I walk past this building – The George Hotel in Ashford – at least once a week, on my way to pick up a delicious sandwich, soup, or freshly baked cake from the brilliant, independent Stag Coffee shop, on the corner of the High Street. Initially, I just assumed it was a typical eighteenth century inn and, as there are older buildings I haven’t covered yet, I put it on my ‘to do’ list.
Today, it occurred to me that few buildings in Ashford are what they seem. Some buildings have modern facades and something 14th century behind; some have 15th century frontages hiding a much more recent extension. So, with its very classical, very Georgian three light bay windows, and wide doorcase with screamingly 18th century pilasters and pediment, I began to wonder if it was just too Georgian to be true. Not for the first time in my life, I was absolutely right (my kids aren’t here to contradict me …).
Turns out, the George Hotel is Ashford’s oldest surviving inn. Its earliest recorded mention was in the will of John Burwashe on 4th May 1533 (for context, on 23rd May of that year, Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was declared null and void), which makes it likely to have been built at the turn of the 16th century (so perhaps around the time Henry VIII became King in 1509). On the ground floor there is a 64 feet corridor, running from front to rear, which originally split the hotel from the bar and which led directly to the stables at the back.
In the first room on the left there is a fireplace with wooden bressummer, immediately hinting at the building’s age. On the right hand side of the passage, at the back, overlooking the stableyard, is what was probably the original kitchen. It is a beamed room, again with a large fireplace and oak bressummer; and oak brackets each side with slots, possibly to hold utensils. Originally, there was an open space between this room and the front bar. This reinforces the kitchen idea because it was a medieval practice to make the kitchen a virtually detached building, in order to minimise the risk of fire (a real problem with timber-framed buildings in those days: think Great Fire of London!). In later years, the open space gained a flat roof.
And, as we approach Halloween, it wouldn’t be a blogpost about a sixteenth century inn, without having some kind of ghost story attached! In fact, the George Hotel has several ghost stories, accrued down the centuries, the most famous of which involves a chambermaid who is alleged to haunt the hotel to this day. Behind the myth, of course, lies a real story: a 17th century, pregnant chambermaid, thrown down the stairwell of the inn when she told her lover that she was pregnant. It was said that authorities could not tell whether she had died from a broken neck as a result of strangulation or from being pushed down the stairs. Perhaps these events turn into ghost stories for the very purpose of not forgetting the horror behind such sexual or moral attitudes; and to remember the victim.
Indeed, that is the amazing thing about these medieval or early modern buildings that are still standing. They are a memorial to hard work, perseverance, ambition, perhaps tragedy (whose life escapes it?), but also love and hope. They are our common thread to the human past: our heritage.