Spotlight on: Tunbridge Wells
PUBLISHED: 08:46 20 November 2014
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
A renowned spa retreat destination since 1606, Royal Tunbridge Wells has always been ahead of the game and today is a fabulous place to shop, eat and be entertained
The story of Tunbridge Wells can be traced back to a small, bubbling spring of rusty-looking water. If it hadn’t been for the discovery of the Chalybeate Spring more than 400 years ago, the Georgian and Victorian tourists would never have flocked to the area and the settlement that became Tunbridge Wells would not have developed.
For much of its history Tunbridge Wells was nothing more than a tourist resort, a place where the wealthy would come to drink the mineral water, promenade, dance and gamble during their holidays.
The original old part of the spa town –known as ‘the village’ – is at the bottom end of town and is focused around The Pantiles, the shopping area where the spring can still be seen today (and tasted, if you dare).
But as the resort expanded it started creeping up the hill until it essentially split into two separate areas, linked by the steep, tree-lined Mount Pleasant Road.
With two very different identities, the top end of town is the modern centre, with numerous chain shops, restaurants and offices and the huge Royal Victoria Place shopping centre, while The Pantiles and its surrounding area remains a quaint and aesthetically pleasing step back in time.
In recent years, as a result of changing tastes, The Pantiles no longer appealed to anyone other than tourists and antiques shoppers. The time had come for the area to change or risk becoming obsolete.
Today, some of the more old-fashioned businesses in the colonnade of shops have either moved on or been updated. Trendy coffee houses have opened, high-end shops, gastro pubs and the luxurious Tunbridge Wells Hotel (01892 530501, TN2 5TD). Most noticeable of all is the move to a continental-style, outdoor eating area.
Almost all of the cafés, restaurants and pubs on The Pantiles now boast outside seating, making the area on a sunny day look like something you’d expect to see in the historic towns of France or Belgium.
Richard Simm, Association of Pantiles Traders’ chairman, says: “The Pantiles is enjoying a renaissance. I grew up nearby and remember it as quite a stuffy shopping area. But when a group of friends and I decided to open a pub – The Ragged Trousers – in 2006, it seemed the obvious place, as there was such potential.
“Although the town had shifted its focus to the Royal Victoria Place shopping mall, chain bars and restaurants at the top of town, we loved the independence, eccentricity and character of The Pantiles.
“Over the last five years the Pantiles Traders have worked very hard to steward this asset.”
Christmas is a perfect time to experience the oldest part of Tunbridge Wells. With is twinkling lights and lovely old architecture, it can look like something from a Dickens novel in the winter. But just because it’s prettier, don’t forget about the rest of the town. Because of the distance between the two main shopping areas, it can suffer from visitors heading to either one or the other.
Shopping and eating
If it’s a bustling, modern shopping centre you’re after then Royal Victoria Place (TN1 2SS) has everything under one roof, including luxury department store Fenwicks, Boots, Marks & Spencer and BHS. And its own multi-storey car park, so you won’t even get wet on a rainy day.
But make sure you also venture outside to the shopping precinct on Calverley Road, where you can find everything from Waterstones to the Early Learning Centre.
Heading off down the hill on Mount Pleasant Road there are plenty of boutiques and restaurants, and at the bottom there is Hoopers department store (TN1 1QT).
But some visitors like to head straight down to the historic part of town. With limited on-street parking there are public car parks at Morrisons supermarket (TN1 1BT), beside Calverley Grounds (TN1 1QQ) and behind The Pantiles (TN2 5QL).
On The Pantiles and the old part of the High Street there are all sorts of clothing, interior furnishing and antique shops. Some of our favourites are the Cath Kidston store (TN1 1XU) and G Collins and Sons Jewellers (TN1 1YB – see also page 64).
While on The Pantiles you have clothing brand Jack Wills (TN2 5TN), posh dog accessories boutique Collared (TN2 5TD) and home interiors showroom John Lewis of Hungerford (TN2 5TN) – to name a few.
When it comes to eating, there is a restaurant to suit every taste, from Japanese to Italian, Indian to Gurka.
Some of the best are the unassuming sushi café Kitsu (01892 515510 TN1 2PW), Indian restaurant The Raj Pavilion (01892 533153, TN1 1RZ) and seafood restaurant Sankeys (01892 511422, TN4 8AA). For a fancy evening meal try the bistro at Hotel du Vin (0844 7489266, TN1 2LY), Thackeray’s (01892 511921, TN11EA) or the recently opened The Twenty Six in Southborough (01892 544607, TN4 0RX).
If it’s a nice cup of tea or coffee you’re looking for, try Juliet’s (TN1 1XF), The Cake Shed (TN2 5TN) or LoGi (TN1 2SP).
The wider Tunbridge Wells area is also bursting with great gastro pubs. Nearby and highly recommended are The George & Dragon at Speldhurst (01892 863125, TN3 0NN), The Hare at Langton Green (01892 862419, TN3 0JA) and The Beacon in Rusthall (01892 524252, TN3 9JH).
G Collins & Sons Jewellers
G Collins & Sons (01892 534018, TN1 1YB), jeweller to the Queen, has been based in the old High Street for nearly 30 years but not long ago expanded and bought a second shop and is now opening a third.
Zoë Collins explains why. “After almost 30 years at 76-78 High Street it was time we grew. This meant we either had to split our tight, hard-working team between here and say London, or acquire another local shop.
“When No 63 became available my father, Harry, knew he couldn’t let the opportunity pass. Once we acquired the premises Dad decided it would be a good time to separate the brands we sold from our own jewellery. Separating the shops has given the brands we have sold for a while (Georg Jensen silver, Marco Bicego and Fope gold) a new lease of life and we now have an internal Patek Philippe showroom. The contemporary styles work much better than they did in our classic shop. We have also just purchased the building adjacent to our original shop and are currently creating another showroom which will be devoted to diamonds.”
As a highly desirable place to live within the commuter belt, property prices have always been higher here than many other parts of Kent. In central Tunbridge Wells a four-bedroom detached house can cost £400,000-£900,000, with a three-bed semi costing £300,000-£500,000. Two-bedroom terraced houses can cost around £250,000; one-bedroom flats are from £170,000. n