Ashford in Kent made the news this week when someone counted the number of hairdressers in the town: 28, eight of which are huddled together on a 200-metre stretch of the high street. That is an awful lot of stylists for a place with a population of only 75,000. It raises the question: is this market town with a Eurostar station an untapped source of styling excellence?
When I visit Ashford, I am greeted by a lot of short back and sides and woollen hats, a messy ginger up-do and some copper-coloured box braids coiled into a bun. A slender woman with an auburn blow-dry, sunglasses perched on top, gets into the passenger seat of a car. Another with a wet-look perm, dyed black and shiny, walks past a tall guy waiting in line to pay for parking: tight fade, baseball cap, absolutely stellar facial hair and mismatched socks.
So far, though, I am not exactly wowed, which is reassuring. I come from a town in France where people look you up and down when you enter a shop – even when you are 12 and gormless. I have always loved England precisely because no one ever has.
But I am curious – is the rich hairdressing offering an indication that people in Ashford care about appearances? “I wouldn’t think so,” says Abigail Madden (sharp blond ponytail) at the Swan pub. She has never had her hair done in town. “All my family are hairdressers …”
The high street is haircut central. There are a wealth of options, all of which feature people in aprons sitting very still on capacious swivel chairs. At Melvyn & Westleigh Brooks barbers, I ask Wez Brooks why there is so much hairdressing in town.
“Barbering!” he corrects me. He has been barbering for 25 years, as his father did before him. People such as Alan Hardy, who is getting a trim as we speak, have been coming for years. “Since I was 12,” says Hardy. “Now my little brother comes as well.” Bobby Ma, who takes his place – once Brooks has brushed down Hardy and sent him packing – says it is because Brooks knows what he is doing. He tried a few others, but they were not up to his standards. A scruffy appearance is off-putting, he says. A good cut makes you more approachable.
Staff and customers up the road at Wioleta Smizewska’s House of Hair agree. People in Ashford care about their appearance. Going to a place you trust is key – they know your hair and your likes and dislikes. But the abundance of styling options in town has little to do with either. Smizewska says it is not a problem with hairdressers, but barbers. “Anyone can open one. You don’t have to train; you can just watch and learn.”
Caz Hearn has been coming to House of Hair since it opened (“I leave it to Wioleta; she knows what to do”). She points across the road – so many shops have closed in town. Opening a barber’s is quick, easy money, everyone says, and there are plenty of places to do so. In the 10 years since Gary George opened Papa G’s down the road, the barber shops have multiplied. “For a small town, it’s a bit of a concern,” he says. “At the beginning, there weren’t that many. Loads now come up. We’re worried.” But he is still busy. “People want a haircut and a chat and to feel nice. So we give them that. The more we do, the more they come.”