Finally, Faversham is the town that got it right

Faversham in Kent

It was almost as thrilling to walk through Faversham recently as it was when I first enjoyed it 30 years ago.

The great thing here is that one of the most beautiful medieval streets in the south of England was almost demolished, but was saved by some determined local people.

The crisis for historic Faversham came when the 85-year-old owner of Arden’s House in Abbey Street gave notice of his intention to demolish the property unless he could sell it. Arden’s House had been the guest house of the town’s great abbey in the Middle Ages; its owner, Thomas Arden, did well with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but was murdered in 1551 by his wife and her lover. The Elizabethan play about it, Arden of Favershamwas a hit.

Arden's houseArden's house

Arden’s House – Heathcliff O’Malley

But historical fame couldn’t save Arden’s House in the 20th century. A new school in the area did not want to use it, but if it were to be demolished, a side road could be built. 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 (although it is a Grade II listed building), what could save dozens of other houses in Abbey Street and the town center – unwanted, poorly repaired and not fit for modern needs? At a council meeting in the Guildhall, a councilor remarked: “All Abbey Street wants is a bloody good fire.”

At the last minute, John and Isabel Hallward intervened by purchasing Arden’s House to live in. This was a lifetime ago, in 1957, and it was to see how efforts to preserve the old town had progressed since I walked up from the station. .

The walk was not strenuous. Like the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes at Ascot it is six furlongs on the flat. Just head north along Preston Street to the Market Place and then keep going, along old Abbey Street to the Anchor Public House (Shepherd Neame, welcomes dogs) at the end of the journey.

“David and Donna welcome you to the Railway Arms,” said the sign opposite the station, but I resisted. Preston Street’s shops were two-storey, built on traditional lines. A homeless man had set up a tent at the entrance to the empty Cain’s Cash Casino amusement arcade. Until recently, that would have made headlines. But now London has a shameful number of such joints. This was the only one I saw in Faversham.

Closer to the Market Place, Preston Street was pedestrianized and paved with brick, with many half-timbered buildings. The people of Faversham seemed happy to talk about their town. A man getting into his car liked the place but remembered it was only half the size of the current 20,000. He thought it was now “on the brink” as new housing on the edges put pressure on doctors and schools.

At 76 Preston Street I saw a building that epitomizes the city’s history. On the ground floor is the Indian restaurant Spice Lounge, sheltered between large oak beams. The entire first floor looked like solid red brick, but had only a skin of strange ‘math tiles’ nailed to the woodwork below. I came across them in Lewes, in neighboring Sussex.

Preston Street 76Preston Street 76

76 Preston Street-Heathcliff O’Malley

A skin of 'math tiles' nailed to woodwork at 76 Preston StreetA skin of 'math tiles' nailed to woodwork at 76 Preston Street

A skin of ‘mathematical tiles’ was nailed to the underlying woodwork, writes Howse – Heathcliff O’Malley

The idea in the 18th century was to give old buildings regularity and finishing. Here the facade was dominated by two beautiful Venetian windows: wide wings with a central arch. In one corner the math tiles had broken off, revealing the planks beneath them. The Georgian makeover of the old half-timbered building here must always have looked a bit absurd, but I really liked it.

This redevelopment of buildings, some of which are hundreds of years old, is characteristic of Faversham. It features 400 buildings listed for their special architectural and historical interest. On Historic England’s online map they are strung like swallows on telegraph wires along the central streets, ready to migrate.

The Guild House, FavershamThe Guild House, Faversham

‘Most gloriously, in the center of the square stood the Guildhall, like Noah’s Ark, moored to a church tower,’ writes Howse – Heathcliff O’Malley

Just in front of the market square is a plastered and painted house with a first floor with scaffolding, supported by a long bressum beam. It is 15th century, once called the Flower-de-Luce Inn, renovated in the 18th century and now a second-hand bookshop run by the Faversham Society.

Inside, Richard, like the entire staff, told a volunteer that selling donated books is the association’s largest source of income. “I moved here nine years ago, and it was the best thing I ever did.” I was to see a little later how important the Faversham Society has been.

First, there were two more fun absurdities in Market Place. (The market claims to be celebrating its millennium.) One of these was the Royal Cinema, built in 1936. Amazingly, in keeping with the surrounding buildings, it was built in the Tudor style, with a large lozenge window on the first floor and a lead turret in the center. It is now an independent cinema with Kung Fu Panda 4but also a National Theater Live production of The motive and the cue.

The Royal CinemaThe Royal Cinema

You can watch the latest blockbuster films at the Royal Cinema – Heathcliff O’Malley

The Royal CinemaThe Royal Cinema

The Royal Cinema – Heathcliff O’Malley

The most glorious thing was that in the middle of the square stood the Guild House, like Noah’s Ark, moored to a church tower. The ground floor consisted of massive 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 overcoat, like the Spice Lounge.

Around buildings lined cheek by jowl in a busy open space. Behind the Guildhall stood the Bear (Victorian in front, Elizabethan in back). Next door was a yarn shop with a medieval studded door.

On the corner of West Street, a very old house looked like it shouldn’t be there at all. The ground floor walls formed a continuous 18th century shop front. The two floors above had bay windows. All together it looked like a messy pile of cardboard boxes, with windows that seemed to support brick walls. Again these were mathematical tiles, later painted with a pink wash.

This building is currently empty. An application has been submitted to open a chicken restaurant there. The Faversham Society is not happy. It “formally and strongly objects to the proposals for internal and external changes and to the proposed billboard on the fascia”. It gives reasons, both technical and factual.

Such planning representations require time and resources. Faversham’s special need for them is evident from Abbey Street, which stretches north of the Market Place. 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. Among those responsible were Frederick Bishop, John Hallward, Geoffrey King, Herbert Richards and Sydney Wilson.”

It was good to mention the heroes, and there were a few more. A handful of dedicated people stood up against the destruction of this quarter mile of medieval street. It had fallen into poverty, overcrowding and decay. Twenty people lived in four two-room houses, with shared toilets at the end of the garden; they were demolished as a “slum clearance operation”. This, wrote architectural historian Ian Nairn, ‘had long been the bad side of the city. ‘Nice people don’t go there’.”

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

A 1958 edition of The Daily TelegraphA 1958 edition of The Daily Telegraph

How The Daily Telegraph reported on a call to save the street in 1958

Nye emphasized the need to preserve the street as a whole, and not just the notable buildings. “The sum was greater than the individual parts.” With demolition still hanging in the balance, one of the names on the gate pillar, Frederick Bishop, was appointed town clerk and in 1965 he drafted a document advocating the street’s refurbishment.

The municipality began a plan to buy houses under the authority to clear slums and rehouse their tenants. Instead of demolishing historic houses, it then 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. Gradually Abbey Street looked less dilapidated. The sidewalks were widened and trees were planted.

Some old buildings are still threatened today. The 15th century half-timbered house on the Creek needs repairs. It is known as Training Ship Hazard (named after a ship Faversham sent to fight the Armada) because it is used by the Sea Scouts. If it were repaired at a cost of £1 million or more, what other uses could it have and how could it be financed? Faversham Council and Swale Council are at odds over its future.

The 15th century city warehouseThe 15th century city warehouse

The 15th century city warehouse is used by the Sea Scouts, but needs repairs – Heathcliff O’Malley

Faversham has avoided becoming an empty museum. Abbey Street used to have five pubs and five general stores (whose modest Victorian windows now light the living rooms). For shopping these days people go to the large Tesco superstore that occupies part of the huge old Rigden Brewery in the middle of the town and which closed in 1990. There’s a Sainsbury’s to the west of the city, an Aldi to the south. Lidl is closed, as is Morrisons. The nearest Waitrose is in Canterbury.

The vacant former Morrisons supermarketThe vacant former Morrisons supermarket

The empty former Morrisons supermarket – Heathcliff O’Malley

So Faversham town center is quite good, but not perfect. When I went into the Phoenix (dating back to the 1330’s) the bartender said they didn’t take cash. It wasn’t so much the effect of the pandemic as the bank closure, which meant a drive to Canterbury.

When I reached the end of the journey, all the way north of Abbey Street, I walked up to the long, low, wooden and tiled main part of the Anchor Public House, which reminded me of Admiral Benbow in Treasure Island, and opened the door. Or tried. It was locked while the place was being redecorated. I hear it’s open again now. I would like to come back.

Earlier: Fishergate in Preston | Yarm, North Yorkshire | Watergate Street, Chester | Shields Road, Byker | Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds | Lewes, East Sussex | Waterlooville

Which English main street would you like to see featured?

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