Tonbridge - A river runs through it

Steeped in history, Tonbridge is dominated by its castle and divided by its river, boasts fantastic transport links and some of the best schools in west Kent.

Words by Geoffrey West  pictures by Manu Palomeque

History is everywhere in Tonbridge, from the magical castle, to the ancient church and quaint ‘village’ part of town with its timber-framed buildings and roads, such as Bordyke, which follow the line of excavated ditches made when the original motte and bailey castle was built.  Traditionally a market town, the river Medway has always been Tonbridge’s raison d’�tre, and it’s the Medway that divides the town today. North of the river’s Big Bridge is the oldest, prettiest, part of town, the settlement that began in the wake of the castle’s construction. South of the river is a lively High Street packed with shops, restaurants and pubs.

Around townStarting at the castle, go down Bank Street, passing Mr Books, then turn left at the High Street. Soon you come to Ferox Hall, a lovely 16th-century mansion rebuilt in 1878, now used as a boarding house for Tonbridge School which is further up on the left. Retrace your steps and turn left into Bordyke where you’ll find The Priory, a delightful 18th-century house. Return to the High Street and go back towards the castle until you come to Church Lane on the left, at the end of which is the parish church. From here go down East Street, which has interesting old houses, including Port Reeves, a beautiful medieval building. Follow East Street back to the High Street, and almost opposite you is the Chequers and Rose and Crown public houses. The former is 500 years old and Wat Tyler’s brother was reputed to have been hung within its walls.  Big Bridge in the High Street was built in 1888 to service the increased traffic through town and was once a social centre, where people gathered to wash clothes and scour pans. To the south of this bridge what was once a sea of squalid housing perched on a muddy, flood-prone road is now ‘modern’ Tonbridge and home ot most of the town’s shops, including Bentalls and Angel Walk and The Pavilion.Markets are still a feature of the town, with a fleamarket at the Angel Leisure Centre on Fridays and a Saturday market in Vale car park, opposite the railway station.

Major attractions• The castle is considered the finest   example of a motte and bailey in    Britain and comprises most of the   13th-century gatehouse and a    mansion built alongside in 1792    (now used as council offices and the  Tourist Information Centre  (01732 770929)• Audio tours can guide you around   the gatehouse. In addition there’s   the River Wall and Curtain Wall    ascending the Mound, set in large   landscaped gardens. In summer, band   concerts and festivals of music and   fireworks are held on the castle green.  • Racecourse Sportsground Tennis   courts, 18-hole putting green, crazy  golf and bowls. Children’s play area.  (contact the Angel Centre for details). • Tonbridge Farm Sportsground    Multi-purpose, all-weather sports   area for football, netball, cricket and  bowling. Children’s play facilities. Tonbridge Golf Centre (01732    353281) • Tonbridge swimming pool (01732  367499), in the Sportsground but   part of the Angel Centre• Church of St Peter and St Paul    (01732 770962) is the oldest building  in town. The original 12th-century   church forms the chancel of the    present building. Has connections   with Jane Austen’s family (see below   and this month’s walk, on page 72). • Penshurst Place and Gardens    (01892 870307). Close to Tonbridge,  this marvellous historic house boasts   Tudor gardens and ancient parkland,   a venture playground, toy museum,   children’s and woodland trails and a  tea room. Opens 30 March. • Haysden Country Park (01732    844522). This 160-acre park    containing two lakes and part of the  Medway River is a Designated Local  Nature Reserve, with water activities   and cycle routes. Wildlife and    historical walks where you can see a   Victorian railway bridge, and a    Second World War pill box.• Oast Theatre (01732 350261)    Originally a farm oast house, it is   now home to Tonbridge Theatre and  Arts club and presents monthly shows.• The Angel Centre (01732 359966)  Fitness suite, sports hall and films. Tonbridge Pleasure Boats (01732   360630). Boats can be hired on  the River Medway. 

Past and presentTonbridge began life as a Saxon settlement around a bridge crossing the Medway. Richard Fitzherbert de Clare, William the Conqueror’s cousin, built the original motte and bailey castle, which still dominates the Big Bridge end of town. It has been a market town since 1259, and subsequently agriculture, cloth making and ironwork flourished. Tudor times were marked by the construction of Tonbridge School (1552) and an unsuccessful uprising against Queen Mary’s proposed marriage to the King of Spain. In the 18th century, the Medway Navigation Company successfully transported coal, lime, gunpowder, hops and timber until the advent of the railways (1842) stopped this trade, but other enterprises began, instigating the construction of the south side of town. During the 19th century, various craft industries became established: finely inlaid wooden cabinets, boxes and other items were made using a process of wood mosaic termed ‘Tunbridge Ware’ (it also flourished in neighbouring Tunbridge Wells).

Did you know? • The UK’s first speeding fine was    given by a Tonbridge petty session   in 1896, when Walter Arnold was   fined one shilling for speeding at  8mph in a 2mph zone! • Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be    hanged, was married at Tonbridge   Registry Office in 1950 • The 2006 Securitas depot robbery   of �53.1m, at Tonbridge, was the   largest cash theft in British  criminal history • Tonbridge was home to The Crystalate  Gramophone Record company, the   oldest record producer in Britain • Famous residents include E M Forster,  Vikram Seth, Frederick Forsyth and  cricketers Chris and Colin Cowdrey  and Frank Woolley, as well as    members of the pop band Keane • The town staged an open-topped   bus parade for local girl Dame Kelly  Homes to celebrate her double    Olympic Gold success • Jane Austen had many links to the   town (see also page 42).

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Considering a move?Property prices are lower than those of London, with a one-bedroomed flat costing �120,000-�140,000 a two-bedroomed flat or terraced house �140,000-�185,000, while a three-bedroomed terrace house would be around �160,000-�230,000; the same size semi is �200,000-�245,000. Expect to pay around �400,000 upwards for a four-bedroomed detached house. There is a lot of smart new build in town and by the river.

My Town: Q&A with Mark Richardson, owner of Mr Books, member of Tonbridge Civic Society and and organiser of The West Kent Book Fair at Tonbridge School on 2 May.

Why a bookshop? It’s partially that I love poetry and reading generally, but it satisfies other sides of me. I adore the look, feel and the smell of books, the history behind them. But I also like meeting local people and running my own business.  

Describe Tonbridge It’s an unpretentious town. Very well placed in the surrounding countryside. It’s fairly happy being just what it is.

How would you improve the town? When I was on the committee of the Civic Society, we were always talking about whether the river could be the main focus of the town. It’s so beautiful, yet so little is going on around it. A line of restaurants or bars along there would be very popular.

Your favourite part of town? Around the park, by the castle. And Bank Street, where my shop is. Riding my bike on the Penshurst country trail.

What’s special about Tonbridge? The past is always with you here, you can actually see the outline of the old medieval settlement and evidence of the dyke around the town.

How do you see the future? Tonbridge is struggling to find its identity. It was a traditional market town, and now the market isn’t really there any more. Should we become more modernised, or stick to our traditional roots? Probably the answer is to build up the area around the station.