A town guide to Tonbridge
PUBLISHED: 12:06 18 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:30 02 November 2020
No longer overlooked in favour of its flashy neighbours, this unassuming little historic town is reinventing itself for the 21st century. Let’s take a tour of Tonbridge
For outsiders, it can be easy to confuse the ancient market town of Tonbridge with its neighbour, the larger and newer Tunbridge Wells. Imagine then how confusing it must have been when they shared the same spelling. It was only in 1870 that the town was given its distinguishing ‘o’.
The history of Tonbridge is there for all to see. Right in its heart still stands Tonbridge Castle, a motte and bailey gatehouse first built sometime between 1066 and 1100 by the de Clare family.
Kinsmen of William the Conqueror, the Norman nobles had been granted the land overlooking the river at Tonbridge by the new king himself, suggesting that the Saxon settlement was already an important one by that time. Lying on a narrow part of the River Medway and situated between London and Hastings, it’s no surprise that a medieval market town grew up around the river crossing.
While Tonbridge has expanded dramatically over the last century, the core of the historic town is still there. As well as the castle, there are more than 150 listed buildings including Tonbridge School, an independent boys’ school founded in 1553. Famously, it is where the father of Jane Austen both went to school and later taught. It’s just one of several links Tonbridge has to the iconic author.
In terms of leisure, Tonbridge is almost spoilt for choice. With two theatres – the EM Forster Theatre at Tonbridge School and the Oast Theatre – a popular swimming pool (complete with a rare open-air pool during the summer months), mini golf, an indoor climbing centre and a trampoline centre, there is plenty to do.
For something a little more relaxing, take a trip on the Medway with Tonbridge River Tours or enjoy a walk at the award-winning Haysden Country Park.
And it’s a very active community so naturally there are several events held throughout the year. Some to look out for include the Food and Drink Festival (May), Tonbridge Carnival (June), Tonbridge Castle Music Weekend (July), Tonbridge Calling music festival (August) and the ever-popular Dragon Boat Racing on the river (September).
Tonbridge hit the headlines late last year when a group of protestors tried to save a tree outside the old Teen and Twenty Club in River Lawn Road. A two-year campaign to save the historic horse chestnut culminated in a protestor climbing it to prevent it being felled as part of the redevelopment of the site.
The former youth club is due to be replaced with a new medical centre. After a week up the tree, protestors reached an agreement with developers and its future has now been assured.
In other news, and particularly timely as Fairtrade Fortnight runs from 25 February to 10 March this year, the town has recently been awarded Fair Trade status. The success follows a two-year campaign to actively promote Fairtrade to consumers, businesses and community groups in the area.
As part of the campaign, more than a dozen retailers pledged to sell more than four Fairtrade products and seven local eateries are now serving two or more Fairtrade products. A steering group, chaired by Borough Councillor Frixos Tombolis, was responsible for planning the campaign and encouraging support.
Cllr Tombolis says: “People have been working incredibly hard to make all this happen and we are delighted we have now been granted Fairtrade Town status.”
It’s just part of the town’s recent success story. After a period of neglect, a great deal of regeneration has taken place in the town centre over the last few years and it has a smart new train station and a neater, more pedestrian-friendly High Street.
Dozens of new businesses have sprung up and it’s become a foodie destination with exciting new cafés and restaurants attracting locals and those from surrounding towns, something that just wouldn’t have happened even a few years ago.
And tourism is becoming big business in the Tonbridge and Malling area, according to statistics recently released in a report commissioned by Visit Kent. The report reveals the value of Tonbridge and Malling’s visitor economy grew by 8.6 per cent in 2017 and is now worth £174m.
The number of jobs supported by tourism grew by 8.5 per cent to 3,427, with the industry accounting for six per cent of total employment in the area.
Nicolas Heslop, who lives in the town and is the very active Leader of Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council and cabinet member for economic regeneration, says: “This report is very welcome news and shows that, despite challenging conditions in the industry, tourism in Tonbridge and Malling is making a significant contribution to the local economy.
“We have some fantastic attractions in our borough, as well as an expanding array of great places to dine, all surrounded by picturesque countryside.”
Shopping and eating
When it comes to shopping, there’s everything you could need on the High Street. Along with big name supermarkets (including Waitrose) there are local florists, Ian Chatfield Butchers & Deli and Sankey’s fishmongers. Don’t miss Gorgeous George, Little Blue Finch, The Gift Box, the excellent Mr Books, ArtSpring Gallery (now with a new guest artist every month; look out for Tonbridge-based painter Colin Anderson and West Malling-based Giles Whitehead in March) and Bea Childrenswear. Cool new record shop Vinyl Destination popped up in February. The Town Team organises popular events throughout the year and runs a loyalty card scheme with dozens of local businesses like these participating.
There’s a huge variety of great coffee shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants now in this vibrant town, where the focus is on quality independents. Some to try include the coffee shop and pop-up food events at The Old Fire Station, Fuggles Beer Café, Havet, Gurkha Planet, The Vauxhall Inn, Finch House, Mamma Mia, Sulston’s Kitchen, El Mariachi, Beyond the Grounds coffee shop, Basil, The Gatehouse, Saltwaters and The Bakehouse at 124.
The new Verdigris restaurant is headed up by chef Scott Goss, who competed in last year’s Great British Menu on BBC2. Quirky new free house The Beer Seller opened at the end of last year. And don’t miss the award-winning Tonbridge Farmers’ Market, held on the second Sunday of every month.
Local Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes has closed her Café 1809 in nearby Hildenborough after four years. She still owns the building and has told fans to ‘watch this space’ as she reinvents it as something new. And animal lovers will be excited to hear that Tonbridge became home to Kent’s first cat café last year. Paws Cat Café in Angel Walk books time slots for a limited number of guests to spend time with their 13 rescue cats, while enjoying coffee and cake.
Postcard from Tonbridge
My name is Clare Barton and I am the owner and head baker at The Bakehouse at 124. Based on Tonbridge High Street, it is an artisan bakery where everything is made from scratch using the finest ingredients, locally sourced where possible.
Now in its third year of trading, The Bakehouse at 124 can be found in a listed Tudor building which sits under the Castle Walls. The open-plan bakery, which allows our customers to see all the bread being produced, is at the back of the building.
We make everything ourselves, from sourdough to focaccia, pastries such as croissants, brioche and cruffins (now a popular speciality of the Bakehouse, consisting of croissant dough baked and rolled in sugar with a delicious filling) to cakes and our much-loved scones.
We have a lunch and brunch menu which is all made to order and we run bread classes, pizza nights and many other events on a regular basis.
The Bakehouse won three awards at the prestigious Tiptree World Bread Awards, the only bakery in Kent to do so. So our blackberry, goats’ cheese and fennel sourdough, sea salt and rosemary focaccia and raspberry brioche are all award-winning.
Tonbridge is my home town and has so much to offer: thriving independent businesses, an increasing foodie reputation, great community spirit, strong rail links into London and the coast and even a castle. Growing up in the neighbouring village of Hildenborough, it is fantastic to see how Tonbridge has evolved and I love being a part of it.
Some of my favourite local businesses include Sulston’s Kitchen, Beyond the Grounds, Fuggles, the Gift Box, Verdigris and Aquavie Spa.