A town guide to Tonbridge

Tonbridge Castle is the best surviving motte and bailey gatehouse in the country

Tonbridge Castle is the best surviving motte and bailey gatehouse in the country - Credit: Archant

This town is lucky enough to have an historic castle, a pretty riverside setting, exciting annual events and an ever-increasing number of trendy eateries. It’s time for Tonbridge to show its true colours

Another newcomer to the town is the delightful Fuggles Beer Caf

Another newcomer to the town is the delightful Fuggles Beer Caf - Credit: Archant

With its enviable location, surrounded by pristine countryside but within easy reach of London, Tonbridge is stepping out from the shadows of its better-known neighbours and claiming the limelight for itself.

Set between the affluent towns of Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks, this ancient market town is packed with history and charm but has often struggled to be recognised in its own right. Now the tide is turning, the town is thriving and an influx of independent businesses is proving that Tonbridge really is the place to be.

It always had a lot going for it. Lovers of history will be impressed by Tonbridge Castle, the best surviving motte and bailey gatehouse in the country, and by the town’s links to author Jane Austen and her family.

For lovers of culture, there are two theatres – the EM Forster Theatre at Tonbridge School and The Oast Theatre – and annual events including the town’s popular Food and Drink Festival (May), Tonbridge Carnival (June), Tonbridge Castle Music Weekend (July), Tonbridge Calling music festival (August) and the thrilling Dragon Boat Racing event on the river (September).

The Pavilion covered shopping area opens onto the High Street

The Pavilion covered shopping area opens onto the High Street - Credit: Archant

When it comes to leisure, there are plenty of places to indulge in some fresh air around Tonbridge, including the award-winning Haysden Country Park and the central Racecourse Sportsground, with its excellent children’s play area.

In the warmer months you can even enjoy open-air swimming at the popular Tonbridge Swimming Pool. And if you’re keen to see Tonbridge from a unique angle, you can take to the water with Tonbridge River Trips, which runs from beneath Big Bridge in the town centre, while keen cyclists can attempt the Tudor Cycle Trail, running from Tonbridge Castle to Penshurst Place.

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A lot of regeneration has taken place lately in the busy centre of Tonbridge and the town is already benefitting from a new train station and a smarter, more pedestrian-friendly High Street. The last few years have seen dozens of new businesses spring up and the food and drink offering is particularly impressive now.

A combination of local investment and community spirit has helped Tonbridge to emerge from a period of difficulty and it now offers the full package: great cafés and restaurants, an improved town centre, history, culture, good schools and great transport links, all surrounded by stunning countryside. It’s no wonder more and more people are moving to this reinvigorated little town.

Tonbridgre has three independent florists - this is the very popular Pavilion Flowers

Tonbridgre has three independent florists - this is the very popular Pavilion Flowers - Credit: Archant

Eating and shopping

When it comes to shopping, there are several chain stores on the busy high street, along with a growing number of independent businesses such as gift shops Little Blue Finch, Gorgeous George and The Gift Box. Family business Micallef is now the only remaining high street jeweller and don’t miss ArtSpring Gallery, it’s running its ‘First Thursdays’ again; late-night openings for customers to buy from a range of local artists and jewellery makers.

The town also boasts three very successful independent florists, a butchers in the form of Ian Chatfield Butchers & Deli and a new fishmongers thanks to Sankey’s – already a big name in neighbouring Tunbridge Wells.

Guy Portelli's statue of Dame Kelly Holmes at the Quarry Hill Road entrance to the town

Guy Portelli's statue of Dame Kelly Holmes at the Quarry Hill Road entrance to the town - Credit: Archant

A welcome addition to a large unit in The Pavilion left empty since the demise of Blockbusters is the new Sussex Beds, which reports an excellent start to its 2018 sales.

Tonbridge is also lucky to have a fabulous independent book shop called Mr Books, now under new ownership and running regular literary events. The Tonbridge Town Team runs a successful loyalty card scheme with dozens of local businesses participating.

Tonbridge Old Fire Station continues to lay on pop-up restaurant events and house the highly rated 65mm Coffee Shop; the town also now boasts the delightful Fuggles Beer Café, and don’t miss the monthly Farmers’ Market (see also page 74).

Other great places for coffee and a snack include former Kent Life Food and Drink Awards Café of the Year 2016 Finch House, fellow finalist The Bakehouse at 124 and Basil. Beyond The Grounds coffee shop was highly commended in the same category in 2017.

Diners can choose from cuisines from all over the world in Tonbridge, with Havet Turkish restaurant a top choice, along with Indo-Nepalese food from Kathmandu Valley and Gurkha Planet, Thai food from Gaab Kao and Mexican from El Mariachi. Good pub food can be found at places like The Vauxhall Inn, The Chaser Inn and The Gate House, and Saltwaters fish and chips restaurant is very popular. And for healthy takeaways seek out Sulston’s Kitchen, highly commended in 2017’s Food and Drink Awards for customer service.

Further out of town you’ll find gems like The Poacher and Partridge and Turmeric Gold, both in Tudeley, and Café 1809 and The Cinnamon Square, both in Hildenborough.

An Olympian welcome

The town is proud to be the home of one of the UK’s most celebrated Olympians, Dame Kelly Holmes. So proud, in fact, that Tonbridge has recently erected a statue to its sporting hero at the Quarry Hill Road entrance to the town.

The installation is the creation of renowned local artist Guy Portelli and his statue, which is reminiscent of the Angel of the North and shows the golden outline of Dame Kelly draped in her Union Jack flag, has been mounted on a tall plinth incorporating the artwork of children from three local schools.

Dame Kelly, who runs popular Café 1809 in nearby Hildenborough, won double Olympic gold in the 2004 Olympics and celebrated her homecoming with a huge parade that year. In 2012 she carried the Olympic torch through Tonbridge and then brought the Commonwealth baton to the town in 2014.

Tonbridge Creates

Running until 8 April, Tonbridge Creates is a new initiative aiming to help local artists and makers sell their work, local arts organisations to reach a new audience and introduce the community to art and music through a series of workshops and events. The pop-up community arts centre is in Angel Walk, one of two thoroughfares between the High Street and the Angel Centre. The initiative is the brainchild of local resident Louise Knight, co-founder of The Wheels On Debussy, which devises and presents music concerts for children and is partly funded by Comic Relief and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council. Visit www.TonbridgeCreates.com.

Property prices

Tonbridge is in the more expensive part of Kent but it’s a more affordable option that its neighbours of Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks. Expect to pay anything upwards of £175,000 for a one-bedroom flat and £270,000 for a two-bed terraced house. Three-bed semis are currently priced at anything between £325,000 and £520,000. Larger houses are available right up to £1.7m.

Getting there

There’s a modern station offering great access to London for commuters - with a straightforward 40-minute journey into Charing Cross - along with lines towards Redhill, Ashford and Hastings. If you’re travelling by road, the town is served by the A21 which has recently completed its lengthy dualling work between Tonbridge and Pembury, easing traffic flow.

Sat nav: TN9 1BG

Postcard from Tonbridge

I’m Katherine the owner of Bea Baby Baby|Kids|Dance in Barden Road. Originally called Baby Bea, our first shop opened in 2007. I’d always wanted to have my own business but wasn’t quite sure what avenue to take until I’d had my first daughter and I had real trouble finding organic products and washable nappies.

While on holiday we found a wonderful baby shop, stocked with everything I had been looking for. The idea for Baby Bea was born. In 2013 we were approached by a local dance school to stock ballet uniforms too. We re-branded, encompassing everything we had become, and became Bea Baby|Kids|Dance. Last year we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to open another store in Tonbridge. We are so excited to bring such an exciting gem of a business to a lovely community.

We are known for stocking only the best-quality brands in dancewear, including Bloch, Capezio, Wear Moi, Katz, Tappers and Pointers. You can expect to buy every style of dance shoe, plus everything that would go with them. We have also continued to stock a small selection of baby clothing, wooden toys, gifts and accessories.

There is a definite community spirit alive and kicking in Tonbridge. We like all the independent shops, especially ones with character. Great hot chocolate can be had at Nancy’s Tea Room and at Basil. We can’t wait to try Sulston’s Kitchen, the new Sankey’s fishmonger that’s opened and the new menu at The Clock Tower. And if I need a cake, I go to the shop nearby in Barden Road called An Enchanted Cake or Two. The smells coming out of their kitchen are amazing!

Visit www.beakids.co.uk