In addition to High Street itself this Conservation Area includes the northern side of West Street as far westwards as Regents Court, also Town Pier and river frontage properties eastwards to the Clarendon Royal Hotel. The western boundary runs down the centre of Princes Street but includes St. George's Church and grounds. The area also includes 1,1a and 1b New Road, 1 and 2 King Street and 1 and 2 Bank Street.
The Conservation Area covers part of the medieval core of Gravesend Town Centre. High Street itself marks the junction of the former ancient parishes of Gravesend and Milton. Through most of the town's history it was the main artery leading through to the river and the ferry crossing to the north bank. The first documentary mention of High Street is in 1334 but it was not until the late eighteenth century that it began to take on something of the appearance that it has today. It has, for instance, doubled in width. It still preserves its medieval proportions, although many of the best buildings date from the early nineteenth century.
Nevertheless, several buildings of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries have managed to survive recurrent fires, one of the worst of which occurred in 1727. Among these early survivors are the 17th century former Catherine Wheel public house (half of which still remains as No. 56), the adjacent building, (formerly the Albion Hotel and latterly the Buffalo's Head) was partially reconstructed following a more recent fire; 79 and 80 High Street and the Three Daws P.H. Robert Pocock (1760 -1830), who set up the town's first printing press in 1786, was born and lived in High Street, and a commemorative plaque at No. 29 bears his name.
Until 1846 there had been no access between High Street and Princes Street, other than the narrow pedestrian alleyways. A fire in 1845 provided the opportunity for the formation of Jury Street in 1846 /7, its name commemorating the fact that a jury sat to assess the amount of damage and costs of the works. Further down the street is Bank Street, which was formed in 1850 following another extensive fire and was named after the bank that stood at its southern corner.
Gravesend's first Town Hall was built in High Street in 1573. The Old Town Hall, designed by C. Sloane who also designed St. George's Church, was erected in 1764. In 1836, however, the old front was removed and the present one, built in sandstone ashlar, was substituted by Amon Henry Wilds. The building housed the Magistrates' Court until the 1990s.
West Street is probably nearly as old as High Street - it is mentioned as early as 1418. It too was much narrower and until fairly recently had the distinction of containing more licensed houses than any other street in the town. Many of these were survivals of the days when large sailing vessels were moored on route for the colonies, awaiting supplies, officers, crew and passengers. Later, some of them catered for visitors during Gravesend's prosperous years as a holiday resort.
This Conservation Area comprises two strongly contrasting areas: the narrow High Street running steeply downhill to the pier; and the river frontage running west-east. These two linear areas, so different in character, share a common focal point at their intersection at the Town Pier and the square in front of it.
In the High Street itself, commercial uses predominate on ground floors with residential or storage uses above. In Princes Street and Bank Street, the buildings tend to be more functional industrial buildings, some of which have been converted to flats or offices.
The Conservation Area is one of contrasts. Its setting is spectacular: The narrow proportion of the street frames the view of the river and the Essex landscape and provides a startling juxtaposition of scale when large ships cross the vista. West of High Street another interesting contrast occurs where St. George's Church is seen against the varied profile of the modern shopping centre behind. Alleyways are also an important historical and townscape feature of this Conservation Area.
There are several buildings of note: The Old Town Hall which dominates the High Street and draws attention to the Borough Market behind by introducing a surprising change of scale; Town Pier, which is unique in being probably the earliest surviving cast iron pier in the world; G.E. Street's St. Andrew's Arts Centre (originally a waterside chapel consecrated on St. Andrew's Day 1871 " to the Glory of God and in memory of Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, K.C.B") and the adjacent Mission House, which occupy a unique and prominent setting beside Bawley Bay; The former Clarendon Royal Hotel whose riverside lawn contains the remains of a Tudor blockhouse (a Scheduled Ancient Monument whose twin by the Canal Basin is marked out in setts); and St. George's Church which replaced a medieval structure destroyed in the fire of 1727 and whose churchyard contains the "listed" statue of Princess Pocahontas, presented by the people of Virginia and unveiled by its Governor in 1958. Pocahontas was the daughter of the native North American Indian chief, Powhattan, whose courage saved the life of the English captain, John Smith, when her father planned to kill him. She probably died on board a ship in the river in 1616 and was buried beneath the chancel of the previous church. In 1914 two commemorative stained glass windows were also inserted at the east end of the church whose setting provides a sense of tranquillity, contrasting with the hustle and bustle of the shopping centre.
Priorities for preservation and enhancement of this Conservation Area have focussed on the regeneration of the High Street (starting at its northern end), parts of which had become derelict, and involving the repair and reinstatement of historic buildings; the demolition of other redundant derelict buildings which do not contribute to the Conservation Area and their replacement by high quality modern ones; and the construction of new buildings on the Princes Street frontage.
Also, the repair and re-use of other buildings including the Town Pier and the reinstatement of 4 and 5 Town Pier and 81 to 83 High Street which were demolished some years ago. Traditional shopfronts have been reinstated to reflect the style of the upper part of the buildings seen as a key element in enhancing the character of this Conservation Area.