Spotlight on Tunbridge Wells

With its wealth of history, culture and the arts, Tunbridge Wells really comes into its own at Christmas when it also offers the best choice of shopping and restaurants for miles

Spotlight on Tunbridge Wells  

With its wealth of history, culture and the arts, Tunbridge Wells really comes into its own at Christmas when it also offers the best choice of shopping and restaurants for miles

Tunbridge Ware and toys  

The museum, library and art gallery is the most visited in Kent and its design is archetypically art deco. The art gallery hosts six exhibitions a year, featuring local artists as well as international touring exhibitions. The local studies archive has more than 2,500 postcards, prints, plans and photographs, not to mention the world’s largest collection of Tunbridge Ware: wooden items decorated with marquetry made in and around Tunbridge Wells from the late 1600s to the 1920s. There are also exhibits of costumes, dolls, toys, games and natural and local history: 28,000 natural history specimens. December’s show is Artisan, running from 5 November-23 December, summed up as ‘an extravaganza of the area’s most exceptional artists and makers of ceramics, jewellery, paintings and prints.  01892 554171.

From panto to Mr Toad

The Assembly Hall Theatre (01892 530613) is a grand building in the town centre and from 11 December-2 January it’s staging Cinderella, starring Shaun Williamson and Emma Nowell, plus some real Shetland ponies (see also page xxx). On 1 December there’s a performance by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band and on 6 December you can see the That’ll be the Day Christmas show. Trinity Theatre (01892 678 678), originally Trinity Church, is a vibrant, atmospheric theatre that retains its ecclesiastical majesty and features the best in theatre, dance, comedy, music, films, visual arts, and children’s theatre productions, and also hosts some performances by Tunbridge Wells Theatre Company (TTC), whose The Adventures of Mr Toad runs from 11-31 December. Look out too for The Red Nose Rocket from 1-7 December, with The Christmas Comedy Caf� on 8, 9, 14-16 of December. There’s a carol concert on 17 December.

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A spring in your step

The Pantiles is a delightful pedestrianised colonnaded walkway named after the small tiles laid to prevent slipping on the muddy ground in 1689 - now replaced by flagstones. Peaceful, beautiful and inspiring, this assembly point for visiting 1700’s gentry is where you’ll still find the original Chalybeate Spring, and in the summer you can actually sample the waters, served by a costumed ‘dipper’. This area is packed with lovely antique shops, boutiques and art galleries, and there’s a Farmers’ Market on the first and third Saturday per month. Don’t miss the beautiful old Corn Exchange building, originally a famous theatre, but now home to the Pantiles Shopping Arcade. The attractive Old Fish Market building is now the Tourist Information Centre (01892 515675) on Fri and Sat, 9.30am-5pm until 21 April 2011; Mon-Thurs, 9am-5pm, please use the Tunbridge Wells Gateway at 8 Grosvenor Road, TN1 2AB. From 22 April 2011, tourist information reverts to The Old Fish Market, Mon-Sat, 9.30am-5pm, Sun and Bank Holidays, 10am-3pm. In the summer there are bands (including free jazz on Thursday nights) and other lively events, including music festivals.

Shop until you drop

Westfield’s Royal Victoria Place is an award-winning undercover shopping centre, with retail giants Fenwick, M&S, Boots, and BHS, plus 110 other retailers, including all the leading High Street names. There’s a superb food court, as well as ample car parking and a shopmobility scheme for the disabled. Calverley Road and Mount Pleasant are where you’ll also find major High Street retailers and independents as well as the Great Hall Shopping arcade. The Pantiles is packed with shops (see above), and if your taste is for small independent traders, try the Old High Street, Chapel Place and Vale Road: many of these shops still have their original frontages and offer items such as designer clothes, jewellery, gifts and home furnishings. Individual specialist shops abound in Camden Road and Monson Road.

Rock on

Mount Ephraim is a beautiful broad highway at the top of Tunbridge Wells, affording a panoramic view of the town’s rooftops below. Here you’ll find the grand Royal Wells Hotel, and across the road and further along is St Helena, a Georgian cottage with tall chimneys, and a short distance along Castle Road, which leads off Mount Ephraim, is Gibraltar Cottage, dating from 1700 and built smack up against a wall of rock. Go further up and cross the road and you get a splendid view of the Common and the strange Wellington Rocks sprouting from the hillside, where generations of children have climbed. At the ‘town’ end of the road, bordering Tunbridge Wells’s northern edge, is Thackeray’s, an upmarket restaurant, which was once home to novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, when it was called Rock Villa.

Prestigious plasterwork

The Church of King Charles the Martyr was the first permanent building constructed in the town, built for the use of the many high-society visitors who came to take the waters prior to the town’s existence. It was primarily a chapel, but could also serve as an assembly room or offer temporary shelter from the elements. In 1678 plasterer John Wetherell created five round domes and an octagonal one in the ceiling, then, 10 year later, when the building was extended, Henry Doogood, Sir Christopher Wren’s chief plasterer, created a second magnificent plaster ceiling. The church has a turret and a lovely clock presented by Lavinia Fenton in 1760, and most noticeable is the sundial on its outside wall. A brass plaque marks the seat where Queen Victoria attended with her mother. The church is open Mon to Sat, 11am to 3pm, and is also a venue for music concerts of note.

Perambulate in the parks

Calverley Grounds is a beautiful park in the north part of town and has a sunken Italian garden, rose beds, bowling green and a caf�; here you’ll find cultivated flowers, shrubs and trees and wild plants providing an excellent habitat for butterflies and dragonflies. Just below here is The Grove, the oldest park in town, with marvellous oaks, limes and beeches, plus a children’s play area. In the south is Dunorlan Park, the largest green space in town; listed as Grade II by English Heritage, it underwent major restorations in 2004. The River Teise runs through it and there’s a pond and boating lake, water fountain, Grecian temple and the Victoria Cross Grove of 21 oak trees planted to commemorate 10 recipients of the Victoria Cross.

Hop on the Santa Special

The Spa Valley Railway (01892 537715) is a steam heritage railway that runs between Tunbridge Wells High Rocks, Groombridge and Birchden, crossing the Kent and Sussex border. Closed as a main railway line, it was reopened in 1996 by the Tunbridge Wells and Eridge Railway Preservation Society. There are special event days, including a ‘Day out with Thomas’ (the tank engine), steam and heritage diesel weekends and ‘Santa Specials’. One train has a bar buffet car called ‘Kate’ converted from an old compartment carriage. Trains operate every weekend, from March to November. There’s a model railway, gift shop, and wheelchair access (check availability for particular carriages and stations). In December the Santa Specials are on 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 and 19 and 21-23 December at various times, when you can take a steam train ride through the winter countryside then meet Santa in his magical grotto.

From ghosts to giant rabbits

Groombridge Place Gardens and enchanted forest (01892 861444) won the tourism South East award for excellence in 2005, and is a combination of a traditional heritage gardens with ancient woodland. You can experience the sights and scents of 17th-century formal gardens and see the ancient forest. This estate has been linked with a number of prominent families in history, and is a place of clandestine marriages, mysterious deaths and even ghosts. The 1600’s gardens have been subsequently improved by the recent additions of the Knot Garden, White Garden and Peacock Walk. The enchanted forest is set on a hillside overlooking Groombridge Place and has playgrounds, great views, and remarkable animals, including a zeedonk (zebra/donkey cross) goats, alpacas, deer and giant rabbits. There’s the Garden Room restaurant, a picnic area, gift shop and a range of special events programme throughout the seasons, including children’s parties from September to March.

Plugged in

Built by the famous local architect Decimus Burton, Salomons’ museum (01892 507630) was once the home of Sir David Salomons, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London and his nephew, Sir David Lionel Salomons, noted scientist and engineer. The first house in the UK to use domestic electricity, it is now a museum and conference and training centre, owned and run by Canterbury Christ Church University. Two rooms contain fascinating family memorabilia (open 9am-5pm weekdays, for weekends phone to check first). While Salomons house’s other main function is as a conference centre it is also open for a range of afternoon and evening events, including lunches and evening shows, which in December include Carols by Candlelight, A Victorian Christmas in words and music, and a variety of other lunch and evening entertainments.

GETTING THERE

Tunbridge Wells is close to the A21, approximately midway between London and Hastings, half an hour’s drive from the A21’s intersection with the M25. It is less than an hour from London by train, with regular services and excellent bus and coach links 0871 200 2233.

Satnav postcode: TN1 1JN.