of lime trees marking the entry into Singleton Manor were surrounded by stacked bomb cases during World War II. One of the gentlemen who used to defuse the bombs before they were stacked in this way, was an officer who married a local girl after the war and moved into Great Chart permanently.
Sylvia Roberts explained that in 1950, after 250 years ownership by the Guild of Haberdashers, Singleton Manor was sold to Mrs Muddle. In 1978, the present time occupant - race horse owner David Wingham - was issued a compulsory purchase order on the house by Ashford Borough Council, who wished to turn it into a museum. However in 1982 this was decided to be a non-viable.
In 1984 one of Singleton Manor’s outbuildings – the tithe barn - was sold, and is now a public house called the Singleton Barn. This pub is said to have a ghost, which is called George by the staff. There are a number of stories explaining the presence of the ghost, the first of which identifies him as ex-employee who used to sleep rough in the barn and care for the animals; as a tea-totaller he objects to the barn being used as a public house. A second local story says the ghost is Frank Hollier, who was fatally injured when a piece of farm equipment fell on him. A third story concerns a solider that was on duty at Singleton Manor during WWII with a bomb disposal unit, until a bomb went off killing him - Mr Fred Hayward of Great Chart told Sylvia of this tragedy.
Oak Tree Primary School took part in the Ashford Green Corridor heritage project, and four of the pupils were kindly invited by present day owners of Singleton Manor, Mr and Mrs Olympitis, to look around the building. Mrs Olympitis revealed to the four pupils that original beams in the main banqueting hall of Singleton Manor date the room back to 1380. During this period the main hall would have been open right up to the roof of the house, with a large fire in the centre of the room. Seeking advice on reinstating the traditional flooring of the hall, a historical architect informed Mr and Mrs Olympitis that mud mixed with blood to form a hard surface, would be the exact materials. Needless to say they decided to compromise authenticity on this particularly feature! The lord of the manor and his wife and children would retreat to another room to sleep at night; it was called the ‘Solar’ because it faced the sun.
On the opposite side of the banqueting hall from the Solar stood the main entrance, enabling carriages to pull right up alongside and drop off those guests graciously invited by the Lord of the Manor. It was of course important that the Lord of the Manor convey his status by inviting notable personages in the area or passing through on their travels between London and Canterbury, to be lavishly entertained in the banqueting hall.
Mrs Olympitis further explained that the Tudors were the biggest show-offs of all and decided life should be a great deal more comfortable. As a result building work was undertaken extensively during the Tudor period and the manor house gradually grew into much of the building it is today. The main entrance became a hallway with staircase to an upper level. The upper floor beams were huge as too were the joists to support them measuring two feet square. Mrs Olympitis explained that the gaps between the beams were filled with rye grass for insulation - in other places in Kent, wheat was used. Adjacent to the staircase a kitchen was introduced and carvings of wine and wheat in the present day door frame show where this kitchen was once located.
The most significant renovation was the ceiling installed in the banqueting hall. It was created by an Italian artist, who also put in the ceiling at Hampton Court. It is this ceiling that Sylvia Roberts explained earned this Grade II listed building, its additional star. Mrs Olympitis confirmed that although some people believe the ceiling was put in after the earthquake in Great Chart in 1580, it in fact actually survived the earthquake and was put in during the 1560s. The introduction of a ceiling in the room meant the fire had to be moved from the centre and the fireplace was also made into a feature. Two seats were positioned at either side of the hearth for small boys to sit on and turn the meat during banqueting occasions. Oak Tree Primary pupil Dean pointed out that this was surely dangerous and Mrs Olympitis assured him it would not be allowed to happen today!
Before heading back to Singleton Lake, a glance up at Singleton Hill is worthwhile. SWANEG member Nicky West has heard through local stories that Singleton Hill once had three clearly visible trees on its brow that earned it the local name of Crucifixion Hill. Evidently the three trees looked like Christ and the two thieves either side of him, and the field became known as Jesus Field.
The next main stopping point from Singleton Lake in the Ashford Green Corridor is Watercress Fields. The river here has kept much of its wild character despite its particularly urban setting. The meandering path it takes through the Ashford Green Corridor and surrounding landscape is very natural and relatively unchanged. Similarly many wild plants remain at its bank side ready to support an abundance of wildlife. Maps of the late 19th century show a Watercress Farm, now lost to urban development. It is likely this particular farm, was once growing watercress commercially in the Stour.
Tenant farmer of the Godinton estate, Jim Kerr, is almost certain that a Scottish man rented the Watercress Farm for a while, at the turn of the century. Jim explains that times had become particularly hard in Scotland and men came down to the Southeast of England to look for farms (his father included). Jim recalls that passing through the ford near Watercress Farm was the only real route into Ashford - besides a small pedestrian bridge. There were certainly cows grazing at the time but unfortunately Jim cannot recall any sign of watercress being grown.
Brabourne Lees resident Donald Woolley can remember a time when there used to be a man who would travel around selling watercress, shouting, “Fresh green watercress!” This was a sound that Donald used to take for granted like the clang of the milkman’s metal container or the calls of the rag and bone man and the muffin man. He can recall plenty of watercress being grown professionally in areas along the River Stour and thus it seems highly plausible that Watercress Fields takes its name from this.
In 1898, the council bought 17 acres of land for £2,870 from local landowner George Jemmett to create Victoria Park as a leisure facility for local people. The park has since been extended by a further 15 hectares. Old maps show that before becoming a park, the area was agricultural fields with similar boundary lines. Many of the trees visible today were planted in the early 20th century to commemorate important townspeople and various members of the royal family. These trees, the river itself and a small pond provide important habitats for wildlife.
South Willesborough resident Jack Edwards recalls the iron fencing that used to surround Victoria Park, restricting entry to two gates on opposite sides of the park that were locked at night. Besides the residential sand pit, paddling pool and bandstand, it was the firework display held just after World War II that provides the fondest memories for Jack. With pigs on the roast and fun for all the children, Victoria Park took on a carnival feel that evening.
Resident of South Willesborough, Peter, was born in Battersea and moved to Ashford at the age of two when his father started work at the locomotive shed. Peter describes the Park Keeper - a Mr Spicer, an ex-Sergeant Major with a waxed, spiked moustache. On one occasion Mr Spicer caught Peter and his friend scattering piles of mown grass. Grabbing them by the ear, he then kicked them on the backside out of the park.
Kennington resident Norman Ibbotson was born in Blackheath and moved to Ashford in 1936 at the age of six. As a child Norman would often use Victoria Park for recreation and recalls that the park keeper at closing time would deliver a sharp - “Oi, Out” to any youngsters found still inside. Norman added that on hearing this command his friends and himself would pedal for their life! Norman and his wife Sheila still enjoy a walk in the park and commented that it used to be far smaller than it is now, as it sat snuggled between the two working farms.
Tenant farmer of the Godinton estate, Jim Kerr, went to Ashford Grammar School. In order to reach the school from Great Chart he would cycle through Victoria Park. A present day cycle path along the riverside boundary of the park and throughout most of the Green Corridor as a whole, encourages such modes of transport.
Jim Kerr woke one morning to discover twenty cows had escaped from his father’s farm in Chilmington. Approaching a policeman about his missing friends, he was informed of the havoc they had caused through the streets of Ashford the night previous - including knocking over tombstones in the churchyard. With the police having had great fun chasing them around, they finally ended up in Victoria Park!
Local resident of Great Chart, John Baker, remembers how Victoria Park became a gun site during World War II. It is strange to think that heavy anti-aircraft guns were dug into the ground all around the park, yet no sign remains of them now. John Baker recalls the loud screech the rocket guns used to make as they were released. Understandably, members of the public were not allowed into the park and the gates at either end were kept locked.
Resident of South Willesborough, Peter reveals that at the edge of Victoria Park the Great Stour was scooped deeper by the army as an anti-tank ditch, in approximately 1940. As sand and gravel was removed from the river bed and dumped on the bank, hundreds of freshwater mussels shells were exposed, showing the purity of the river water.
Water from the Stour was pumped via sediment basins, into the lido near the park. South Willesborough resident Peter recalls that in the early days of the baths swimming companions often included frogs and grass snakes. The water was apparently then released back into the Great Stour. The lido was opened in 1867 and was the largest in Britain at the time.
The Hubert fountain, installed in the park in 1912, has a particularly interesting past. It was originally exhibited in the Second Grand International Exhibition in London, some 60 years before it came to the park. After the exhibition, it was purchased by Major Sawbridge Erle-Drax of Olantigh House, Wye. Major Sawbridge Erle-Drax was also known as ‘the mad Major of Wye’ as a result of his rather eccentric nature. For example, in the 1860’s he conducted a rehearsal for his own funeral. After a fire at Olantigh. George Harper, a local art dealer, purchased the fountain and donated it to Ashford Urban District Council. Originally it had a set of 64 whistles and Harper donated the fountain on the condition that each year, on his birthday, the fountain was ‘let play’.
The Ashford Green Corridor’s journey now leaves Victoria Park and enters neighbouring Bowen’s Field.
As is the case with most of land throughout the Ashford Green Corridor, Bowen’s field is used as a flood alleviation area and it is a site that remains particularly prone to flooding. This excess water has been put to positive use for the benefit of wildlife by introducing shallow ‘scrapes’ and ponds to the site. These provide excellent conditions for aquatic plants, insects, amphibians and birds. Boardwalks have been installed to improve access. A pond at the far end of the field often requires maintenance from the Ashford volunteers at the Kentish Stour Countryside Project, in the form of cutting back and removing the vegetation that grows vigorously within it.
The 1876 Ordnance Survey map of this part of the Ashford Green Corridor shows that it was still essentially rural, with open fields and sheepfolds. Subsequent maps show housing and industrial development was gradually taking place all around the site of Bowen’s Field, yet it managed to remain one of the last farmed areas in central Ashford. The man who kept this agricultural legacy alive was owner Sidney H. Bowen (1895-1971) who lived on the farm for over 60 years. At the entry point into Bowen’s Field from Victoria Park, a memorial plaque commemorates Mr Bowen. Through researching this heritage project, it became clear there were a number of people who also wished to remember him, and some of their memories are shared in the next section.
Kennington resident Norman Ibbotson came out of the Royal Navy in 1951 aged 21. He met his future wife, Sheila, at the Corn Exchange, where Sheila was performing with the Nita Biggars Dance School. Sheila’s father used to work as a plate-layer for the railway just off Kingsnorth Road, and her uncle worked in the railway works. Sheila recalls the pieces of railway sleepers her father would bring home with which to light the fire. In preparation for his son’s departure from the Royal Navy, Norman’s father set up a Coach Works business where Norman began working and continued running the business after his father’s death, until closing it in 1975. At the bottom corner of Victoria Crescent stood Amberley House Farm, belonging to Sid Bowen. Next to Amberley House was a barn that Norman and his father used to rent for the purpose of building their lorries.
Norman remembers Sid Bowen not primarily as a farmer, which may come as a surprise considering he owned a livestock farm, but more as a horse dealer. A land girl, Kathy Scamp, was more in charge of the farming side, while Sid focused on alternative angles to the business. The dealing of horses was Sid’s main objective in life - he would buy them in the markets to sell straight on. Sid Bowen’s other enterprises included the general trade of cattle and their transportation. Bowen’s field therefore often became an overnight grazing ground for cattle unloaded at Ashford market after a journey from Ireland, Scotland or Wales - a pit stop for which Sid Bowen would charge a fee. The railway used to run alongside the market, enabling cattle to be unloaded straight into the pens. Sheila can remember the huge gates at the entrance to the market and the hubbub of activity inside. The favoured day to visit for Sheila and her children was Tuesday (livestock day), when with so much to see, getting all the way around was a difficult task!
After an overnight stay (or sometimes longer) in Sid Bowen’s field the cattle would return to Ashford market to be loaded back onto a train and taken across to the meat market on the continent. Although Norman’s services were required in terms of building the lorries for the five drivers Sid Bowen employed to transport the cattle, Norman was also frequently called upon for assistance in general favours. Such favours included driving the cattle along the road from the market and playing midwife by helping with the delivery of difficult calves.
On one occasion in the 1950’s, approximately 100 donkeys were shipped from Ireland to Ashford market. Norman somehow found himself having been conned into assisting five other men in driving the donkeys along the road to Sid Bowen’s farm. Driving cattle along the road was a regular undertaking in those days, holding up the traffic whatever the time of day. Farmers would transport sheep from the Romney Marsh into Ashford market by foot, driving them along the roads. Norman adds that motorists on the road were far more patient back in those times. Despite the fact driving donkeys proved an absolute nightmare, all 100 were successfully transported into the fields. However, overnight the donkeys escaped, deciding to explore the far corners of Ashford, eating any vegetation in their path - including garden plants. Norman and the other men spent two days chasing around Ashford trying to find the donkeys and eventually all were retrieved safely. The furthest escapee donkey was found as far as the other end of North Street, near Queens Road!
In view that many of the surrounding farmers kept pigs in the 1960’s, Sid Bowen decided to start carting pigs. Thus the services of Norman and his father were called upon to build lorries for carrying two decks of pigs, from farms all around Ashford to places such as the Walls factory. One day a driver loaded all the pigs onto the top deck of a lorry. As he turned the corner from Magazine Road into New Street, the weight imbalance caused the lorry to turn onto its side. The police called Sid Bowen, requesting him to bring another lorry. Of course it was Norman that Sid Bowen turned to in order to provide this assistance and Norman headed up to New Street with another lorry. Reversing up to the lorry and using the loading gates to prevent the pigs escaping, ninety-nine of the pigs were successfully transferred to the other lorry. One however decided to seek freedom and shot straight through Norman’s legs. Norman instinctively sat down onto the pig in attempt to stop it and ended up momentarily riding it back to front down New Street, until finally he managed to bring it to a holt.
Norman remembers Sid Bowen as a businessman who definitely saw the funny side of life. Norman can still picture how Bowen’s Field used to look with its six inches of water and constant flooding. Sid Bowen’s own cattle would be taken out of the stock yard each morning and put into the field until they were brought back up for milking in the afternoon. After Sid Bowen passed away in the early 1970s, his two sons sold the farm and the area of land became an open space for the community called ‘Bowen’s Field’.
Tenant farmer of the Godinton estate, Jim Kerr, recalls a time when farmers and agricultural businessmen would ‘smack’ hands to agree a deal. No paperwork was exchanged, instead the price that was verbally expressed and agreed upon with a ‘gentleman’s agreement'. On one occasion Jim Kerr as a little boy can remember Sid Bowen chasing his uncle (Alan Kerr) trying to get Alan’s hands out of his pockets to ‘smack’ them on a price and seal the deal. Alan Kerr was of course holding out for a better price so kept them firmly in his pockets. Once the price had finally been agreed, Jim asked his uncle, “Did it hurt when he hit you?”
For many years cattle trains arrived at Ashford Market (Elwick Road) loaded with cattle - the Irish bullocks being of particular interest to Sid Bowen. South Willesborough resident Peter (born 1925) was approximately 13 years old when Sid Bowen approached him and his friends with some sticks, instructing them - “Here you go boys, you’ve got to come and drive some cattle”. Up at the market the boys helped unload the cattle from the trains and holding pens and then stand at the point at which Elwick Road joins Bank Street to stop the cattle escaping. Led by a handful of Irish drovers, some of the boys drove from behind, whilst others blocked off all the road junctions. Once successfully escorted along Bank Street, down the High Street, down East Hill, along Hythe Road and into Frogman’s Avenue, the cattle would be left in the fields that lay beyond. After the drive, the Irish drovers would head for the Fox pub and the boys would hang around outside until one of the drovers came out with a glass of Guinness. “Here you go boys, that will do you good”, he would say.
For Peter and his friends, hanging around Sid Bowen’s stables became a regular way to spend their recreation time. Sid Bowen would appear from the stables with a cart horse in just a halter and a potential buyer in tow, calling out, “’Ere are boy, run this down the road!” One of the boys would then take the cart horse and run it down the road in order for the potential buyer to see what it looked like.
Civic Centre North Park
Head out of Bowen’s Field across trumpet Bridge towards the Civic Centre and you will find the confluence of the Great Stour and East Stour rivers. Author of Ashford, a Pictorial History, Arthur Ruderman, explains that originally the two rivers joined at a point higher upstream but an artificial cut was made to create the stretch on the western side. This cut is shown on the 1898 Ordnance Survey map as the ‘Lords Cut’; it was made in the 15th century. The reason behind the cut was based on a need to improve the flow of water to the mill at the bottom of East Hill.
North Park is entered via Tannery Lane. A Tithe map of 1843 identifies the land forming Civic Centre North Park as being pasture fields at that time; they were owned principally by Richard Greenhill and a small proportion by George Maude who rented it to William Jemmett. In this pastoral landscape a much needed wood supply was gained through the growing of willows along the river edge, also helping to stabilise the river bank. These willows still exist today and show clear signs of having been cut in the traditional way, known as pollarding, where the whole crown is cut to a height of about two meters from ground level. It grows back like a shaving brush effect, and provides an ideal habitat for birds, lichen and insects. In these modern times mechanical means as opposed to grazing cattle are relied upon to keep the grass neatly mown.
At the far end of North Park stands Pledges Mill, which is one of a succession of mills on this site that date back at least to the Domesday book of 1086. The existing building dates from 1864 and was one of two large mills owned by Lawrence Pledge. The mill had an electricity supply nearly 30 years earlier than the rest of the town. As alternative power sources progressed during the 20th century, water mills declined generally. By the early 1970s Pledge's Mill lay derelict and, following a fire in 1974, it was renovated and turned into a night club now called Liquid Lounge.
South Willesborough resident Peter recalls that during the time that the mill's water wheel was still in operation, whenever the water level was high in the Great Stour between the mill and the railway line, a concrete channel took the excess water down to the East Stour. This overflow channel runs alongside the base of the railway line
The Ancient Ford?
Leave Civic Centre North Park in the direction of Mace Lane, and you will come to a place where the river used to be crossed via a ford, before any bridge was built. Many people claim this is the ancient ford from which Ashford gained its name; others say that is was at the point where Beaver Road crosses the river.
South Willesborough resident Peter suggests the ford at the end of Bailey’s Field (Watercress Fields) seems to be situated in the middle of nowhere, where as the ford in Beaver Road would have been on a route from areas such as Kingsnorth, Bromley Green and Romney Marsh. The Great Stour by Beaver Road bridge also used to be known locally as the ‘Horse River’, supposedly because the horses involved in droving using it for refreshment after their journey from Romney Marsh.
Queen Mother’s Park
On the opposite side of the road from Civic Centre North Park is Queen Mother’s Park, known previously as Henwood Nature Park. On early 19th century Ordnance Survey maps, a small cluster of buildings just south-east of the site is named Henwood and this is presumably where the name originated. These maps also suggest that in the late 19th century this area was sheep pasture. This rural past is celebrated by one of a series of three sculptures installed in 2007 by Martin Brockman and Mark Sidders as part of the Ashford Green Corridor project. Old maps also show the name Martyr’s Field in the southern part of the park. This refers to a dark chapter in its history when, during the 16th century, a number of local people were burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs. According to South Willesborough resident Peter, the executions were carried out near the ford at the bottom of East Hill. The names of the victims are recorded on a memorial stone in the park.
In the early 1980s the Ashford branch of the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation set to improving the habitats in Henwood Nature Park, and member Heather Silk was involved in this work. She continues to visit the park and recalls having seen fieldfares and redwings (visitors from Scandinavia) in the winter. Heather is an enthusiastic member of the Ashford Birdwatching Club and admits that on first moving to Ashford from a rural area, in the mid 1970s, she incorrectly assumed that most urban birds would be house sparrows, starlings and pigeons. On spotting a kingfisher at Newtown Bridge, Heather was thrilled to be proven wrong and has been an urban birdwatcher ever since.
The Ashford Birdwatching Club have kept records of birds seen in the Ashford Green Corridor. These have included jack snipe (underneath the Beaver Road Bridge during a frozen spell), canary-like siskins (in the winter feeding on alder cones near the Stour Centre) and a regular kingfisher seen currently near the International Station. At the beginning of each meeting, the group discusses the birds seen recently in the Ashford Green Corridor and the local area. In 2004, the club was asked by the Kentish Stour Countryside Project to do a survey of the birds in the Ashford Green Corridor. This was split into sections and Heather’s section was between the Stour Centre and Bowen’s Field which, to her amazement, yielded 36 different species! Heather's advice to any birdwatchers visiting the Ashford Green Corridor is, “Look and listen - there is a greater variety of species here than you would imagine because there are so many different habitats.”
Bybrook Cemetery is the most north-westerly point of the Ashford Green Corridor. This cemetery has an area reserved as a woodland garden cemetery, providing a resting place for those who wish to return to nature. On the Tithe maps of 1843, Bybrook was a tiny settlement with only a few buildings.
On these same Tithe maps of 1843, neighbouring Little Burton was a single farm dwelling. The land on which the housing estate is now built remained farmland, with pastures and extensive orchards, until as recently as the 1990’s. The adjacent green space, that exists today as part of the Ashford Green Corridor, is shown as mainly arable fields on the 1843 Tithe maps. It was owned by the Earl of Thanet and leased to tenant farmer Walter Murton. The reason that the green space managed to escape housing development is that the developers provided a public open space for the new estate. A pond provides habitats for wetland birds such as coot and moorhen. As the planted trees mature, woodland habitats will also develop. Between the pond and the railway line there is a small marshy area; here a range of wild plants that thrive in damps conditions, such as reed mace, are plentiful. The Great Stour flows along the southern boundary of Little Burton, with good aquatic and bank side vegetation. Some unusual features of the riverside here are the cricket bat willows, traditionally used for... making cricket bats!
At this point in the journey along the Great Stour, the neighbouring Ashford Green Corridor reaches its most northerly extent. Our journey now explores the southern and eastern section of the Corridor, following the East Stour and Aylesford Stream.
Ashford became a railway town in the 19th century and as a consequence new housing was required for railway workers. Newtown (originally called Alfred Town) was built for this purpose. It had its own schools, shops, baths and other facilities. This next section of the heritage journey will focus on the theme of the railway works, which even had an influence on Ashford’s watercourses.
South Willesborough resident John Flisher contributed to this heritage project by kindly spending a few hours leading Ashford Green Corridor Officer Emma Griffiths on a walk around Newtown and South Willesborough, pointing out points of interest en route. John Flisher, his grandfather, and great grandfather, all worked in the railway works, and it was his great grandfather who worked the 'Cuplin'. Comparable to a blacksmith's forge on a much larger scale, this large metal hammer made a thumping noise and vibration to be felt and heard all over South Willesborough. A high fence made from railway sleepers, with a somewhat menacing effect, surrounded the railway works. A set of railway lines across Crowbridge Road provided a link between the railway works and the Gashouse works on the opposite side of the road, on which to transport coke wagon trains. South Willesborough resident Keith Williamson remembers these tracks remained in place until as recently as the late 1960’s.
The workers at this south-eastern end of the railway works entered the site at another entrance further down from the coke trains, marked by a set of large gates. John Flisher remembers that just before entering, many of the men pulled up on their bikes in a lay-by opposite where Arthur Wakefield parked his little green van, ready to sell them their daily newspaper.
On the far eastern side of the railway works site was the marshalling yard - known to John Flisher and colleagues as the ‘upsiders’ or ‘humps’. Here the freight trains were marshalled, ready to go on their journey; on one occasion, shunting was undertaken a little too forcefully and the freight train ended up on the street! Local resident Jack Edwards was also involved in shunting, having worked his way up from an initial engine cleaning position. One feature that still remains since the days of the railway works is the presence of the fish and chip shop just outside the ‘humps’, which John Flisher claims made the perfect end to an evening shift!
Although a huge gate stood at the entry point into the gas works, that did little to stop John Flisher and friends as young boys gaining access to play on a large old tank and other similar remains inside. At the bridge by the gashouse works gate, competitions took place on Guy Fawkes night between Newtown, South Willesborough and North Willesborough to see who could build the biggest fire - reminiscent of the light hearted rivalry existing between the three since the railway works came to Ashford.
Gas House Fields
The railway works created a small reservoir adjacent to the present day subway, for the purposes of its construction works. South Willesborough resident Keith Williamson explained that in order to have constant supplies of water to the reservoir, a diversion in the Aylesford Stream was deemed necessary. Thus, as opposed to running its original route across the bottom of Cudworth Road, it now makes a sharp bend towards the old railway works. Keith further mentioned that a glance down whilst standing at the crossing point will reveal the brickwork from where the water used to be piped.
South Willesborough resident Sheila Russell explained that the Currah family used to own most of the land in the South Willesborough area and still does own a considerable amount. Although the railways own the eastern area of Gas House Fields, the adjacent central area, known as the Spinney, was left by the Currahs to the people of South Willesborough and it still remains as such today. Its present voluntary guardians are the South Willesborough and Newtown Environmental Group, known as SWANEG. Formed in the late 1990’s the group consists of local residents who give up their time to improve the site for both the benefit of nature and the local community. With pond wardens, tree wardens, litter pickers and a qualified wheelbarrow technician on board (to name but a few) the group’s work extends beyond purely the Spinney into areas such as Herbert Road sports fields and Bushy Royds fields. The Spinney itself is young woodland with predominately hawthorn scrub and bramble.
Cudworth Road resident Peter remembers the Spinney in the 1950s was an area of rough grassland and brambles. Walking through it was no easy task and a careful eye was needed to spot small areas of masonry and man made holes hidden by grass. The Spinney and part of the adjacent area backing onto the stream, John Flisher recalls as once being allotments for the local people. The SWANEG group has turned the site into a pleasant woodland for local residents to enjoy a stroll through. In April 2007 SWANEG teamed up with the Ashford volunteers from the Kentish Stour Countryside Project for a series of tasks at the Spinney, including improving the small access paths and opening up the canopy in some areas to allow more sunlight to ground vegetation.
SWANEG member Dave Gower remembers a crossing keeper's cottage that used to stand on the South Willesborough side of the level crossing between the railway track and Crowbridge Road. During the 1960’s Dave’s school friend lived in the cottage with his family and the two friends would often sit together in one of its rooms to complete their homework. Each time a train passed by, the cottage would shake, since it was just a few feet from the track. The crossing keeper’s garden was on the other side of Crowbridge Road and sloped down towards the Aylesford Stream at the bottom. Dave recalls that in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the familiar sight of the steam train was being phased out and replaced with electric and diesel trains.
SWANEG member Sue Williamson adds that the Aylesford level crossing was the last remaining crossing between Paris and London when the Eurostar service first began. The crossing keeper was a very interesting individual who she notes owned a selection of knitted Fair Isle hats! Eventually (in approximately the 1990’s) the level crossing footbridge and keeper hut were all demolished and replaced by a subway from South Willesborough to Willesborough.
John Flisher also remembers this crossing and compares it to the existing one in Wye village. During John’s guided walk he pointed out where a footbridge allowed access over the railway track. The chaps from the railway works would either carry their bikes over the footbridge when returning home for lunch or sit and wait for the crossing gates to open. In order for the local farmer to reach his barn, located on a plot adjacent to the Spinney, he often used the bridge that crosses the river close to the Albion pub. SWANEG member Claire Howe has been informed that a farm house and outbuildings, including an old shed, were located close by to where the Albion Pub stands, which John Flisher believes belonged to a Mr and Mrs Knowles.
Dave Gower and his family lived in one of 24 houses in Albion Terrace facing the Aylesford Stream. Each house had a walled front garden that was lower than the cinder footpath. This meant that once the water level reached the top of the bank during the winter months, the family knew it was about to flood the house. As a child, Dave and friends watched the water level to establish whether it was rising or falling. In the event of it rising, the children in the street would warn their parents and help move rugs, toys and any other removable belongings, upstairs – the toys no doubt being the children’s priority! Meanwhile, anything remaining downstairs, such as the furniture, was raised onto apple boxes or other similar objects to hand. Dave can recall the house flooding twice and on those occasions the family moved upstairs or waded around in their Wellington boots in up to 12 inches of dirty, muddy water. Once the water had finally drained away, a sandy, muddy mess was left behind, which the whole family set to clearing up. The houses would dry out after a few days and then everything would return to normal once more. All the terraced houses have since been demolished and ten houses now form a residency known as Albion Place.
Opposite Newtown Green baths stands the main entrance into the railway works, marked by a large clock. Shifts began at 7.30 am until midday and then 1 pm until 4.30 pm. Located next door to the baths was a pub allowing the workers to truly ‘freshen’ up before returning home for their evening meal. South Willesborough resident Iris Edwards, remembers this area was one to avoid at the hours of midday and 5 pm on a weekday. This was a fact she learnt through experience when out pushing a pram one day and finding herself nearly knocked over by a mass of men on bikes racing down Newtown Road!
Behind the baths is Newtown Green itself, now host to a Railway Wheel monument that marks the importance of the railway to the area. With regard to open air entertainment, Newtown Green was certainly a favourite and still is today. For South Willesborough residents Anne (whose father worked in the railway works for 45 years) and Iris and Jack Edwards it was the regular vegetable and flower shows that now feature strongest in their memories. Much of the fruit and vegetable produce on display was grown in nearby allotments on Mead Road, now lost to housing. However, the sight of allotments in the area has not been lost forever and instead they now occupy land adjacent to the Ashford Green Corridor, in an area locally known as ‘Frog’s Island’.
SWANEG member Sue Williamson has lived in South Willesborough since 1966 and remembers a sweet shop owned by Mr Garlinge in a row of terraced houses in Gladstone Road. During the couple of hours Mr Garlinge was open on a Sunday afternoon, it was a Sunday treat for Sue and her husband, Keith, to take their two daughters to purchase sweets. The door would open with a welcoming ding-a-ling and they would step over the polished brass threshold into the sweet shop, complete with wooden counter and original Frys Chocolate wooden and glass display cabinet. Mr Garlinge would appear from the back room to weigh up the sweets, accompanied by wafts of his Sunday roast.
When Sue and Keith Williamson first moved to South Willesborough Mrs Lilliott’s general store was opposite the present day Post Office in Gladstone Road. The store had an annex on the side used as a butchers shop run by Mrs Lilliott’s friend, Mr Dossett. The annex has since been demolished and replaced with flats. A further adjacent shop was used by many of the local people because the owner, Mrs Sharp, stocked almost everything and would order items in for a person’s individual needs. Sue remarked that it was a definitely the place for a good chat and to catch up on all the local news!
Nicky West’s own home in Cudworth Road used to be a shop. This was a fact that caused fellow SWANEG member, Maureen Pallant, to express wonder over the small areas shop owners used to live in - given the front of their house was a shop and the back was often storage.
Theresa Partington recalls having` to shut the front gate on her garden when first moving to the area in the 1980’s, in order to prevent the sheep on their way to market from straying and paying a visit to her house!
The Churchill pub on Canterbury Road was formally the Vicary Arms, and before that the Bricklayers Arms, when it a Fremlins House run by landlord Ted Caldwell. Sue Williamson recalls the lovely dog he owned that was sensibly more than content to spend the winter days in front of the pub’s roaring fire. Perhaps the original name derived from the brick works behind Canterbury Road. SWANEG member Claire Howe pointed out that due to the clay soils in Ashford, brick making was a thriving business in the area, horses and carts being used to transport the clay. Claire has been told that many of the ponds that the excavation works left behind were used to swim in by local children.
In some respects South Willesborough feels to many of its inhabitants like an island surrounded by dykes; a feeling intensified during times of floods. Ashford’s association with flooding is particularly apparent in the South Willesborough Dykes area and consequently many memories centre around this theme. Anne is now one of the flood wardens in the area, helping to give initial warnings of floods and distribute sand bags. Evidently, once the heavy rain arrives, ‘watching the drains’ becomes a particularly popular local pass-time! Her duties on one occasion even extended to helping the milkman deliver the milk when he arrived in the area without any Wellington boots!
Since a barrier and flood storage area was built near Aldington, flooding risks have greatly reduced, yet the legacy of past floods lives on. South Willesborough residents, Jack and Iris Edwards, shudder at the thought of the smell left behind after the floods, and are forever grateful for the single step up into their house, as opposed to the step down into the homes of many other residents - this could so easily make the difference between being flooded and staying dry. However with gardens flooded and outside lavatories being the norm, there was no escaping the flood waters if one wanted to spend a penny!
Anne remembered that to help prevent flooding when she first moved to the area, residents in South Willesborough were responsible for keeping any dykes located in or close to their gardens clear. Cudworth Road resident Peter, had another approach to keeping flood levels down. On leaving the Navy, he brought with him a hand pump that, combined with a length of hose pipe, made for a perfect garden watering contraption. However, his first attempt at using the rather powerful pump was not a success - his wife was holding the hose and when it burst off the pump her pink dress was spattered in mud!
During the installation of a pipe system in the particularly hot, dry summer of 1976, Anne told us that South Willesborough suddenly became centre stage for a series of fountains displays, as high volumes of water were unexpectedly found resting under the ground surface - a reminder of the area’s almost continually high water table. The water situation in South Willesborough was literary at the cost of local residents like Anne, who found themselves having to pay a higher rate to live in the area - a cost that fortunately no longer exists.
Frog’s Island is a name believed to derive form the numerous frogs that used to inhabit South Willesborough when it was a patchwork of marshy fields with wildlife rich drainage ditches in between. Work by the Ashford Green Corridor on the areas surrounding South Willesborough’s recreation ground, has seen the return of some of these habitats. For example the installation of ‘scrapes’ - shallow wet areas, close to Cudworth Road and Herbert Road have attracted attract an abundance of wildlife. In the summer months these scrapes sit against a backdrop of wildflowers reintroduced to the site again by the Ashford Green Corridor - the Oxeye daisy making for a particularly beautiful display. Looking at old maps of the area this green space till retains the same shape as the original fields on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps. These maps also show that land in this area was once used for orchards - a traditional landscape that has been brought back by the recently planted community orchard.
Until the late 20th century, the area now referred to as the Community Orchard land used to be grazed by horses and cattle. Mr Burgess who moved into Cudworth Road just after the houses were built in the early 1900s, informed subsequent resident of the street – Peter, that house owners put in Willow trees along the dyke adjacent to the grazing area. These were to act as fence posts to prevent the grazing animals getting into resident’s gardens and have since rooted to become trees in our present day landscape.
John Flisher remembers both the early football tournaments on the football pitch in the area known as Frog’s Island and the fact that the site was once a cornfield. The South Willesborough Invictas used an old railway coach as their changing room and played every Saturday afternoon. Whilst discussing early football days on John Flisher’s walk, he bumped into a long term friend, Brenda, who has also grown up in South Willesborough. Brenda makes reference to the recreation ground on Frog’s Island having also once been a farm field. During the mid 1960’s, accompanied by a friend, Brenda often rode on horseback through the fields discovering numerous chickens on route!
The Aylesford Stream flows from the east, under the railway, past the area known as Gas House Fields and onwards to join the East Stour. To the east of Aylesford Green, the stream splits into two channels, one being a mill race. Old maps show a corn mill where Sevington Lane crossed that steam and a weir is still visible today. As it runs through Aylesford Green, the water course remains quite natural as it slowly meanders through the surrounding woodland and grassland. Whilst the woodland is home to small mammals such as wood mice and bank voles, the bank side vegetation provides good habitat for damselflies, dragonflies and birds.
South Willesborough resident Jack Edwards told us about ‘Oakie', an oak tree with a length of rope on a branch, right next to the deepest part of the stream, that he and other local children used to swing on and plunge into the Aylesford Stream.
Anne’s childhood pursuits also involved the stream. She would leave her childhood home in Mead Road and head in the direction of Norman Cycle factory in Beaver Road. Here she would turn into an alleyway, pass through some allotments and head across the fields and down to Aylesford steam. The aim of her game was to head back in the direction of home, only this time via the stream, permitting as little water as possible to enter the contestant’s Wellington boots. But more often than not it ended, as Anne put it, “With wet socks an’ all!”.
Mary Bingham has given a written account of her memories of living and playing around Willesborough approximately fifty years ago. In the process of compiling the account, Mary had an amusing time discussing anecdotes on the telephone with her three brothers - Peter, David and Philip Staples.
From her birth in 1939 until her marriage in 1962, Mary lived in Willesborough. As a child she played with her brothers in the area. The house where they lived, built in 1935 and named 'Four Winds', was one of a pair located opposite Willesborough Church. At that time there were fields in front which reached as far as the railway crossing in Hunter Avenue and allotments to the side. The children watched the various crops in season and always had green space in which to play. Games of cricket and football were enjoyed but November 5th was always a big excitement. A huge bonfire would be built, much of the wood being gathered from another place they played in - The Broomfields, an ancient woodland on Kennington Lane that is still there today. Mary’s brother with many friends would form a torch light procession and the bonfire would be lit to great cheering - there were no fireworks in those days. When the land was eventually in Council hands, a designated adult had to be named to be responsible and this was often Mary’s father, Harry Staples. This area is now the site of houses called Blake Court built around the 1970‘s.
The area beside the house was the site for allotments until the mid 1940s when prefabs were built there. Peter Staples can remember the final one arriving by crane, pitching over their house that connected with Osborne Road. Until that point the road had been a cul-de-sac and Mary’s house had not had a number. Overnight they changed address without moving house and became 244, Osborne Road! Allotments were then prepared behind the cemetery in Church Road but the cemetery has since acquired this land. Eventually the prefabs were demolished in the 1960s, and Philip Staples was employed in helping to clear the debris. Permanent houses were built on the site from around 1968 onwards.
Willesborough Windmill featured in Mary and her brothers’ winter games. There was a wonderful slope they sledged down - Mary noted that it seemed there was snow every winter. The steering of the sledge needed to be very accurate, as at the bottom was a very deep pond. They were never sure whether the ice would bear the sledge plus two or three children. Running below the windmill slope was a wide sandy tract of land, which was cut out before the war and later became the Ashford Bypass and eventually the busy M20 motorway. The sand was good enough to dig in and make sand castles, visits to the seaside being very rare.
The Aylesford Stream, through the field in Bentley Road was another place they used for paddling and fishing for tiddlers and tadpoles. One particularly wet summer it became deep enough to swim in. Philip Staples remarked that it was in fact rather muddy and smelly, on account of cows grazing in the field! Whilst drying off, the children watched the trains passing on the Folkestone line, one of which was the celebrated ‘Golden Arrow’.
Boys Hall is a Jacobean Manor house originally built in 1616 by the Boys family (he original family name was De Bois, but it was gradually anglicised), with Victorian additions made in 1833. From the outside, the characteristic gables and tall chimneys are characteristic of their architectural period, yet present day owner, Marcus Collings, revealed evidence inside the hall that further enriches the history behind them.
Marcus kindly gave Ashford Green Corridor Officer Emma Griffiths a tour of the hall. Walking into the dining room he pointed out that the huge fire place now sits in the corner of the room. This would have been a very unusual layout at the time and suggests the room was once much larger. This is supported by evidence that two supporting gables and a large proportion of the room was lost to fire in the 18th century - a time when no fire brigade existed.
Marcus also explained that the there was once a medieval 'roundel' house nearby called Sevington Moat, on the spot now known as Boys Hall Moat. However, after a child fell into the moat and drowned, the roundel house was knocked down in 1631, and its bricks and timber were used to extend Boys Hall, completing it in 1632. Marcus is in the process of trying to help piece together the full history of the Boys family and the house, for a book being produced. However, upon leaving Boys Hall many of the Boys family moved to America, which certainly makes the task of contacting decedents far more difficult!
Marcus revealed that, although the Boys family who lived in the hall for many years were great farmers and landowners, they were also heavily involved in smuggling, as was common for landed gentry at that time. South Willesborough resident Peter told us about stories of an old tunnel running from Boys Hall Moat to the present Boys Hall!
Boys Hall would once have been surrounded by large tracts of farmland, but with road and housing development this has since been reduced to three acres of grounds immediately around the house, which are beautifully landscaped. These gardens make a perfect backdrop for the weddings that the hall now hosts. They a Victorian rose garden, a croquet lawn and a wildlife area. The owners, who have meticulously restored the hall over the last few years, are keen to enrich the wildlife in the garden and have introduced a wild meadow around the Roman lake. Marcus explained that the lake would have been full twenty years ago, however this is no longer the case.
There is one final point that will no doubt capture many people’s imagination concerning Boys Hall - its association with ghosts! These spectral inhabitants evidently include the drunk who enjoys a good dance around the dining room, angry Thomas in the stable block and a certain monk, not to mention the mystery surrounding a body found under the floor boards in the lumber room!!!
Upon leaving Boys Hall, there is no riverside to follow as this next stage in our journey is away from the rivers. However the area still remains an important part of the Green Corridor due to its rough grassland and native trees. The mature ornamental trees situated adjacent to Boys Hall provide roosts for bats. Visitors can enjoy views to the north, across Willesborough, and south towards Sevington. The dried up pond in this area appears on the first edition Ordnance Survey map, making it well over a hundred years old. Over the footbridge lies Boy's Hall Moat, which is the next stop in this journey.
Boys Hall Moat
This 13th century moat is one of the most important heritage sites in the Ashford Green Corridor and is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It was the site of the aforementioned 'roundel' house, which Thomas Boys used the bricks and timber from to build Boys Hall. The moat is well preserved and still holds water all year round. It is an excellent wildlife area, with a good combination of wet and dry grassland habitats, home to many plants, birds and insects. There is a healthy grass snake population. A long, narrow pond, possibly a former fish pond, sits close by and the ditches and terraces visible to the west of the moat are also protected; these are the remains of a garden that was created next to the house.
South Willesborough resident Anne remembers playing in the moat itself and then climbing the surrounding trees to dry off and enjoy a spot of people watching - those passing by underneath were often unaware of young watchful eyes above.
Church Road Playing Field
The playing field in Church Road, still in use today, was another place of enjoyment for Willesborough resident Mary Bingham. An autumn walk there entailed looking for conkers under several large trees, on a site where two bungalows now stand. The field was partly used for cereal crops and Mary can remember watching the huge harvesting machines at work.
Church Road Playing Field marks the furthest reach of the Ashford Green Corridor’s boundary and the end of this heritage journey. We hope that it was an enjoyable one, both for those who shared their memories and stories concerning the Ashford Green Corridor, and for those who have read this written documentation of them.
The Ashford Green Corridor Officer would like to thank all those involved in the project, including:
Ashford residents and community groups for their guided walks and entertaining talks.
the owners of Boys Hall and Singleton Manor for literally opening their doors to assist in tracing history.
the residents of Oakleigh House sheltered accommodation and retirement housing for allowing themselves to be interviewed by children armed with Dictaphones;
The teachers and pupils of Oak Tree Primary School for bringing such enthusiasm, creativity and energy to the project;
Ashford library for arranging copyright permission of photographs and exhibiting the text;
and finally the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting the project!
Appendix 1 - Community Groups
Ashford Birdwatching Club
Ashford Birdwatching Club was first established on 8th February, 1983 after a series of evening classes at Associate House in 1982 run by Malcolm Paler. The Club is therefore now in its 25th year. It meets every Wednesday evening from 7.30 to 9.30 pm for slide shows and talks at the W.I. Hall, Faversham Road, Kennington, from September to April inclusive and the club is always pleased to welcome new members. Their message to new people is, “Come and join us! It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done any birdwatching. We are a friendly and welcoming group and this is a great way to see and learn about birds”. At the heart of their organisation is the message that appreciation of birds encourages people to appreciated wildlife and the environment on their doorstep and in the countryside
Brabourne and Smeeth Footpath Association
As the village has changed in character over the years and leisure time is at a premium we have had to move with the times. KCC have taken over the responsibility for stile upkeep and dealing with obstructions so this no longer forms a part of our activities. We do report any broken stiles, obstructions etc. direct to the Public Rights of Way office in Ashford. However, we are continuing with our monthly walks, most of the leaders coming from within the committee and we have introduced all day walks to explore other areas (e.g. a town trail of Rye coupled with a walk in the Peasmarsh area). We organise social occasions which encourage older members who founded the association to join with active walking members and keep in touch with our affairs. Our newsletter is published twice a year in the spring and autumn. We are proud that our Association has flourished over 34 years, now having a membership of 72 households throughout the village, whose population is approximately 2500. The association has records dating form the original newsletter issue in January 1973
The Great Chart Society
The Great Chart Society was formed in 1989 under the Chairmanship of Campbell W. Miller of Chilmington Green, who a few years earlier had initiated an ad-hoc protection group concerned with environmental threats arising from railway developers. Whilst retaining a 'watchdog' function, it has extended its activities into historical and other cultural areas, visits and social events.
Bagg, Simon (1984) A Chronology of Ashford 866AD Kent County Council
Bailey, Denise (2003) Ashford People A.P Wilcox
Bennet, Mike (1998) Images of Ashford Breedon Books
Houfe, Simon (2002) Godinton (Brochure) Chapel Press
Inglesdon, Charles A Saunter Through Kent with Pen and Paper Vol. II
Lawrie, Les (2004) Ashford - A History and Celebration Frith Book Company
Ruderman, Arthur (1994) A History of Ashford Philimore and Co. Ltd
The Great Chart Village Sign pamphlet (2000)