We Like Today
Words for architect's presentation for cultural regeneration project
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
I like people with emotional and intellectual depth, people who that speak with passion from their inner twisted mind.
Yeah, I’m talking to you.
Clara M, Ashford, Kent
We know from Clara M’s Instagram account that she lives in Brussels, Belgium. We know also from its location and calendar metrics that the post was made in Ashford, Kent in December 2016. We assume she was passing through, on the Eurostar. Either that or killing time at Ashford’s designer outlet village. Apart from that, we know nothing more about Clara M. Certainly, we have no idea as to what prompted her to write about the need for a ‘people that speak with a passion from their inner twisted mind.’
However, for us, Clara’s words serve as creative platform for understanding, first, where a regenerating Ashford stands today, and, second, what someone with the imagination and verve of Clara M might think of those plans. Did she think – when looking out the window of her train across a nondescript car park at a nondescript office block; or when picking up her takeaway coffee at the Glen MacArthur Outlet – that Ashford would be a place she would like to work, have children, and grow old in? Or did she post her thoughts and just leave?
An important conversation
Against a background of late 20th century growth, the impact of the Eurostar, and the historical loss of certain key traditions, economies and public spaces, A Conservation Starter outlines an alternative vision for the temporary use of Dover Place, which is earmarked for development as part of Ashford’s proposed new commercial quarter.
More than simply a proposal for the interim use of land and buildings given over to a project that will eventually form part of Ashford’s wider Big 8 regeneration scheme, A Conversation Starter aims to kick-start the all important conversation about finding out what it is that the people of Ashford really need by way of regeneration, change and growth. Ashford isn’t just anywhere. Home to 118,000 people, it’s a place in its own right, a place full of dreams, of hope, of lives well-lived. It’s unique. It’s itself. It’s somewhere. It’s where someone called Clara M might one day want to live.
Seen in this light, our proposal for Dover Place is something of an urgent collective wish. A place of collaboration, of culture, it’s an example of the enduring attractions of a bottom-up regeneration scheme, one born of the creativity of the individual, of groups, and of the crowd, and of imagining a future through the lens of things long gone.
We all stand together
Ashford has a long and rich history. Its name comes from the Old English ‘aescete’, which denotes a ford near a clump of ash trees. Part and parcel of the climate and growing traditions that give Kent its protected Garden of England status, it was an important medieval market town, earning a Royal Charter in 1243. There is evidence that it was at some time a substantial pottery making centre, but it is its status as a cattle market that put it on the map. It’s the reason why it became so important a destination as to warrant five railway lines.
On 8 January, 1856, graziers and agriculturalists met at the Saracen’s Head Inn and founded the Ashford Cattle Market Company Ltd. Lord of the Manor George Elwick Jemmett agreed to lease a field off Elwick road and the South Eastern Railway Company set out terms to provide a siding for a market site.
The success of the venture is to be found in the fact that the company is the oldest surviving registered company in England and Wales. Important, well attended and the town’s source of pride and identity, Ashford’s cattle market was responsible for its economic and cultural importance. Indeed, when in Ashford, any Victorian-era visitor would have been instantly struck by a sense of being somewhere different, somewhere full of character. He or she would undoubtedly ended up at the Saracens Head, which being situated on the junction of North Street and High Street, close to the market, served as pub, court and office space.
Looking at the town today, the landscape so radically different, its difficult to imagine what it must have been like to live and work in Ashford on market day. The noise, the movement, the opportunity. It was a massive hub of activity, and would have been responsible for sustaining the Corn Exchange, the old theatre, County Hotel and the Saracens Head.
Ashford has an interesting and varied history as a railway town. Its connection with the railway can be traced right back to the late 1830s, at a time when rail as concept was still very much in its infancy.
‘Ashford’s main industry was the railway works, held to be a Labour fortress, to which all the workers cycled and which I ritually patrolled but never addressed at election times. If the man busied himself with a lathe as you walked past, he’d vote Labour. If he gave the glimmer of a wink, you were in with a chance.’ W F Deeds, Conservative Member of Parliament for Ashford, 1947 – 1971
Depth in character
The cattle market and railway may well have formed the basis of what constituted Ashford’s rich identity, but the economic and cultural growth each sustained was not limited to hospitality and retail. Ashford was home to notable individuals, including Newton’s tutor Dr John Wallis and the Victorian humanitarian Sir John Furley. It also gave birth to and nurtured a number of important businesses, chief of which were Batchelors, Unilever’s Proprietary Perfumes, Letraset and the millers H.S Pledge & Sons.
Dr John Wallis
Born in Ashford in 1616, Dr John Wallis an internationally recognised mathematician and one of Isaac Newton’s main tutors. Newton’s First Law states that an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight
line unless acted upon by an external force. Newtons third law. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction
Sir John Furley
Sir John Furley, born 19 March 1836 in Ashford, Kent, was an English humanitarian who worked to improve medical care both in wartime and at home. He was an active member of the Red Cross from its foundation, and one of the founders of St John Ambulance Association.
The very first white road-lines were painted in Ashford, in 1914. The idea was not to spread across the UK for another four years.
A place of much coming and going
Fast forward to today and on the surface of things the Ashford of 2017 is just as individually relevant as the Ashford of 1917. Just 38 minutes from London, an hour and 52 minutes to Paris, and a direct line to Brussels, it couldn’t be better positioned for those working in one or more of these cities. In terms of population, it’s one of fastest growing in the south-east, and is projected to grow by 33% by 2033. Possessing well below the national average with regards to unemployment levels, it has been a place of job creation, attracting businesses and investment. Its airport is being expanded. It has superfast 4G. Its housing stock has grown year on year. A new cinema complex with hotel is planned for the old cattle market. In the award winning Glenn MacArthur Outlet, it possesses a designer outlet village to rival that of Bicester.
Every year a staggering 3.3 million pass through Ashford. The Big 8 regeneration scheme is a real and happening thing. The facts speak for themselves. It’s a place of much coming and going. It’s really growing.
A commuter town between London and mainland Europe
Ashford is closer to Calais (51 miles) than it is to the centre of London (61 miles). Every year a staggering 3.3 million people pass through Ashford.
Facts are not enough
While the figures stack up, there’s more to long-term, enduring growth than facts that could – give or take a designer village – just as well be attributed to the competition. Globalisation, the advent of the ring road in the 1970s, and the coming of the Eurostar, have all contributed to a place that has changed in look and feel, the history and character of the old market town ‘buried,’ according to one Ashfordian, ‘in concreted floodplains and offices.’
As a result, Ashford has experienced a radical shift in personality, moving from being a town rooted in an identity forged in time and place to one that sells itself on the basis of convenience, ease of global consumption, and the ability to accommodate the annual comings and goings of that 3.3 million. It’s an identity based not on itself as a town of people, but rather as a place of commuters, residents and consumers. A locals comment in response to the town’s plans for regeneration: ‘But really. Car parks, trains, shops? Ashdown needs a USP.’
A mid-twentieth century visiting Clara M would have recognised herself in the passionately twisted minds frequenting the market, the railways and the pubs of the time.
Here’s what the aforementioned MP remembers by way of a twisted scene: ‘I entered the High Street on a warm afternoon. There was a speaker on a soapbox, Jimmy Wentworth Day, henchman of the wealthy Lady Houston, addressing a solitary farming figure in a tweed hat who held his collie by a piece of binder twine. As I arrived, the dog lay down, settled its head on its forepaws and closed its eyes.’
For an anywhere to become a somewhere again, it needs exactly this: the character of difference.
SOMEWHERE – AGAIN
Becoming somewhere — again
Everything’s already here: the past, the people, the need to make a difference.
As well as its agricultural roots, its market, and the fact that it was a major communications hub in the late nineteenth century, the fact that Ashford was also the birthplace of Newton’s tutor Dr John Wallis is fair indication of it having played it part in the history of thought. Apart from the extraordinary legacy of having been responsible for the education of the man who introduced us to the workings of the physical universe, it’s liberating to think of the special force of relativity that acts on creating Dover Place as happening in direct opposition to the general force that has resulted in Ashford conforming to the norms of an anywhere culture.
For Ashford Borough Council, signing off on a project that goes against the norm – that aims to be different – takes courage, self belief, and a faith in the creativity, will and determination of the people of Ashford. Again, we don’t have to look far for inspiration. Borrowing from another son of Ashford, the borough’s motto With Stronger Faith is taken from the seventeenth century poet Richard Lovelace’s To Lucasta, Going to the Warres, a phrase, explains the council, which ‘appropriately expresses the aspiration and determination of The Borough Council.’
While there has, in the words of another Ashford inhabitant, been a ‘lack of joined up thinking’, with regeneration strategy teams not spending enough time comparing their findings with each other, one of Ashford Borough Council’s strategic research papers A Cultural Strategy demonstrates perfectly its willingness to fight, as Lovelace might say, for the greater good. It calls for a ‘quality environment’ for small businesses and start-ups, an environment it defines as ‘spaces to meet, network, eat and drink and socialise outside of the office.’ This is about people, not buildings. This is about anywhere becoming somewhere – again.
Turn anywhere into somewhere where Clara M lives. White lines, inner twisted minds, spaces for people by people, signage, colour, bold, expressive, filled with expression. A place of people. A place to come and grow. The real
A Call to Arms
The borough arms was designed to symbolise the general character of the district.
The motto of Ashford Borough Council is “With stronger faith”,taken from, To Lucasta, Going to the Warres, a poem by the 17th-Century poet Richard Lovelace from the borough.
It is a poem about fighting for what you believe in. The importance of honour and duty.
This phrase “With stronger faith” is used to expresses the aspiration and determination of The Ashford
When Clara M looked out of the train’s window in December 2016 she saw a somewhere that could have been anywhere. She saw a place designed to accommodate commuters, consumers and office workers. Desolate, grey and lacking in anything beyond form and function, it may have depressed her to the point of making a point on Instagram.
Yeah, I’m talking to you.
Imagine if she had looked out of that same window and seen something like Lisbon’s LX Factory.
‘With over 150 companies and commercial businesses, it is a shining example of how abandoned and neglected spaces can be reused and capitalised by the emerging creative industries.’ Marina Watson Peláez, journalist, Portugal Daily View.
To our minds, there’s little doubt that somewhere that is designed to facilitate people’s creativity is the somewhere that would have the Claras of the world getting off their trains, visiting, investing and staying.
For Ashford to become – in the words of A Cultural Strategy – a place that delivers ‘excellent cultural experiences’ and supports ‘the economic development priorities of attracting creative and technology businesses’, it needs a town centre that makes ‘specialist provision for the arts and creative industries.’
The stimulant —
We propose that Dover Place becomes the bottom-up example of exactly this, an experience that attracts, keeps, and inspires. Borrowing from everything mentioned with regards to its history, we suggest using Saracens Head – the town’s connection to the coffee house cultures of seventeenth century Britain – as a creative springboard for developing the project.
With Ashford having pioneered road markings, it feels appropriate that we should in some way use the line as a source of creativity. Beginning with the idea of drawing a line under anything that is anywhere, we explore – on the other side of that line – the somewhere that is Ashford, the somewhere that is grounded in relevance. We issue a soft, compelling call-to-action: fall in love, not in line. Engage in Dear Future.
We let the line have its head, creating spaces that people fall in love with, spaces – to paraphrase Clara M – full of emotional and intellectual depth, spaces that speak with passion from their inner twisted mind. We are designing not just to attract, but also to facilitate creativity. This Is Where We Draw The Line.
The proposition is that we adapt the future creative use of Dover Place to the present buildings and space, creating cafés, work spaces, a bike hub, a roof terrace, a water tank meeting space, and a mobile office.
Key to ensuring relevance and authenticity, the aim is to appropriate spaces that fit with our understanding of Ashford’s history, its people, those that live here already and those it wishes to attract to stay and grow. Here a grain silo and a carriage become work spaces, a water tank a meeting space. The outdoor space is designed to attract events, food and drink in particular, and it is here that Ashford’s cattle market history can once again be brought to life, the regular food and drink markets championing the locally grow and brewed. Greenery will be provided by the planting of 39 ash trees, which once the temporary site is developed, will be replanted in the boroughs 39 parishes, a living symbol of change, regeneration.
Dover Place: a place we like being in.