Spotlight on Tunbridge Wells
PUBLISHED: 23:15 28 November 2013 | UPDATED: 23:26 28 November 2013
Copyright David Bartholomew 2012 All rights reserved.
Spend a weekend way in this charismatic spa town
A lovely town of steep hills, history and elegant buildings, Tunbridge Wells began life as a few settlements built near the ‘health-giving’ Chalybeate spring.
In Regency times it was the playground of the super rich, who attracted the respectable wealthy classes in droves; indeed there are red commemoration plaques on many buildings registering the notable people who were once residents.
It’s now very much a ‘feel-good’ town, perfect for a festive weekend, and ideal for Christmas shopping: it is packed with great shops, handsome buildings, a couple of top-rank theatres and masses of different restaurants offering every sort of cuisine.
One of the few blights - the old, much-missed ABC cinema in the centre of town, opposite the Town Hall, now known as the local ‘number one grot spot’- has been derelict for nearly 14 years but is soon set to be redeveloped, along with the surrounding shops. Fingers firmly crossed. Christmas diary
Assembly Hall Theatre (01892 530613, TN1 2LU)
That’ll be the day Christmas Show (3 Dec), Aida (7 Dec), A Christmas Carol (8 Dec), Jack and the Beanstalk, (13 Dec-5 Jan 2014).
Trinity Theatre (01892 678678, TN1 1JP)
The Snow Queen (30 Nov-2 Dec), The Wizard of Oz (30 Nov-2 Dec), The BFG (12 Dec-1 Jan 2014), A medieval Christmas (14 Dec), A Christmas Carol (20 Dec).
Bewl Water (01892 890000, TN3 8JH): Christmas Fair (7-8 Dec, 14-15 Dec, 21-23 Dec).
Skating at Calverley Grounds (01892 554645, TN1 1BT). Open seven days a week, 22 Nov-5 Jan 2014 (closed Christmas day). Weekend market stalls, selling gifts and food.
Pantiles: Farmers’ Markets on the first and third weekends of the month (7-8 and 21-22 Dec).
Gift ideas: Tunbridge Wells, by Roddy Paine and Catherine Wallis, is a wonderful, picture-led book on the town. And you can buy a place on artist Stoney Parsons’s (01892 750099) Beginner classes in working with stained glass, taking place on 3-4 January and 22-23 February 2014.
David Bartholomew (01892 863817), was born in the town and has lived there ever since. A professional photographer, he is also managing director of Click Creative Design (photography and web design) and belongs to the Civic Society and the Wiesbaden Twinning Association.
David runs a community based website called Love Tunbridge Wells (www.lovetunbridgewells.com) consisting of a collection of galleries of pictures, showing what the town has to offer.
He also runs the Tunbridge Wells Project, (www.thetunbridgewellsproject.co.uk) which he describes as a “continually growing ultimate archive of our town’s historic buildings.”
David adds: “The Tunbridge Wells Project was initially set up to document the buildings in our town to provide future generations with an insight as to the layout, while Love Tunbridge Wells shows prospective visitors and townspeople the many things the town has to offer. “Tunbridge Wells is in a fabulous location – with easy access to London, the coast and Eurotunnel, there’s a growing and vibrant mix of music and events throughout the year.
The town has great architecture and open spaces – my favourite place is the Pantiles.
“Nestled on the Kent and Sussex border and surrounded by beautiful countryside, Tunbridge Wells offers a range of cultural activities and experiences for all.”
Where to stay [leave space for pic - to come]
Jill Potter runs Victoria House B&B (TN1 2DZ, 01892 512886), a lovely 1860’s house just five minutes’ stroll from the town centre, with parking available. With a four-star Silver Award from Visit England, a certificate of excellence from Trip Advisor, she also has a Kent Breakfast award from Visit Kent.
“Our guests love our light, spacious Victorian rooms and the feeling of luxury,” says Jill. “We have many guests from America and Australia, who are keen to explore the nearby stunning gardens and historic buildings.
“I love the lie of the land, the rolling green countryside and stunning architecture. I am mesmerised by the variety of historic houses, from mansions to small cottages. Camden Road has some of the best restaurants in town, notably Il Vesuvio (01892 534420, TN1 2QX) – as well as some quirky little specialist shops.
During December and January readers will be offered a free bottle of wine when booking for a minimum of two nights, if they quote Kent Life and this article.
Start at the top
Mount Pleasant is a shopper’s paradise, with Royal Victoria Place (TN1 2SS) the jewel on pedestrianised Calverley Road. Covering three floors, with a flagship Fenwick’s department store, plus Marks and Spencer, Bhs, Boots and around 110 other stores, it also has a community centre (the Camden Centre) managed by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.
The centre, which was opened 21 years ago by Diana, Princess of Wales on 21 October 1992 after three years of construction, was previously owned by Westfield Group, who sold the centre to Hermes Real Estate in 2012.
Walking down from the RVP, having also browsed the many small independents in Camden and Monson Road, you’ll pass lovely homeware and high-end fashion stores before reaching the Great Hall Arcade, where the BBC has its regional centre.
Next to here is the recently refurbished and very stylish department store Hoopers (TN1 1QT), directly opposite the main railway station and with its own car park behind the store off Grove Hill Road. It’s a real treasure trove, with everything from fashion and jewellery to homeware and a hair and beauty studio.
The bottom up
The original Tunbridge Wells used to be a collection of buildings that grew up around the Chalybeate Spring, discovered more than 400 years ago and instrumental in the birth and naming of the town.
The Chalybeate water was served by a dipper for a small charge, not for the water but for the service of it being handed to the drinker. This tradition carries on today, as in the summer visitors can still sample the cool Chalybeate spring water served by a costumed dipper in the scenic and lovely area known as The Pantiles.
With a bandstand at its heart, The Pantiles offers a relaxed, pedestrianised environment and a perfect venue for the many events held here throughout the year, from jazz nights to Farmers’ Markets. It’s also rapidly becoming the gourmet heart of town.
Home to a close-knit community of independent, specialist shops with an emphasis on quality and service in everything from fashion to homewares, health and beauty to food and fine art, weary shoppers will also find there’s a host of restaurants serving cuisine from around the globe, a clutch of coffee shops and cafés, traditional English pubs and bars where they can find refreshment. There’s even a renowned jazz club, if you’re planning a night on the ‘tiles.
The Rosemary Shrager Cookery School (0845 470 7740) now occupies much of the old Corn Exchange, a beautiful three-storey regency building in the lower Pantiles, which offers a domestic and professional school, event spaces for private celebrations and corporate functions; a delicassen and café are planned for 2014.
Working in collaboration with executive chef John Rogers, Rosemary has created a programme of day, half day and masterclass courses for home cooks at every level, from the complete novice to the highly skilled.
Opposite the entrance to the Pantiles is the Church of King Charles the Martyr, built in 1684 after a subscription for a ‘chapel of ease’ was made. The town began to develop around it and in 1787 Edward Hasted described the new town as consisting of four small districts: “Named after the hills on which they stand, Mount Ephraim, Mount Pleasant and Mount Sion; the other is called the Wells.”
Walk up the High Street from the church and you’ll find a host of designer fashion stores, including Mint Velvet, Oska, Pure, La Belle Femme and The White Company – a real shoppers’ paradise.
The pretty High Street is also home to renowned family run jewellers G Collins (owner Harry Collins was appointed Crown Jeweller in 2007 but stepped down from the post five years later) and Payne & Son, who have been jewellers and silversmiths since 1790.
Tunbridge Wells is packed with great places to eat and drink, including: Thackeray’s (01892 511921, TN1 1EA), the Bistro at Hotel du Vin (084474 89266, TN1 2LY), Woods Restaurant (01892 614411, TN2 5TN), Chandelier Restaurant at the Spa Hotel (01892 520331, TN4 8XJ), Beacon Bar and Restaurant (01892 524252, TN3 9JH), The Ragged Trousers (01892 542715, TN2 5TN), and Giuseppe’s restaurant at High Rocks (01892 515532, TN3 9JJ).
The newly renovated Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery (01892 554171, TN1 1JN) has the world’s largest collection of Tunbridgeware, exhibits of dolls, toys and games and of natural history, costumes, textiles and fine art.
The Grove one of Tunbridge Wells’ oldest parks is found hidden in the heart of the Village area; just out of town is wonderful Dunorlan Park, the largest green space, with a boating lake and café. Calverley grounds has a sunken Italian garden and rose beds (see above for the winter skating rink). Don’t miss The Common, with the strange and charismatic exposed sandstone outcrops known as Wellington Rocks. A wonderful green lung in the heart of town and great for walks and games.
Tunbridge Wells is in west Kent, on the East Sussex border and halfway between Dartford and Hastings. Take the A26 turn off from the A21, accessible from junction 5 of the M25. The main station is at the bottom of Mount Pleasant and has regular services to London and good bus and coach services.
Satnav: Tunbridge Wells TN1 1JN Monson Way
Basia Wilson, press and sponsorship officer, Assembly Hall Theatre (01892 530613)
What does your work involve?
In addition to PR and securing sponsorship for the theatre’s productions and events, I’m in charge of running a busy programme of PR in print, broadcast and social media.
What’s your favourite production at the theatre over Christmas?
Jack and the Beanstalk – I’m a panto lover!
What do you like about your work?
The rewards and challenges. One day you can be selling shows to journalists, the next arranging and managing interviews with TV and organising press briefings with local media. The best thing for me is liaising with people about our work.
Any exciting productions coming up in 2014?
Birdsong (adapted from the novel), The Circus of Horrors - London After Midnight, and rock pop supergroup, Mike and the Mechanics.
Any parts of Tunbridge Wells you’d recommend visitors to see?
The Pantiles, Dunorlan Park – there a lovely lake where you can hire pedalos – and Trinity Theatre, a registered charity with a large volunteer base.
What do you like about the town?
I’ve lived in Tunbridge Wells for 24 years and it’s such a brilliant location, close to Gatwick and an hour from London and the seaside. There are lovely parks, good schools and sports facilities, plus there are some superb restaurants.
Favourite shop and restaurant?
Bod and Ted (01892 526700, TN1 1YB), and Signor Franco (01892 549199, TN1 1UL).
Do you have hobbies or interests connected to town?
I belong to a local gym and Create, a very friendly local community choir.
What would you say to someone thinking of coming to say in the area?
Make sure you visit the pretty surrounding villages, castles, and friendly pubs. There are also some wonderful local walks.