Finally, Faversham is the town that got it right

Faversham in Kent

Walking through Faversham the other day was almost as exciting as when I first enjoyed it 30 years ago.

The amazing thing here is that one of the most beautiful medieval streets in the south of England was almost abandoned, but was saved by a few determined local people.

The crisis for historic Faversham came when the 85-year-old owner of Arden’s House in Abbey Street announced his intention to demolish the property if he could not sell it. Arden House in the Middle Ages was a guest house at the town’s great abbey; its owner, Thomas Arden, prospered from the dissolution of the monasteries, but his wife and lover were murdered in 1551. The Elizabethan play about that, that is. Faversham Terracewhich was a smash hit.

Terrace HouseTerrace House

Terrace House – Heathcliff O’Malley

But Arden House’s historic reputation could not be saved in the 20th century. A new school nearby did not want to use it, but a side road could be made if it was knocked down. Kent County Council said: “There will be no objection to the owner’s proposal to demolish the building.”

If the most historic house in Faversham could be demolished (albeit a listed building) what would save the many other houses, in Abbey Street and in the town center – unwanted, poorly maintained and unfit for today’s needs? At a council meeting at the City Hall, one Alderman said: “Abbey Street wishes it had a really good fire.”

At the last minute John and Isabel Hallward came in buying Arden House to live in. This was a lifetime ago, in 1957, and I could see how efforts to preserve the old town had since gone as I walked up from the station. .

The walk was not difficult. Like the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes at Ascot, it is six furlongs on the flat. Head north up Preston Street to Market Place then continue along old Abbey Street to the Anchor pub (Neame Shepherd, dogs welcome) at the end of the walk.

“David and Donna welcome you to the Railway Arms,” ​​said the blackboard in front of the station, but I ignored him. The Preston Street shops were two storeys, built on traditional lines. A homeless person pitched a tent at the entrance to the empty amusement arcade of Cain’s Cash Casino. Until recently, that would have made headlines. But now there are many such shameful tents in London. This was the only one I saw in Faversham.

Closer to Market Place, Preston Street was pedestrianized and brick-paved, with many timber-framed buildings. The people of Faversham seemed to enjoy talking about their town. A man who got into his car liked the place, but remembered when it was half the size of the current 20,000. He thought he was now “on the edge” as new housing on the edge put pressure on doctors and schools.

At 76 Preston Street I saw a building that embodies the town’s history. The ground floor is the Indian restaurant the Spice Lounge, sheltered between magnificent oak timbers. The entire first floor looked like solid red brick, but it was just a skin of strange “mathematical tiles” placed on the woodwork below. I would come across them in nearby Lewes in Sussex.

76 Preston Street76 Preston Street

76 Preston Street – Heathcliff O’Malley

A skin of 'mathematical tile' nailed to woodwork at 76 Preston StreetA skin of 'mathematical tile' nailed to woodwork at 76 Preston Street

The woodwork below has been given a ‘mathematical tile’ skin, writes Howse – Heathcliff O’Malley

The idea in the 18th century was to lend regularity and finish to old buildings. There were two beautiful Venetian windows to the front of the front here – a wide sash with a central arch. At one corner the math tile was broken, revealing the plan below. The Georgian restoration of the old timber frame building here must always seem a bit absurd, but I really enjoyed it.

Faversham is characterized by this restoration of buildings, some dating back hundreds of years. There are 400 listed buildings because of their special architectural and historical interest. On Historic England’s online map, they are dotted around the central streets like swallows on telegraph wires ready to migrate.

City Hall, FavershamCity Hall, Faversham

‘Loudly the City Hall stood in the center of the square, as if Noah’s Ark had been fitted to a church tower,’ wrote Howse – Heathcliff O’Malley

Just before the Market Place is a rendered and painted house with a jettied first floor supported on a long bressumer beam. The 15th century, once known as the Flower-de-Luce Inn, was rebuilt in the 18th century and is now a second-hand bookshop run by the Faversham Society.

Inside, Richard, a volunteer like all the staff, told me that the association’s biggest source of income is the sale of donated books. “I came to live here nine years ago, and it was the best thing I ever did.” I would see a little later how important the Faversham Society is.

At first, there were two more pleasant amusements in the Market Place. (The market claims it is celebrating its 1,000th anniversary.) One of them was the Royal Cinema, built in 1936. Impressively, in keeping with the surrounding buildings, it was built in the Tudor style, with a magnificent window on the first floor with diamond panels and a. lead turret in the middle. It is now an independent cinema with Game kung fu Panda 4but also a National Theater Live production of it The Gluais and the Cue.

The Royal CinemaThe Royal Cinema

You can see the latest blockbusters at the Royal Cinema – Heathcliff O’Malley

The Royal CinemaThe Royal Cinema

The Royal Cinema – Heathcliff O’Malley

Gloriously, in the center of the square was the City Hall, like Noah’s Ark fitted with a church tower. The ground floor was made of huge wooden arches in three tiers, sheltering market goods and a Victorian pump painted red and gold. In 1814 the large first floor was given a classic coat of arms, similar to the Spice Lounge.

Throughout, cheek buildings with a hemmed jowl in a busy open space. Behind the City Hall was the Bear (Victorian at the front, Elizabeth at the back). Next to it, there was a medieval door to a yarn shop.

At the corner of West Street was a very old house that looked like it shouldn’t be standing at all. The walls of the ground were a continuous shop front from the 18th century. The two floors above were coffered and zagged with bay windows. Overall it looked like an untidy pile of cardboard boxes, and the windows appeared to be backed up by brick walls. Once again these were math tiles, later painted with a pink wash.

This building is currently empty. An application has been made to open a chicken restaurant there. Faversham Society is not happy. It “formally and strongly objects to the proposals for internal and external changes and to the proposed front advertising sign”. He gives reasons, technical and factual.

Such planning representations take time and resources. Abbey Street, which runs north from Market Place, shows Faversham’s special need for them. On a gate pillar at Nos 3 and 4, a plaque reads: “One of Britain’s finest medieval streets, saved from demolition and restored in 1958. Those responsible included Frederick Bishop, John Hallward, Geoffrey King, Herbert Richards, Sydney Wilson.”

It was right to name the heroes, and there were a few more. A handful of dedicated people resisted the destruction of this quarter mile of medieval street. He had fallen into poverty, overcrowding and misery. There were four two-room houses with 20 people living in them, with a shared toilet at the end of the garden; they were described as “slum clearance”. This, wrote the architectural historian Ian Nairn, was “the poor condition of the town for a long time. ‘Nice people don’t go there’.”

On 27 May 1958, The Daily Telegraph they reported that the council “is to appeal to owners to preserve the street”. David Nye, a leading member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, was to present a detailed report to the council.

1958 edition of the Daily Telegraph1958 edition of the Daily Telegraph

As the Daily Telegraph reported on an appeal to preserve the street in 1958

Nye emphasized the need to preserve the street as a whole, not just state-of-the-art buildings. “The sum was greater than the individual parts.” With demolition still in the balance, one of the names on the gatepost, Frederick Bishop, was appointed town clerk and in 1965 drafted a paper making a case for restoring the street.

The council started a scheme to buy houses under slum clearing powers and to house their tenants. Then instead of demolishing historic houses, he sold them to sympathetic owners who entered into a legal covenant to restore them. The council bought smaller houses for £250 each and sold them for £300. Abbey Street gradually looked less dilapidated. Paths were widened, trees were planted.

Some old buildings are still under threat today. The 15th century timber-framed Town Warehouse next to the Creek is in need of repair. It’s called a Training Ship Hazard (named after a ship Faversham sent to fight the Army) because it’s used by the Sea Scouts. If it were to be repaired at a cost of £1 million or more, what other uses could it have and how could it be financed? Faversham Town Council and Swale Borough Council are in conflict over their future.

The 15th century Home StoreThe 15th century Home Store

15th century Town Warehouse used by Sea Scouts but in need of repair – Heathcliff O’Malley

Faversham avoided being an empty museum. Abbey Street used to have five pubs and five general stores (which now have their modest Victorian windows in their living rooms). To shop today, people go to the Tesco supermarket, which occupies part of the old Rigden brewery in the town centre, which closed in 1990. Sainsbury’s is to the west of the town, Aldi to the south of it. Lidl is closed, as is Morrisons. The nearest Waitrose is in Canterbury.

Former empty Morrisons supermarketFormer empty Morrisons supermarket

Former empty Morrisons supermarket – Heathcliff O’Malley

So Faversham town center is pretty good, but not perfect. When I dropped into the Phoenix (going back to the 1330’s) the bar man said they didn’t take cash. It wasn’t the effect of the pandemic but the bank was closed, which meant driving to Canterbury instead.

When I reached the end of the journey, at the north-west end of Abbey Street, I walked over to the long, low, wooden, tiled bulkhead of the Anchor pub, which made me think of the Admiral’s Bench. Treasure Island, and opened the door. Or try to. It was locked while the place was being redecorated. I hear it is now open again. I want to return.

Before this: Fisherman’s Gate in Preston | Yarm, North Yorkshire | Watergate Street, Chester | Shields Road, Byker | Abbeygate Street, Edmunds Street | Lewes, East Sussex | Waterlooville

Which English high street would you like to see featured?

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