Near Kent's Green Fields, a Vision of a New England

Article excerpt

I have seen the future, and it's very pretty. It has old tile-hung cottages, new executive homes with saplings in their gardens, and a station newsagent's that has a full shelf of continental papers, from the Frankfurter Allgemeine to El Pais.

I stand at the bottom of the high street, looking up towards the four gilt weathervanes on the church. To my left, Pizza Hut; to my right, Blockbuster Video; behind me, a pink neon sign saying, "Bowling". This could be any Americanised small market town, anywhere in England. But another sign says: "Gates d' Ashford". For Eurostar trains, Ashford is the only stop between Waterloo and the Channel tunnel. It is also an important commuter stop, its forecourt crammed with cars and mountain bikes. Hence the punctilious plural of the French, for domestic and international.

Ashford is no longer, in fact, all that small. Appearances deceive. The tunnel is reshaping it. Dusty-yellow earth-movers shift sand and gravel for a road to the new high-speed rail-link. On 1 October, after John Prescott's announcement about funding, contractors moved in on the designated line. For Eurostar, it will clip about 15 minutes off the journey from Waterloo. If stage two - into St Paneras - is ever built, Connex's blue and yellow commuter trains will also run on the line. London journey times would be almost halved.

It is enough to make a property developer's heart leap up. The borough's market-town core is ringed by a thunderous dual carriageway. Beyond it, among the tight-knit green fields of Kent, housing estates and dormitory villages proliferate. This year the old market moved out to an orbital road, named after Ashford's German twin. This is, more and more, a network town, almost a Non-Plan Milton Keynes, with the old town centre just one of the drive-to options.

And it works. The census shows Liverpool losing 10 per cent of its population every ten years. Between 1981 and 1991, the borough of Ashford gained almost 8 per cent. At 96,000, it is now bigger than, say, Halifax or Hartlepool, towns whose names and histories make Labour hearts sing. But this is the new sweet song.

Trinity College, Cambridge, has built a business park at Ashford, handy for the tunnel. Those pretty tile-hung cottages in town tend to carry brass plates for tax consultants, financial advisers, private nursing agencies. I stand at a roundabout on the Maidstone road. On the skyline are the low hills of the North Downs, but in the middle distance are the Euro-trucks hissing along the M20.

The road in front of me is called Simone Weil Avenue. …