Spotlight on Tunbridge Wells

Whether your promenading on the Pantiles, or rambling around the rocks, Tunbridge Wells is one of the most fascinating and popular towns in Kent, with tremendous history, hills and architecture

Spotlight on Tunbridge Wells

Whether your promenading on the Pantiles, or rambling around the rocks, Tunbridge Wells is one of the most fascinating and popular towns in Kent, with tremendous history, hills and architecture

Voted Britain’s third favourite place to live, this is a very special town that’s full of architectural splendour, conveniently situated only an hour from the sea, yet accessible to London.

Once considered a haven for the respectable retired, it’s now a prosperous, interesting lively place for anyone, although property prices exclude those on lower incomes. Grand and stately Georgian terraces and vast rambling Victorian mansions attest to its origins as a 1700s spa town, frequented by the well-heeled gentry and theatrical types, which graduated to a sought-after centre for the middle classes in the 19th century.

GETTING AROUND

The top, hilly, part of town comprises the prime shopping centres plus majestic Mount Ephraim Road, which leads up a steep hill and plays host to wonderful Georgian houses and sensational views out across town.

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The lower section, virtually in a valley, has the beautiful historic Georgian Pantiles’ bi-level shopping centre at its heart, leading to the site of the original Chalybeate Spring (considered medicinally beneficial in 1700), from where the town’s fortunes originally sprang.

There are car parks near the Pantiles and station, and also in the top part of town, near the larger shops, plus some on-street parking. If you’re disabled visit the disabledgo.com website, where you’ll find plenty of useful practical information. Part of the High Street, from the gothic Lloyds bank building downwards, is very steep indeed.

TOWN ATTRACTIONS

The Pantiles is the colonnaded walkway named after small tiles installed in 1698 to prevent slippage (now replaced). Wonderful white Georgian architecture, the site of the original chalybeate spring, and lovely up-market shops. Tourist Information Centre (01892 515675). Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery (01892 554171). Trinity Theatre and Arts Centre, based at Holy Trinity church (01892 678678). TLC productions offer a huge repertoire of productions, showcasing new talent, classic plays and musicians. Church of King Charles the Martyr, beside the Pantiles, with a fine ceiling and sundial on its outer wall. Assembly Hall Theatre (01892 530613). Open spaces to walk: The Common, with the famous Wellington Rocks, The Grove, with lovely old trees and Calverley Grounds, with a sunken Italian garden and scented lavender beds.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Award-winning Thackeray’s restaurant (01892 511921), once the home of the eponymous writer, is a beautiful weather-boarded Grade 11 listed house facing the common. The Bistro at the Hotel du Vin (01892 526455) offers wonderful locally-sourced produce, meat and fish plus a fantastic wine range. Woods Restaurant (01892 614411), in the Pantiles, provides superb food prepared on the premises. Also in the Pantiles is a great pub with a beautiful interior: The Duke of York (01892 517608), with its own lovely beer garden. At the top end of town is the atmospheric Pitcher and Piano (01892 510555), described as a sophisticated style-bar by week and a lively party-bar on the weekend.

WHERE TO SHOP

The Pantiles, with a Farmers’ Market on the first and third Saturday per month, is packed with interesting ‘arty’ style shops, including antique shops and art galleries and upmarket homeware stores. Nearby Chapel Place and Vale Road have a host of small lively independents, specialising in jewellery, gifts and homewares.        

The ‘top’ end of town, at the other end of Mount Pleasant, is home to Westfield Royal Victoria Place, an undercover shopping mall, with all the top names, including Fenwick, Marks & Spencer, BHS and Boots. Calverley Road, Mount Pleasant and Mount Ephraim are also packed with interesting shops and there’s also the Great Hall Shopping Arcade. In Camden Road and Monson Road you’ll find plenty of specialist smaller retailers.

VILLAGE WATCH

Rusthall

Named after a large estate at its heart, this village is mainly Victorian, surrounded by common land. Here you’ll find Toad Rock, one of several sandstone outcrops on Harmony Street, named because of its appearance. A previous Lord of the Manor of Rusthall was Jeremy Menuhin, son of famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Matfield

Dating from the Anglo Saxon ‘Matta’s field’, it has one of the largest village greens in Kent, with a duck pond, surrounded by beautiful old tile-hung Kentish cottages and Matfield House, a Georgian mansion. Siegfried Sassoon, the poet, was born here. The Wheelwright Arms dates from 1602 and was famous in 1997 as home of the ‘Tamworth Two’ pigs who escaped from slaughter and are now popular residents.

Langton Green

Plenty of fine views and twisting lanes surround the village green of ‘Lang Tun’, meaning the ‘long settlement’ in Saxon. There are a few shops, The Hare pub, famous for its cuisine, and All Saints church. Subbuteo, the table-top football game, was invented and manufactured here.

Bells Yew Green

With a name deriving from the French ‘beautiful place’ (Bels lieux), its green is surrounded by trees and cottages, and there’s a station and a pub. This small village, whose houses are mostly modern, was originally in the grounds of Bayham Abbey, whose romantic ruins are well worth seeing.

Frant

Its name deriving from a ‘fern-covered heath’, Frant is at the top of a hill, and this picturesque village has views across Eridge Park (with ancient woodland and wide variety of flora and fauna), an attractive green, St Albans church and a few shops. Pubs are the Abergavenny Arms and The George inn.

Pembury        

A relatively large village with sizeable areas of woodland and outlying farms, with buildings dating from the 1200s to 1900s. The old part surrounds the 11th-century St Peter’s church, and the new part is about two miles away. During the late 20th century housing estates proliferated in the ‘modern’ section. In January 2010 archeologists found evidence of an iron-age settlement there.

Groombridge

Famous for being in two counties, ‘old Groombridge’, consisting of a triangular green, cottages and St John’s church, is in Kent, while ‘new Groombridge’ is in East Sussex. Don’t miss nearby Groombridge Place (01892 861444), a beautiful 17th-century moated manor house, that has an enchanted forest, playgrounds and rare animals – but phone first to check for opening times.

TRADERS TALKING

Tony Roake has run the Paint and Paper Centre (01892 524499) in St John’s Road for 20 years. “Our shop is different because you get personal service and can choose from either standard materials or the kind of top-of-the-range papers and paints you can’t get in DIY superstores,” he says. “We give in-house advice, reliable service, mix paints, match colours, and stock all you’ll require. Traffic is bad here, the road layout needs changing and parking is our biggest problem.”

Down in the Pantiles, Pantiles Antiques (01892 531291) has been run by Erica Blackburn for 34 years. She sells furniture, china, glass and everything else you can imagine. “Furniture doesn’t necessarily sell all the time, so you need little sellers in between, such as bits of china, lamps, or glasses,” Erica says. “I follow my instincts when buying, and my customers always tell me what high quality my items are. For instance, all our furniture is upholstered traditionally, and 99 per cent of the items I sell are over 100 years old.”

Sabrina Izzard has run Halls Bookshop (01892 527842) since 1983, but the shop has been on the same premises in Chapel Place since 1938 and in the same road since 1890. She says: “We’re fantastic recyclists, because all our second-hand and antiquarian books are supplied and sold back to Tunbridge Wells folk!

“I believe we’re one of the best provincial bookshops in the country, selling second-hand and antiquarian books, from 10p paperbacks to antiquarian collectors’ items.  The whole of the lower part of the High Street, and around the Pantiles consists of mostly independent shopkeepers, and we do feel neglected by the council – now they’re restricting nearby parking to two hours, which is certainly not long enough for our customers.”

CONSIDERING A MOVE?

There are excellent travel links to London and no shortage of independent prep schools and senior schools nearby, but property prices reflect the town’s popularity. One- and two-bedroom flats are in the region of �140,000, and �225,000 respectively, and a three-bedroom semi would cost approximately �300,000, with a four-bedroom detached home priced at upwards of �510,000.

GETTING THERE

Tunbridge Wells is halfway between London and Hastings, approximately 30 minutes’ drive from the A21’s intersection with the M25. Tunbridge Wells station, at the bottom end of the town centre, has regular trains to London (less than an hour) and there are good coach and bus services: 0871 200 2233 for public transport details.

Satnav postcode: TN1 1JN.

MY TOWN

Dorothea Holman, member of Tunbridge Wells Twinning Association  

What are the Association’s aims?

To promote cultural, sporting and business contacts between the people of Tunbridge Wells and Wiesbaden, creating an atmosphere of friendship across borders. Our German twin is a similarly prosperous spa town. Wiesbaden is capital of the Federal region of Hessen, and it is a very green and architecturally pleasant town, close to wonderful hills, lots of vineyards and the river Rhine.

What do you like about Tunbridge Wells?

I love its hills, abundance of greenery and mixture of architecture – Georgian right through to Art Deco.

Your favourite view?

When I come almost to the top of the hill on to Mount Ephraim and see the town and its green trees down below, it feels almost as if the sea is hiding behind the trees. I still enjoy discovering new nooks and crannies in various parts of town.

Your favourite place in town?

The Pantiles. I find it very atmospheric and visit is as often as I can to have coffee, meet friends or enjoy a meal. The shops are fantastic and it’s fun to listen to jazz in the summer with a glass of wine.

Any changes you’d like to make?

I’d like to create Park-and-Ride centres at entrances to the town to reduce the traffic and on-street parking. It would be great for the cinema site to be developed as a garden with a fountain, and the civic buildings refurbished sympathetically.

What are the town’s advantages?

It’s a wonderful base for lots of attractions: National Trust houses and gardens, and only an hour from the sea, London and Gatwick. It has so much unrealised potential, both as a tourist and conference centre.

Your favourite restaurant?

We regularly go to Thackeray’s and Palio (01892 515558), or one of our other super restaurants for a family meal. We often take guests to The Brew House (01892 520587) or Casa Vecchia (01892 544700).

What would you tell newcomers?

It’s very pleasant to live in with fantastic countryside all around, however the downside is the traffic congestion.

 Sum up the town in a sentence?

It’s the jewel in the crown of Kent.

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