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Spotlight on: Tonbridge

PUBLISHED: 09:25 27 February 2014 | UPDATED: 09:26 27 February 2014

Tonbridge Castle

Tonbridge Castle

MSP Assocs

This historic market town on the Medway that’s on the brink of massive change is blessed with a close-knit community that really cares about its future

Tonbridge might not be as glamorous as its neighbours Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells, but for the people who live and work here it’s a brilliant place to be.

As local trader Teresa Seamer puts it: “Tonbridge is a growing town with great potential and it’s on the brink of an exciting new era too.”

Its natural assets include the River Medway winding through the centre of town beneath Big Bridge, lush surrounding Wealden countryside, a large country park offering recreational and sports facilities that include an indooor-outdoor swimming pool, and an 11th-century castle built by the half brother of William the Conqueror.

Tonbridge Farmers’ Market (tonbridgefarmersmarket.co.uk) won the very first Kent Life and Kent on Sunday ‘Best Farmers’ Market of the Year’ award in 2013 against strong competition. It is held on the second Sunday of every month in Sovereign Way car park and well worth visiting.

To all this and more you can add some of the easiest commuting and the best schools in the county, a fierce local pride among residents – and big planning changes ahead.

Tonbridge is looking to a potentially exciting future with the most significant regeneration of its town centre in a generation. While not yet finalised, the ambitious plans involve creating a brand-new flagship Sainsbury’s on the site of the existing store, Angel Centre and Beales (which will close), and delivering a new multi-purpose, leisure and community centre on Bradford Street car park to include a six-screen cinema.

New shops, cafés and restaurants are also planned and it’s hoped that the multi-million pound investment will draw shoppers back to Tonbridge, create hundreds of new jobs for local people and underpin the vitality and economic success of the town.

As Nicolas Heslop, Leader of Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council, commented: “The opportunity to secure regeneration of Tonbridge town centre with the provision of an improved retail and leisure offer, the creation of new jobs, enhanced public spaces and car parking supported by a significant investment by Sainsbury’s is perhaps a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity for us.”

And while not connected to the Sainsbury’s development, the first steps in the regeneration of the town centre have already begin with the demolition of Sovereign House, the crumbling three-storey former office block in the Botany area.

Redrow bought the site last July with permission already in place to build 196 flats and a number of shops.

The town is now slowly recovering from the impact of floods that began with the unprecedented rainfall over Christmas, prompting memories for some residents of the High Street knee deep in water back in 1968.

Once again a resilience of spirit has shine throigh as communities have worked together to help one another.

Bringing TLC to Tonbridge

Tonbridge Town Team was formed in 2012 and just a few months later successfully staged the first Tonbridge Taster Day on 23 June 2013, attracting 20,000 visitors to the town for a day of Dragon Races on the Medway, entertainment and stalls the length of the High Street, which was closed for the day.

The Town Team followed this up with the launch of the Tonbridge Loyalty Card (TLC) last October as a way of encouraging people to shop locally and to support the independent traders in the town.

For every £10 someone spends with one of the 60-plus participating businesses, they get a stamp on their card. Once they have six stamps they can put it into one of three collection boxes in town to stand a chance of winning the £50 prize draw which takes place each month.

The scheme has been widely embraced and as an added incentive, when people spend with local independent traders, around 45 pence in the pound stays in the local economy whereas only 15 pence stays if they spend at the large multiples.

“The Town Team is very ambitious for Tonbridge,” says Howard Porter, who runs Frantic Design, a graphic design business (www.franticdesign.com).

“The whole idea came out of the Portas Review conducted by retail guru Mary Portas in 2011 and when I heard about the government’s Portas Pilots shortly afterwards in 2012, it seemed like just the sort of thing that would provide a positive push for the town.

“Sadly, we didn’t win the bid to become one of the Pilots but we did get £10,000 from government which enabled us to put on the incredibly successful Taste of Tonbridge event last year.”

He adds: “Unfortunately, that was a one-off sum so we need to work really hard to fund this year’s festival celebrating everything Tonbridge has to offer. In fact, we’re busily looking for sponsors at the moment, so if readers would like to chip in we would be more than happy to hear from them!”

● If you are a local business within Tonbridge or the immediate surrounding areas and would like to become a member please contact the Tonbridge Town Team at tonbridgett@gmail.com, via Twitter @TonbridgeTownTe or contact Susan Adams at Susan Adams Business Services (01732 357872), Teresa Seamer at Gorgeous George (01732 369871) or Matthew Ryde at Howard Cundey Estate Agents (01732 770588).

TRADERS’ TALK

Gorgeous George

Business partners Teresa Seamer and Gabrielle Copson have been trading in Tonbridge for the past 14 months as Gorgeous George (www.gorgeousgeorge.uk.com), situated in The Pavilion.

A boutique lifestyle fashion store with an eclectic range of goods from jewellery, accessories, paintings to fine wines, its catchy name was inspired by their favourite film Snatch and the character Gorgeous George the boxer (who wasn’t so gorgeous after all; this shop definitely is).

Teresa, a member of the Tonbridge Town Team, says: “We are excited by Tonbridge and believe it has a great future. With young professionals moving to the area from London, recognising the area’s historic qualities, Tonbridge is evolving into a vibrant town with a population passionate about its future.

“As well as being a Town Team member, I am also a resident of Tonbridge and will do everything I can to see Tonbridge and its artisan traders reach their full potential.”

With regard to the proposed planning changes, Teresa comments: “Moving forward in Tonbridge is vital, but any changes need to ensure the High Street will not be affected. We believe the proposed development will result in the town becoming disjointed and focus too much on Sainsbury’s.

“In order to counteract this we strongly believe Tonbridge needs to adopt a quirky, independent feel, encouraging small, unique traders into the town. Drastic action needs to be taken to allow small independents to establish themselves, such as looking at business rate and rent reductions.

“The real challenge is to keep Tonbridge alive, it’s a real worry at the moment with businesses closing down and the recent floods over Christmas.”

Plans for Gorgeous George in 2014 include creating a gallery space upstairs to highlight and promote the work of local artists, starting with urban artist Alex Scudder.

When the girls aren’t busy in the shop, they love walking round Barden Lake and boating on the river. And apart from their own Aladdin’s cave, they’d happily spend their money at The Finch House (see below), Grace (the family-owned handbag and fashion accessories shop in Angel Walk), Ian Chatfield butchers, Pets’ Paradise - and ‘Rob’s flower stall.’

Finch House

Family-run Finch House (www.finchhouse.co.uk) opened in December 2011 and combines a 120-cover café across two floors with a fine food store serving local and freshly made food and bakery supplied by independent producers across Kent and Sussex.

Its home-made cakes and biscuits are particularly gorgeous (the salted caramel brownies are particularly Ed. recommended) but also on the menu are gourmet salads, paninis, ciabattas, warming pies with mash and gravy or soup and stew served with artisan bread.

Owner Daron Goldfinch, from Lamberhurst, has a long experience in the retail and catering business and a passion for sourcing local food. He set up Finch House (named after the family) with the support of his wife Julia and mother-in-law Charlotte Phillips.

The father-of-two, who originally comes from Tonbridge, work as an independent consultant developing and launching retail/café concepts from conception through to completion. Within the consultancy he also works for renowned bakers Konditor and Cook (London) as their operations director/consultant.

So why Tonbridge? Daron explains: “I wanted to set up a business in my home town to support the local economy and the region’s many small-scale artisan producers and give people are real alternative to bland chains where all the food is made from central production units.”

He adds: “I’m a real foodie at heart. Everyone knows Kent farmers produce some of the best fruit in the world, but it’s been incredible to discover the variety and quality of food being produced just down the road.

“We serve Owlets’ apple juice from Lamberhurst, plums from Horsemonden, raspberries from Plaxtol, cheese from Wrotham and the hand-made sausages and gammon ham from Bearstead.”

Like Gorgeous George, Finch House is a member of the Tonbridge Loyalty Card Scheme and Daron is a great supporter of the town and in particular enjoys the leisure facilities in the sports ground, its castle and river.

While he believes Sainsbury’s proposed new development could be a “fantastic opportunity” for Tonbridge to grow as a town and help regenerate Tonbridge High Street, he does have some reservations.

“The scheme needs to be designed correctly and the finer details of the plan need to look at Tonbridge as a whole and not the High Street and the new development as separate areas,” he says.

“The repositioning of the proposed cinema and food outlets along the river adjacent to the Botany area would open up the new development with the existing town centre and redevelop the town as a whole.”

● Plans for Finch House include looking at possible new sites in 2014.

The Austens in West Kent

Taken from Jane Austen’s Family and Tonbridge by Margaret Wilson

Jane Austen and her family had really strong links with Kent. She made frequent visits to her brother Edward, who lived near Canterbury, but it was in West Kent that her father’s family had its roots.

A visit to Horsmonden reveals that the church contains Austen tombs, while several houses associated with Jane’s cloth-making ancestors survive in the village.

Jane’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Weller, came from a well-known Tonbridge family and married John Austen from Horsmonden in 1693.

When John died unexpectedly a decade later he left her with heavy debts and seven children. A resourceful and far-sighted woman, she took up the post of housekeeper to the headmaster of Sevenoaks School, thereby ensuring a free education for her children.

Of these, William, Jane’s grandfather, became a surgeon in Tonbridge where he married and had a family, which included Jane’s father, George. William’s early death, at the age of 37, is recorded on his grave in the parish church of St Peter & St Paul.

Thanks to the generosity of today’s American Jane Austen Society, the church now has an interesting display of Austen information in its foyer, which is open to the public every weekday morning from 10 until noon.

In Sevenoaks High Street you can still see the elegant Georgian Red House where Jane visited her great-uncle Francis, a wealthy lawyer. His kindly concern for his nephew George had enabled her father to receive an excellent education at Tonbridge School.

Tonbridge was mentioned by Jane in her unfinished novel Sanditon, as was Tunbridge Wells; in Woodbury Park Cemetery lies the grave of Jane’s brother, Henry, who played a pivotal role in getting her novels published.

It was Henry’s widow, Eleanor, who outlived her husband in Tunbridge Wells and once owned Jane’s ring, which has been the subject of much recent attention when it seemed destined to leave England to adorn the hand of an American pop singer.

With so much interest in ancestry these days, we should perhaps remind ourselves of the importance of West Kent in shaping the family of one of England’s best-loved novelists.

Education, education

Tonbridge School, founded in 1553 by Sir Andrew Judde, is a renowned independent school for boys, and the town is also home to several remaining Grammar Schools, including The Judd School, Weald of Kent Grammar School and Tonbridge Grammar School (formerly Tonbridge Grammar School for Girls).

A number of Tonbridge’s secondary schools have specialist status, including Tonbridge Grammar School for Maths and ICT, as well as Languages; Weald of Kent Grammar School for Girls, a specialist school for languages and science; the Judd School for Music with English and also now Science with Maths; Hayesbrook School for boys, a specialist sports college; and Hillview School For Girls, which has a Performing Arts Status. Hugh Christie Technology College is also renowned in the area for its IT expertise.

Further and higher education is available at K College, but at the time if writing there is continued uncertainty over plans for the college’s future existence after a damming recent Ofsted report placed it into Administered College Status.

Tonbridge also boasts a great many primary schools including Hilden Grange, Slade, Sussex Road, Long Mead, Cage Green, Woodlands, St Stephens and St Margaret Clitherow RC.

Property watch

“Every year brings its challenges and 2014 is no different, High Street businesses must compete with changing lifestyles and shopping habits. How will Tonbridge fare?” writes Matthew Ryde of estate agents Howard Cundey (www.howardcundey.com).

“Change is afoot with more redevelopment planned for the town centre. A new shopping arcade, sports centre and more residential homes will alter the dynamic, but will it harm or heal?”

Matthew adds: “The Tonbridge Loyalty Card Scheme has been incredibly well supported, showing that shoppers use their local businesses regularly, a sign of a healthy future. Summer 2013’s Taste of Tonbridge brought an estimated 20,000 people into the town and many other cultural events take place.

“Reflecting on my first year at Howard Cundey in Tonbridge, I have been amazed by the strength of community spirit. Nestled along the river Medway, the town is surrounded by idyllic Wealden countryside and local people are fiercely proud of their historic town with its castle and 69-acre park.

“Blessed with a wealth of great schools it is sought after by commuters with a simple train journey to London in less than 40 minutes and a great deal of housing options to choose from.

“In 2013 the average sold price in Tonbridge was £321,058 against a national average of £242,415. Average prices in 2013 for two, three and four-bedroom properties were £222,115, £295,293 and £457,959 respectively.

“Prices in the town range from in the low £100,000’s with a maximum sale price achieved of £2,250,000

“Tonbridge is an amazing community to be part of! Shhh, keep it our secret.”

Getting there

Tonbridge railway station is one of Kent’s busiest with 3.8 million passengers using it each year. It’s an important railway junction with lines to London, Ashford, Hastings and Redhill. The town is also served by the A21 between London and Hastings and the A26 between Maidstone and Brighton; it is also close to Junction 5 of the M25.

There are future proposals to dual the A21 from Castle Hill to Pembury, where a new regional hospital opened in 2011.

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