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Why you should visit Tunbridge Wells in Kent

Christmas lights (c) Rose Bainbridge
Christmas lights (c) Rose Bainbridge

Elegantly historic but friendly too, with lots going on and green spaces galore, little wonder that this West Kent town is popular with residents and visitors alike

Great British Life: Dunorlan is just one of Tunbidge Wells' lovely parks (c) GettyDunorlan is just one of Tunbidge Wells' lovely parks (c) Getty


For a town with plenty of cachet – it regularly hits the ‘best places to live’ lists – Tunbridge Wells is something of an upstart, taking half its name from its much older neighbour Tonbridge (the ‘U’ replaced the ‘O’ to avoid confusion between which place was which), and only really forming into the place we know today in the 17th century. So what brought people here in the first place? The answer lies in a reddish-brown trickle of iron-filled water that you can still see in the town’s Dunorlan Park and – in a clearer version – in the Pantiles: water from the Chalybeate spring. It’s Dudley Lord North who’s accredited with having first discovered the waters enroute from nearby Eridge back to London in 1606. Having sampled them and found they cured his ailments, he spread the word as to their efficacy, the fashionable took heed and the spa town was born. The first buildings sprang up around the Pantiles, with a bath house at its far end, home to the spring. The elegant colonnade – then as today – was filled with shops and refreshment stops, a place where the beautiful people could see and be seen. Leading personalities of the day who once strutted their stuff here include fashion arbiter and the Prince Regent’s pal, Beau Brummell.

Such was the town’s popularity that expansion was inevitable – up the hill, where leading architect Decimus Burton built a gorgeous crescent of houses in Calverley Park, another parade of shops (now private houses) in Calverley Park Crescent and the church that is today home to the town’s Trinity Theatre. Later, not one but two stations were created - the Spa Valley Railway is today run entirely by volunteers and sees steam trains puffing out to Eridge and back, with the wildly popular Polar Express running from here at Christmas, too. Princess Victoria, aged 19, stayed in what was then the Mount Ephraim hotel en route to her coronation – today it’s the town’s branch of Hotel du Vin - and, years later, her daughter Princess Louise had a house in nearby Langton Green. Tunny’s popularity with royal visitors reached its heyday in 1909, when Edward VII granted it the prefix, ‘Royal’.

Today the top of the town is home not only to Royal Victoria mall with its range of shopping stalwarts, it’s also been revitalised with the opening of The Amelia Scott cultural hub – home to event spaces and exhibitions, the library and museum and a cafe. All this, along with an outstanding selection of state primary and secondary schools and a 50-minute commute by train to London means housing in the area is expensive. The average price for a semi this year has been £581,584, according to property website Right Move.

Great British Life: Catch cinema, music theatre and more at Trinity Theatre [credit: Trinity Theatre]Catch cinema, music theatre and more at Trinity Theatre [credit: Trinity Theatre]

Exploring the town

From a visitor’s point of view Tunbridge Wells, like football, is a game of two halves. For one, come out of the station and head up the hill (on the right you’ll spot the lights of the Skating Rink in Calverley Grounds at this time of year) and you’ll find yourself at The Amelia Scott. Named after a local suffragette and social reformer, it’s a great, light-filled place in which to gen up on the town’s history, peruse the extensive library and lose yourself in its museum collections – everything from fashion to natural history.

The Assembly Hall Theatre close by plays host to rep theatre, musicians including Kent’s own Jools Holland and leading comedians. It’s also the home of this year’s star-studded panto: Beauty & The Beast. If you’re heading for the shopping centre, pop your head into the Wetherspoons on the way – housed in what was once the town’s opera house, with a plush and cavernous interior plus theatrical boxes to prove it.

Five minute’s walk away, you’ll find Trinity Theatre – the town’s arts centre. Housed in a Decimus Burton church, it’s home to cinema, theatre and music on a small scale and with a great café. Further on is the St John’s area, home to some good eating options plus Woodbury Park Cemetery. Like a mini version of London’s Highgate, you’ll find some fascinating names in this leafy Victorian oasis - well worth a visit - including the Rev Henry Austen, author Jane’s favourite brother. Head back down the hill, past the station and beyond and you’re approaching the town’s other half: the high street with its independent boutiques, then continue down through dinky and pedestrianised Chapel Place, over the road and you’re into the Pantiles – the perfect place for a promenade.

Great British Life: The IvyThe Ivy

Eating and drinking

All sorts of cuisine, from French at Coco Retro ( near the station to modern Asian at Kumquat on the Pantiles ( is on offer here. Tunny’s townsfolk are big on tea-time, and for a cuppa served in vintage china together with the most decadent and delicious of cakes, head for Juliets on the High Street, where the billionaire’s shortbread is a must for salted-caramel fans. Be assured, though, that if it’s soup and salad you’re after, you’ll find that here too ( Soprano is great for tapas ( )and The Ivy combines sophistication with good food. Meanwhile, head to the Pantiles for the freshest seafood at Sankey’s, housed in the town’s original fish market ( There are plenty of other options here too, food-wise, plus welcoming little pubs like The Ragged Trousers ( and glamorous new cocktail bar Charlotte’s ( At the other end of town, Zorba Meze Grill offers Turkish fare (, friendly Fuggles is brilliant for local ales and toasted cheese sandwiches ( and, further up at 77 St John's Road is the wonderful Hidden Well – you can’t miss its blue exterior. Its menu delivers the freshest Asian fusion food, with bao buns and dumplings a particular delight . Head on even further to Southborough (walkable, but you’re better off taking a cab), and multi-award-winning Tallow offers fine-but-friendly dining close to the common ( . And if you don’t want to head back into town after you’ve eaten, you’ll find a bed for the night and a good breakfast just over the road at The Hand & Sceptre pub (

Great British Life: Head down to Chapel Place for great shopping - and perhaps even a Christmas choir (c) Angeles RodenasHead down to Chapel Place for great shopping - and perhaps even a Christmas choir (c) Angeles Rodenas


Two upmarket independent department stores at the top and bottom of the town respectively meet shoppers’ needs, from fashion to fragrance, stationery to bedlinen: Fenwick in Royal Victoria Place ( and Hoopers on Mt Pleasant ( opposite the station. Elsewhere, shops come into their own as you move further down towards the Pantiles, with tiny traditional men’s outfitters Bailey’s on Mt Pleasant (brilliant for draw-string pyjamas, the softest lambswool jumpers and spotty handkerchiefs) cult fashion boutique The Changing Room (@chaingroomboutique) on the High Street and Anna Poulsen’s brilliantly curated mix of separates at affordable prices on Chapel Place (@poulsen¬-_anna). You’ll find beautiful crafts in this area of town, too, at The Silver Sheep ( and Le Petit Jardin ( – full of covetable pieces for home and garden - a few doors down. Also in this neck of the woods, bibliophiles won’t want to miss either the terrific range of titles in the Oxfam secondhand bookshop, or the rare books on offer at Hall’s bookshop (, a place in which you could easily while away an hour. If collectables with a past appeal to you, don’t miss The Pantiles Arcade ( housed in The Corn Exchange on The Pantiles. Here you’ll find decorative objects, fine art and an eclectic range of home décor, put together by big-name experts (as seen on TV!) including Eric Knowles, Mark Hill and Charles Hanson. Two jewellers not to miss are Catherine Hills (, close to the Corn Exchange, for boho-beautiful silver and gold designs, often nature-inspired (plus she’s designed pieces for the Harry Potter films, so her sense of drama is second-to-none) and, back on the High Street, G Collins and Son (gcollinsandsons), where the firm’s Harry Collins was jeweller to the late Queen, and the small shop space belies the warren of workshops inside, from which some of the country’s most exquisite jewellery emerges.

Great British Life: Emma WilchEmma Wilch

Case Study: Emma Wilch

Married with two children, Emma has lived in Tunbridge Wells for 25 years and commutes to London for her job in marketing a couple of days a week.

‘It’s the quality of life here that sees families settle in the town: schools are brilliant, but I especially love the fact that ten minutes’ walk from my door and I can be in a wood on Tunbridge Wells common or exploring one of our lovely parks. There’s plenty going on, too – I really enjoy yoga with Nick of the Yoga Tree in nearby Langton, and Wiggle & Giggle dance classes with Karen are a lot of fun. The town is also a brilliant base for excursions further afield, to vineyards like Gusbourne, gin tasting at Anno distillers in Headcorn or the National Trust’s Scotney Castle in Lamberhurst.

Quality food is very important to me and family butchers’ Fullers’ is excellent – all their meat is traceable and they offer great advice and service. I’ll get my fruit and veg from Locality in town, cheese from The Cheese Shop in St John’s and Groombridge Farm shop has a good range of produce, too.

The Pantiles really is our number-one asset: the team that runs it have done an excellent job in ensuring there’s always something going on, with its food and antiques fairs, Jazz on the Pantiles in the summer and markets at Christmas. I love Trinity for its lively, varied programme and Rusthall Community Cinema is a great initiative – comfortable seats and the chance to select the films ourselves.’



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