Ashford Museum

Tucked away in the oldest part of the town centre lies the Ashford Museum, a wonderful museum which prides itself on local heritage. The building is opposite the great church of St. Mary the Virgin (13th/ 14thC), which is itself of historical significance. Ashford museum was originally built to act as a local boy’s school by Sir Norton Knatchbull, a purpose it served until 1881.

The Museum, the original school by Sir Norton Knatchbull
PHOTOGRAPH BY Peter Stiffell
St. Mary the Virgin, a place for spiritual reflection and beauty
PHOTOGRAPH BY Peter Stiffell

After being welcomed by the lovely volunteers you enter the main space, with its wooden beams and the originals seats for the master and ushers. The sight is very effective, reminding the viewer of the more punitive style of education that prevailed in bygone days. A pleasant addition is the preservation of the niches in the walls which were originally designed to be bookshelves, with Wainscoting (a decorative board) augmented by the graffiti of former pupils. Another, more sinister reminder of the building’s educational past is the cane which is proudly displayed on the sidewall as well as a masters cap and gown.

The museum mainly focuses on World War I and II, highlighting the town’s contribution to the war effort through its railway works. The museum also highlights its links to the local schoolchildren, with photographs of evacuees and artworks by modern pupils. The museum also takes pride in displaying images of Ashford’s commercial past and has many photos and images of the businesses that have passed through the town, as well as artefacts from many eras of Ashford’s history and prehistory. A dinosaur bone found at Washford farm and a selection of bison bones are among the earliest artefacts on display. There are also Neolithic, Romano-Briton and Early English artefacts, predominantly arrowheads that can be found across the museum.

The museum is on two floors, the ground floor being the main exhibit space. Their latest acquisition on the ground floor is from the Kent Police Museum and displays various uniforms and police equipment. The town’s historical contributions to the railways take up much of the second floor. There is a wonderful exhibition with photographs of the works, as well as an interactive model train set. The works (formally called Ashford Locomotive Works) employed around 1,300 people by 1882. To celebrate this cornerstone of Ashford’s history there are two working models which can be interacted with; one being donated by the company Hornby and the other showing Ashford’s continuing links with the railway by having a model of High-Speed One.

The museum is free of charge, but donations are welcomed, and it is a wonderful museum for all ages. What the volunteers have achieved in a relatively small space is commendable and their current one-way system due to Covid-19 is designed to keep you safe without missing anything. However, photographs can only be taken for private use so the images in this piece are from the museum’s website.

Due to the small but excellent collection, a typical visit would probably last around an hour to an hour and a half, but the trip is worthwhile. The advantage of being a small and relatively unknown museum is that there are rarely any crowds; when I visited, I was the only visitor. With extra time it would be a good idea to visit St. Mary’s opposite to see Ashford’s original church which still contains a rood screen and has the oldest memorial brass in the country.

My only critic of the museum would be its lack of early modern material, especially considering Ashford’s ecclesiastical role during the 16thC as a vital stop for clergy travelling to and from Canterbury. Ashford’s role as a place of burning under Archdeacon Harpsfield and a mention of royal visits would not go a miss. Despite this, I highly recommend the museum if you are in the area.

Museum info

Opening hour: Tuesday to Saturday 11:00-14:00, last entry 13:30.

Directions: The nearest train is Ashford International where it is a five-minute walk into the town. Alternatively the local bus routes all stop in the town centre. The museum is next door to St. Mary’s, a 4-5 minute walk from the bus stop.

Accessibility: There is a ramp to enter, but unfortunately due to the age of the building access to the second floor is limited. There is also limited sitting space, but due to its location, there are benches outside in the church courtyard.

Price: Free but donations encouraged

Family-friendly: yes

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Peter Stiffell

Peter is a first-year PhD candidate at the University of Kent undergoing his thesis on the iconography of Queen Mary I (1553-58). He is specifically examining the queen’s portraits and images via material culture. He was a member of the committee of MEMSFEST 2021 which was a student-led conference hosted by the University of Kent in which over seventy papers both domestic and international were presented. He is also presenting a paper on Mary’s iconography at University College London in October. To contact please find him on Twitter @PStiffell.