© Kent Life http://www.kent-life.co.uk
This is a town of steep hills and splendid buildings, recently voted to be Britain’s third favourite place to live.
Gazing down from the windy heights of Mount Ephraim Road you feel as if you’re on a coastal cliff looking towards some island paradise of slanting rooftops sweeping the sky, beyond the Common’s sea-like greenery. Firstly renowned as a base for Georgian ‘It’ crowd licentiousness, the town recently became synonymous with middle-class respectability. Finally it’s found its true identity: neither a playground for the privileged, nor a refuge for retired colonels. Tunbridge Wells is simply a truly happy, hilly, historic town, which is a thrilling place to see as a tourist and a fantastic place to live.
Unless you’re a seasoned walker, split your tour in two: there are a couple of car parks near the Pantiles, and another near Calverley Road, for the south and north sections of town respectively, plus a good bus service; the station, with its car park, is central.
For the south part, start at the car-park end of the Pantiles, an extraordinarily wide pedestrian-only road, the oldest part of town. Practically all the buildings appear to be Georgian, snow-white and stylish. The first building on your right is home to the Royal Tunbridge Wells Art Society – regular exhibitions are held. Cross over to the left and climb the steps to the Upper Walk, where the shops and restaurants are colonnaded; the grandest building here is the historic Swan Hotel. Further along and occupying the centre ground between Upper and Lower Walks, is the Tourist Information Office – originally the Fishmarket, dating from the 1740s. To your right, beyond this building on the Lower Walk, is the grand Corn Exchange building (once a theatre), and beside it the Royal Victoria House. At the end of the Pantiles on the left-hand side is the original spring, source of the town’s fortunes, and in summer a costumed ‘dipper’ serves you with the waters. Turn left into Neville Street and facing you is the church of St Charles the Martyr.
The northern section of town is the newest, busiest and most shop-centred area. Standing outside the Opera House in Mount Pleasant Road (a grand Edwardian interior converted to an excellent Wetherspoon pub), turn right and you’ll come to Victoria Place shopping centre. Cross the road and keep going and you’ll see the tall strange ‘millennium’ clock on its four spindly metallic legs. Go down Mount Ephraim Road, past palatial Georgian mansions to the end and you’ll come to Thackeray’s excellent restaurant, originally Rock Villa, home to the brilliant novelist. Cross the busy London Road, then climb up the steep grass slope of the Common to get to the highest part of town: Mount Ephraim Road. Turn left and soon you’ll see The Royal Wells Hotel opposite, next to it the Beau Nash pub, and then Mayo House. There’s a tremendous view from here across the rooftops of town, and on the slope below is St Helena House and the amazing Wellington Rocks. Take the next left turn, which leads you down the Common to the London Road. Cross here, then go down Church Road and you’ll see the homeopathic hospital on the right, and then Holy Trinity church on the left, then you’re back at Mount Pleasant road. Opposite is the town hall, next to which is the museum, library and art gallery. To the right is the dark brick gothic-horror-movie building that is actually Lloyds bank, marking the start of the mountainously steep downward slope of the High Street.
• Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery (01892 554171) – make sure it’s open, as planned refurbishment means it will be closed for part of the summer.
• Holy Trinity church, home to Trinity Theatre and Arts centre (01892 678678 – see Louise Jameson, below).
• Church of King Charles the Martyr – described as the ‘jewel of the Pantiles’. There’s a sundial on the outside wall and a fine ceiling.
• Tourist Information Centre (01892 515675) Guided tours organised from here, plenty of informative leaflets and friendly helpful staff.
• Assembly Hall Theatre (01892 530613).
• Royal Victoria Place – award-winning shopping mall opened in 1992 with 1000 different retailers and all major department stores.
• The Pantiles – individual and upmarket stores, including antique shops, art galleries, and shops selling toys, furniture and vintage wines. A Farmers’ market on the first and third Saturday per month. The area was named after the small pan-baked tiles laid to prevent slippage on the muddy ground in 1698 (now replaced by flagstones) .
• Chapel Place and High Street – for designer clothing, home furnishings, rugs, gifts and jewellery.
• Calverley Parade – major High Street names, partly pedestrianised.
• The Common – great for children to play, with the Wellington Rocks to climb around on.
• The Grove, the oldest park in town with limes, oaks and beech trees.
• Calverley Grounds, with scented lavender beds, sunken Italian garden, bowling green and roses.
• Dunorlan Park - with its own chalybeate spring, boats to hire to punt in the lake.
• Spa Valley Railway (01892 537715), run by the Tunbridge Wells and Eridge Railway Preservation Society – trains run from Tunbridge Wells West to Groombridge.
PAST AND PRESENT
In 1606 the town existed merely as an area of woodland and heath, when Lord North, a leading courtier, was recuperating from his bacchanalian London lifestyle, and was revived by drinking from a local ‘chalybeate’ spring. Convinced that the iron-tinted waters had curative properties, North and his influential friends became regular ‘dippers’. A well was sunk and ‘The Wells’ snowballed in popularity, and coffee houses, shops, gaming rooms and houses were constructed. Henrietta Maria, Queen of Charles 1, also ‘dipped’ from the waters in 1629, as did the court of Charles 11 and Queen Katharine, when promenading on the walks and dipping became highly fashionable. Nell Gwyn and Moll Davies entertained the court, and the influx of licentious entertainment christened The Wells ‘les eaux de scandale’.
Tunbridge Wells took shape in the 1680s, when shops opened in the ‘Walks’ (now the Pantiles), and St Charles the Martyr church and lodging houses were built. In 1735 Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, the famous Georgian dandy, became master of ceremonies, then the early 1800s saw an influx of new residents in addition to the regular visitors. Estates were built on the three hills after which they were named: Mount Pleasant, Mont Sion and Mount Ephraim. Queen Victoria and Albert were visitors and in 1842 an omnibus service provided a two-hourly link to London, presaging the arrival of the railway in 1845. The architect Decimus Burton and developer John Ward created Calverley Park Estate.
The 21st century noughties is a landmark decade for the town: 2006 was the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the spring and 2009 saw the centenary of its ‘Royal’ status, conferred in 1909 by King Edward V11. In 2011 a wonderful new state-of-the-art hospital is due to open.
RETAIL RESURGENCE IN 2010
Leading Kent out of recession, Tunbridge Wells is the launch pad for three exciting new businesses starting this year:
• The Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Company (01892 618140) is opening after the previous company closed in 1983 – prior to that the town had a 200-year-old history of brewing www.royaltunbridgewellsbrewing.co.uk
• Jack Wills Ltd, a clothing company, is opening an upmarket store in the Pantiles – appropriately this company have a passion for ‘character’ period buildings. The brand is aimed at university students and draws heavily on British heritage and culture that follows truly British fashion trends (military styles, sporting traditions and country pursuits etc).
• The White Company, leading lifestyle multi-channel retailers, is opening its first Tunbridge Wells 2000 sq. ft. store in the High Street. They will sell beautifully designed affordable home accessories, principally in white, including furniture, bedding, bathroom accessories and home fragrance, bedding and clothing. Their Summer Home collections include a beautiful range of outdoor parasols, cushions and lanterns and a new crockery range, holiday wear, swimwear, beachwear and outdoor games. (0845 678 8150) www.thewhitecompany.com
RED PLAQUE REMEMBERED
So many illustrious people lived or had connections with the town that attractive red plaques adorn many houses. Here are just a selection:
• William Makepeace Thackeray – this novelist wrote in beautiful house Rock Villa on the edge of the Common, which is now an upmarket restaurant named after him.
• Tunbridgeware craftsmen/artists Edmund Nye and Thomas Barton (86 Mt. Ephraim), produced an intricate range of wooden marquetry items, specific to the town.
• Richard ‘Beau’ Nash (40 – 46 The Pantiles) famous leader of fashion in the 18th century, presiding over balls and gaming.
• Lord Dowding (1 Calverly Park) Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding was Commander-in- Chief of RAF Fighter Command during the Second World War and lived here in retirement.
• Decimus Burton (Victoria Lodge), the talented Victorian architect and creator of Calverley new town, and also many London houses.
• E M Forster (10 Earls Road) the great writer lived here as a young man.
• Lord Badon Powell (58 London Road), founder of the Boy Scout movement, attended school in the town.
• Queen Victoria (Hotel du vin and Bistro) resided here on her many visits in its previous incarnation as Mount Pleasant House.
• Edmund Kean (The Corn Exchange) this famous actor performed here when it was a theatre.
• Dr John Mayo (Mayo House) was a prominent medical doctor during the late 18th century and his doctor son Thomas, lived here too.
CONSIDERING A MOVE?
Unfortunately high prices reflect Tunbridge Wells’s popularity. Prices for one- and two-bedroomed flats average to around £14,000 and £225,000 respectively, while a two-bedroomed house would be around £220,000, a three-bedroomed semi £295,000 and a four-bedroomed detached house upwards of £499,000.
HOW TO GET THERE
Tunbridge Wells is quite close to the A21, about halfway between London and Hastings – approximately half an hour from the A21’s intersection with the M25. Less than an hour from London by train, with regular services, and good bus and coach links too. Call Traveline 0871 200 2233. Satnav postcode for the town centre is TN1 1JN.
Stoney Parsons is a stained glass artist and painter who also teaches her craft skills in a studio just outside Tunbridge Wells (01892 750099 www.stoneyparsons.co.uk) . Her studio is in a wonderful landscaped country park and she lives nearby. She has made glazed doors, windows, roof lights and light boxes for public buildings, hospitals and private houses all over the world, and is always keen to discuss commissions, no matter how small. Her most recent commission was a screen panel for Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, in Oxfordshire.
As an artist, do you find anything inspirational in Tunbridge Wells ?
Yes, definitely the Common and the buildings. I love the way the greenery of the Common comes right up against the beautiful Georgian architecture. And outside my studio window there’s marvellous scenery – you can look out on the trees and the fantastic landscape. I’ve painted some memorable still-lifes out here.
What interests you about working with stained glass?
Using coloured glass as a way of manipulating natural light, which is itself a constantly changing, living thing. I’m very interested in how colour affects us emotionally, the actual ‘vibration’ of colour. I enjoy working with colour in a healing environment, and have done a lot of work for hospitals and mental health units. In Liverpool Royal Hospital’s casualty department I’m sure I altered the atmosphere there for the better – for the staff as well as the patients.
What can someone learn at your weekend stained-glass workshop classes?
How to work with stained glass correctly, you get a proper grounding in this profession – there are plenty of ‘teachers’ out there who aren’t necessarily experienced. After the beginners’ weekend you’ll make a panel and learn the ins and outs, have enough knowledge to buy the correct tools and so on. A project weekend is the second stage, when we go on to make something more advanced. It’s doubly beneficial, because as well as doing my course, you can stay the night in Tunbridge Wells and enjoy what the town has to offer.
What do you like about the town?
It’s a very easy town to live in – you can park easily, people are friendly to you, there are all the shops you could possibly want, you can sit out on the pavement in some parts and just enjoy the scenery, and it’s just so civilized. It has London’s advantages without the capital’s cynical world-weariness and overpopulation. I mean, we’re only an hour away by train from central London, yet people seem far more laid back.
What’s you favourite place in Tunbridge Wells?
Definitely the Pantiles and the High Street. Woods in the Pantiles is my favourite restaurant – somewhere you can sit outside on the Pantiles, imagining the Regency people ‘promenading’ there – the surroundings have hardly changed since.
How would you sum up the town?
I love it. It’s not overdone, by which I mean you can still feel the age of it and it hasn’t become too spoilt. Clearly it’s useful to have Fenwicks and the other High Street names at the Mount Pleasant end, but for me the Pantiles and the High Street will always be the special parts of town, as is the Common – these are the places tourists come to see, and where locals return to again and again.
LOUISE JAMESON - LOCAL CELEBRITY
Famous TV and theatre actress Louise Jameson (amongst her many TV roles she played Rosa di Marco in ‘Eastenders’, Jim Bergerac's girlfriend and Dr Who’s assistant) lives near the town and has started the theatre company ‘TLC productions’, based here and in Eastbourne.
• Trinity Theatre and Arts Centre (01892 678678). TLC productions are launching here on April 17, and offer a vast repertoire of thrilling productions, showcasing new talent, classic plays and well-known musicians. (01892 678678)
• Beacon Bar and Restaurant (01892 524252) is staging TLC production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ on July 24 – 25 and a Murder Mystery Dinner on July 29 (01892 524252 to book) .
• She has started a ‘Sunday Drama College’ for 14 – 19-year-olds at King Charles the Martyr church on Sundays between 2 and 5 pm during term time.