Under the southern slopes of the Kent Downs, Ashford is a town near the very centre of Kent.
Thanks to this location the town became the meeting point of five different railway lines, stimulating growth and employment in the 19th century.
When the Channel Tunnel was finished in the mid-1990s Ashford also got an international railway station, now on the high-speed line from London to the tunnel.
For visitors there’s an enchanting Jacobean mansion on the Ashford’s doorstep, while the Kent Downs are in reach for rollercoaster walks on chalk hills.
Fashion-conscious shoppers can’t miss the ever-growing Ashford Designer Outlet, slashing prices on premium brands like Boss and Diesel.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ashford:
1. Godinton House
Immediately northwest of Ashford is a country estate that was the seat of the Toke family for more than 455 years up to 1895. Since the last owner passed away n 1996, the estate has been looked after by a charitable trust and opens to visitors for guided tours.
The house is a Jacobean marvel with curving gables, and holds a strong collection of decorative arts in sumptuous period rooms.
You’ll see the panelled great hall, the ornate plasterwork in the white drawing room, the vivid wallpapers in the Chinese room and the masterful carvings on the Jacobean staircase.
These spaces are decorated with valuable pieces like a Michau Louis XV bracket clock, Delft tiles, a Steinway piano and Sèvres, Worcester and Chinese porcelain.
2. Godinton Gardens
The house is only one facet of Godinton’s appeal, as outside there are 12 acres of ornamental gardens surrounded by open parkland with ancient oaks and chestnuts.
You can buy a combined ticket to the house and gardens, or visit the outdoor spaces separately.
In their current form the gardens mostly date to a redesign by Reginald Blomfield in 1898. He planted the most famous feature, one of the longest yew hedges in England, sculpted to mirror the house’s curved gables.
The herbaceous borders and rose garden are set off by the Jacobean brickwork of the house, while the walled garden is bright with delphiniums in summer but also grows vegetables like pumpkins.
In early spring the daffodils in the wild garden are a treat, and a little later the wisteria in the dainty Italian garden bursts into flower.
3. Kent Downs
Ashford is on the southern edge of a big Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, conserving the chalk hills of the Kent Downs.
Where the grassland has been left uncultivated, the range provides a habitat for lots of wildflowers, including more than 20 species of orchids.
To experience this countryside on foot you could walk some of the North Downs Way, a 153-mile National Trail between Farnham in Surrey and Dover.
Ashford is in a great location to start a walk, because the town is close to the Wye Gap, a break in the hills.
Here the North Downs Way splits into two routes: You can hike along the chalk ridge to Dover, or take a detour through the gap to the cathedral City of Canterbury.
This route mirrors the historic Pilgrims’ Way, walked by Medieval Christians visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket, who was murdered by followers of Henry II in 1170.
4. Wye National Nature Reserve
Natural England owns and manages a pocket of the North Downs minutes from Ashford.
The Wye National Nature Reserve is idyllic chalk grassland with peculiar dry valleys or combes, hewn from the chalk by periglacial activity in the Last Ice Age.
The must-see is the Devil’s Kneading Trough, which almost looks unnatural for the smooth planes of its valley sides, which are so steep they need to be climbed by stairways.
The view from the Millstone at the head of the valley is stunning – on clear days you can see the English Channel and Folkestone – and there’s a restaurant where you can recover from your climb.
5. St Mary the Virgin Church
The parish church is a splendid Grade I listed monument first completed at the end of the 13th century.
Outside, the distinguishing feature is the square central tower, which was heightened in the 15th century, along with the roof of the nave, chancel and transepts.
Avid historians should allow an hour or so to see all of the fittings and interesting details inside.
The barrel vaulted roof in the nave will catch your attention, dating to the 1600s and composed of square panels trimmed with bosses.
There’s an octagonal stone font, carved with quatrefoil motifs in the late-15th century, while on the west wall you’ll spot the carved coat of arms of Charles II. Perhaps the standout feature is the marble and alabaster reclining monument to Thomas Smythe (d.1591), who was Queen Elizabeth I’s Collector of Customs and Subsidies.
6. Ashford Borough Museum
Housed in a 17th-century building in the Church Yard at the heart of Ashford, the Borough Museum reveals the area’s past.
You’ll learn about 19th-century smugglers (the Aldington Gang),local businesses that have come and gone, Ashford in wartime and the role of the town as a railway junction.
There are artefacts and photographs from the forgotten prisoner of war camps in the borough, medical equipment from two local former hospitals as well as lots of railway memorabilia like posters to models.
Going back much further you can view the leg bone of a 200 million-year-old dinosaur and artefacts from the Neolithic Period to the Anglo-Saxons.
7. Victoria Park
Ashford’s largest and most central park is on former farmland purchased in 1898. The park is contained to the north by the meandering Great Stour River, and this forms the Ashford Green Corridor, which we’ll cover later.
Many of the mature trees around the park were planted at the start of the 20th century to commemorate noteworthy townspeople.
One monument in Victoria Park with a fascinating back-story is the 45-ton Harper Fountain.
This allegorical work representing the four quarters of the world was sculpted for the 1862 International Exhibition, held where London’s Natural Science Museum stands today.
After the event it was bought by a local dealer who donated it to the town in 1912.
8. Willesborough Windmill
Open on weekends (and Wednesdays in the summer holidays) from the end of March to the End of October, the Willesborough Windmill is an imposing smock mill built in 1869. Clad with weatherboard and whitewashed, the mill came through a restoration in 1991 and uses a 14-horsepower Hornsby engine to produce its own stoneground wholemeal bread flour when the wind isn’t blowing.
When there’s a healthy breeze you’ll get to see the mill’s sweeps turning.
Inside everything is in working order, and kids can make their own flour on the querns and take it home with them.
The mill’s own wholemeal flour is sold at the barn, and there’s also a cafe for a cup of tea and slice of homemade cake.
9. Biddenden Vineyards
An easy drive west to the countryside of the High Weald, the Biddenden Vineyards were planted in the late-1960 in response to falling apple prices.
There are 23 acres of south-facing slopes growing 11 grape varieties for a selection of award-winning wines.
Production is up to 80,000 bottles a year, while the estate also continues to grow apples for cider.
Two types of visits available: You can show up seven days a week throughout the year to follow a self-guided route around the vineyards and orchard.
This ends at the shop where you can purchase a range of wines, ciders and juices, as well as locally-made beer, preserves and chutneys.
For more insight about the art of winemaking you can book a private tour followed by a guided tasting.
10. Ashford Green Corridor
Something special about Ashford is the unbroken green space that flows through the centre of town.
This is because Ashford’s rivers are prone to flooding so the banks of Stour have never been developed.
There’s a chain of parks, recreation areas and open land from the M20 on the town’s northern boundary, right down to the Ford in South Ashford.
These are on the Great Stour and the East Stour, which converge near the town centre.
Maybe the most scenic walks can be had on the south bank of the Great Stour from Watercress Fields, through Victoria Park and into Bowen’s Field.
Some species you may see on the way are kingfishers, lesser spotted woodpeckers, grass snakes, water voles and damselflies.
11. Mark IV Female Tank
Off New Street in St George’s Square is the last remaining example of a British Mark IV Female Tank.
At the end of the First World War, these decommissioned vehicles were donated to 200 towns up and down the country to recognise their efforts raising money for the National War Savings Appeal.
Every other tank was later scrapped for metal in the build-up to the Second World War, but Ashford’s was saved as it housed the town’s transformer at the time.
This has long since been removed, and since 1988 the tank has been protected by a shelter.
Now painted in its original First World War colours, the tank has been an official war memorial since 2006.
12. South of England Rare Breeds Centre
Approved by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, this farm attraction close by in Woodchurch has a huge diversity of unusual native domestic animals.
Among the sheep alone there are Jacobs, Herdwicks, Manx Loaghtans, Portlands and Wiltshire Horns.
Grown-ups can get to know some breeds that may be unfamiliar, while there’s all sorts of fun in store for children around the 100-acre farm.
This might be trailer rides, petting rabbits and guinea pigs, watching falcons in flight, handling spiders and snakes and enjoying the soft play barn.
The Butterfly Tunnel is a highlight, recreating the humid habitats of tropical species from the Philippines, South America, Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Australasia.
13. Port Lympne Reserve
About 15 minutes from Ashford there’s a safari park in 600 acres on the edge of the downs.
The Port Lympne Reserve is home to more than 760 animals from 90 species, including the only giraffes in Kent.
Included in the entry price is a ride aboard a safari truck to observe the animals of the plains of Africa and Asia, like wildebeest, zebras, sambars, biesboks, Roan antelopes and Przewalski’s horses.
Afterwards you can set off on foot to view big cats and a wealth of primates from western lowland gorillas to Javan gibbons.
Along with tigers, cheetahs and Barbary lions, you’ll also encounter some smaller cats you may not have seen before, like margays, civets and rusty spotted cats.
Smaller kids will be wild for the Dinosaur Forest, with the UK’s largest collection of life-sized dinosaur models, carefully designed by palaeontologists.
14. Kent and East Sussex Railway
You can ride this light railway line from the town of Tenterden, ten miles southwest of Ashford, to Bodiam in East Sussex.
Rural light railways like this cropped up around England at the turn of the 20th century, and were put together on very tight budgets.
So as you journey through the beautiful High Weald countryside you may notice that the turns can be very tight, and the train nudges up some sharp gradients.
Your steam or diesel-powered train will take 50 minutes to reach Bodiam, stopping at four station on the route.
The line dates back to 1900, and closed to passengers in 1954. Since 1974 volunteers have helped to reopen the line piece by piece, adding the extension to Bodiam in 2000. Services run on weekends throughout the year, as well as on weekdays in summer.
15. Ashford Designer Outlet
The McArthurGlen designer outlet is on Kimberley Way, just down the road from Ashford International.
Under one roof are scores of luxury fashion and lifestyle brands, selling their wares at discounts of up to 60% off the recommended retail price.
Just a few of the labels here include Boss, Levi’s, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel and Calvin Klein Jeans.
If you get peckish there’s a cluster of eateries like Pizza Express, Wagamama and Subway.
When we wrote this article in 2018 this hugely popular shopping centre was going through a £90m expansion, doubling in size and adding 50 more brands when complete in 2018. During the work, business was continuing as usual for the 120 retailers already here.