Spotlight on Tunbridge Wells

Why not celebrate Valentine's day with your partner by staying in Tunbridge Wells for a romantic weekend – especially as this month marks 250 years since the death of Beau Nash the original 'party animal?'

Spotlight on Tunbridge Wells

Why not celebrate Valentine’s day with your partner by staying in Tunbridge Wells for a romantic weekend – especially as this month marks 250 years since the death of Beau Nash the original ‘party animal?’

Despite its conservative image (though ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ is very much in the minority these days), the town was originally a hotbed of steamy dalliances, a raunchy Regency playground for the rich and famous.

In 1735 Richard ‘Beau’ Nash became the official master of ceremonies, leading the affluent aristocrats in a mad social whirl of prancing and promenading, even though they’d ostensibly come merely to ‘take the waters’ at the Chalybeate spring.

February 2012 marks 250 years since Mr Nash’s death, yet somehow the Georgian glitz and glamour lives on in the fine buildings and lovely streets and alleyways. Nash arrived every year to inaugurate ‘the season’, and in 1736, marquesses, dukes, knights, MPs and Prime Minister William Walpole were recorded as visitors.

And in 1802 a new theatre was built in the Pantiles, and the actors David Garrick, Edmund Keane and ‘the beautiful Miss Chudleigh’ trod the boards: in those days ‘The Wells’ was naughtier than Paris and probably much more fun.

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The Pantiles is the historic heart of town, site of the original Chalybeate spring, hardly changed from when knee breeches and tricorn hats were de rigueur.

In contrast, the northern part of town purrs with 21st-century convenience, with space-age shopping at Westfield Victoria Place, a crazy Millennium town clock on stilts, modern shopping pedestrian precincts, a grand museum, art gallery, theatres and restaurants galore.

And there’s a third Tunbridge Wells, the rural part that borders the Common, an idyll of steep hills and fantastic views, particularly those from Mount Ephraim. 

Tunbridge Wells has all the ingredients you need for romance: beautiful scenery and parks, an unprecedented range of top-rank restaurants and hotels, an excellent choice of quality gift shops, tremendous history and a lively atmosphere.

In February 2011 many of the hotels and restaurants were offering discounted rates for romantic breaks, so key ‘Valentine’s Day Tunbridge Wells’ into your laptop and snap up some bargains while there’s still time.

MOOCH-AROUND SATURDAY

The Pantiles

The town’s pedestrianised heart, its buildings were constructed around St Charles the Virgin church (check out its sensational ceiling), site of the original Chalybeate spring. It’s built on two levels, with white-painted colonnaded shops, art galleries, boutiques, and other feelgood shops, plus the marvellous old Corn Exchange building, once a famous theatre and now the home of Pantiles Shopping Arcade.

Woods restaurant (01892 614411) is an ideal spot for refreshments, and in fine weather you can dine outside (closed Sunday evening).

Gifts from the heart

Westfield Royal Victoria Place has all the leading high street names plus more than 100 other retailers, and there’s also the Great Hall Shopping arcade plus fantastic stores along Mount Pleasant and the High Street.

And if you’re looking for that special Valentine’s day gift, there’s absolutely no shortage of wonderful independent individual stores in the Old High Street (Pantiles end), Chapel Place and Vale Road – you can be certain that fabulous contemporary jeweller Padani (01892 537533) and Queen’s jeweller, G Collins (01892 534 018) will have something truly unique for all tastes if a proposal is in the air.

Dining in style

Round off your perfect day with a meal for two at Thackeray’s restaurant (01892 511921), a lovely white weatherboarded house facing the Common. Other romantic meal spots include the Spa Hotel (01892 520331), Hotel du Vin and Bistro (01892 526455) and Woods restaurant (see above).

SENSUOUS SUNDAY

Rocks and treasures

Tunbridge Wells Museum and art gallery (10am-4pm) has permanent exhibitions and the world’s largest collection of Tunbridgeware (see My Town).

King Charles the Martyr church, beside the Pantiles, has a service at 10am, while on the Common you’ll find the bizarrely shaped Wellington Rocks. Mount Ephraim Road, beyond the Common, is a great place to walk and see the town from above and The Royal Wells Hotel (01892 511188), is a perfect choice for morning coffee or lunch.

Walk and learn

Or have a bracing walk around town to see all the red plaques of famous folk who’ve lived there – a great many are in Mount Ephraim and Church Road, as well as along the inner London Road.

Wide open spaces

After a leisurely lunch what could be better than strolling around the town’s grand parks and open spaces? The Grove has marvellous old trees, Calverley Grounds has a fine sunken Italianate garden, while just outside town Dunorlan Park has a river, pond and boating lake, grass, hedgerows and flower beds.

How to get there

Midway between Hastings and London, Tunbridge Wells is approx 30 minutes drive on the A26 from the A21 junction with the M25. Regular rail links to London, with two stations, good coach and bus links.

Satnav postcode: TN1 1JN

Where to stay

Swan Cottage

Swan Cottage is a quaint 1810 house in the old ‘village’ area, near the station and the Pantiles. Owner David Gurdon has been running it as a B&B for nearly eight years and says: “Guests like the historical Pantiles part of town, it’s great for shopping, as well as the town itself being central for castles and gardens in the Kent area. Frankly, I like everything about the town. We’re very proud of our breakfasts here – people often comment on how good they are.”

The Spa Hotel

The Spa Hotel (01892 520331) dates back to 1766 and enjoys a lovely setting in 14 acres of gardens and lakes. As well as a leisure club (swimming pool, gyms, tennis court), spa facilities and the elegant Chandelier Restaurant, it is a popular choice for weddings – so you could always pick up some ideas during your stay. 

Georgie Scragg, operations manager, says: “In February and March we have a ‘winter getaway’ for two, which includes a three-course dinner in the Chandelier Restaurant and breakfast the following morning – plus guests can make full use of our leisure facilities.”

She adds: “The historic Pantiles and the High Street are definitely among the town’s key attractions.” 

MY TOWN

Abbi Bradford, museum collection officer, Tunbridge Wells Museum (01892 554171)

Tell us about the museum

There’s something for everyone here, so much more than just local history. We have a lively programme of exhibitions and events and it’s all free. Our collections are fabulous - from toys and dolls to Tunbridgeware, from fossils to costume and fine art. I am particularly fond of our Victorian paintings and photographs, some of which are of national importance.

What’s special about the town?

It’s the birthplace of Subbeteo table football - the inventor lived in Langton Green, and produced it from his shed!

What do you like about the town?

The architecture, the red-brick pavements, the parks, how it’s close to beautiful countryside but also close to the buzz of London.

Favourite local activities?

I love going for walks in the countryside – I’m a big fan of all the sandstone rock outcrops. I’m also really into the local live music scene.

Any favourite places?

The Pantiles, and also the really awe-inspiring High Rocks.

And a favourite restaurant?

The Barn pub and restaurant (01892 510424), where I had my wedding reception. I also love the vibe of The Black Dog caf� (01892 549543).

Any improvements needed?

Have a bigger museum, so that we can share even more of the fabulous collections!