Things to do, see and eat in Tonbridge

PUBLISHED: 15:06 31 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:06 31 January 2020

Walking across Big Bridge in the heart of town, with Tonbridge Castle in the background (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Walking across Big Bridge in the heart of town, with Tonbridge Castle in the background (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

This town has a long history but it’s recently been reborn as a foodie destination and is regularly lauded for its steadfast ‘shop local’ approach. Take a tour of Tonbridge

History

Often confused with its larger neighbour, Tunbridge Wells, the town of Tonbridge (pronounced 'Tunbridge') is far older - thought to have been first settled by the Saxons. Thanks to its useful position between London and Hastings, and its easy crossing over the River Medway, it was already considered significant enough for a family of Norman nobles to be granted the land beside the river not long after 1066.

It's here that the de Clare family built Tonbridge Castle and a great bridge.And although there is little left now of the fortification, other than its iconic motte and bailey gatehouse, it was thanks to this that a medieval market town sprang up.

The castle remains the town's oldest building and its top attraction but there are more buildings of historic interest if you know where to look. Close neighbour the Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul probably dates from the late 11th century too, although it has been heavily extended and restored over the centuries.

A view from River Walk to the High Street (photo: Manu Palomeque)A view from River Walk to the High Street (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Much of Tonbridge School, an independent boys' school founded in 1553, can be viewed from the street. These buildings also share a literary link. Author Jane Austen's father was born in Tonbridge in 1731 and he attended and later taught at the school. Her grandparents are buried at the parish church.

During Austen's lifetime, Tonbridge was still just a small market town, set almost entirely north of the river. The arrival of the railway in 1842 led to the growth of Tonbridge south of the Medway, with further expansion between the wars. Now with new housing developments popping up all over the town, it's increasing again.

Paws Cat Café in Angel Walk offers the chance to quietly spend with the resident rescue cats over coffee and cake (photo: Manu Palomeque)Paws Cat Café in Angel Walk offers the chance to quietly spend with the resident rescue cats over coffee and cake (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Best bits

Tonbridge is bursting with leisure options, with everything from a popular canoe club on the peaceful stretch of river to a dinosaur-themed crazy golf course.

There's a much-loved swimming pool, offering an outdoor pool in the summer months as well as its indoor pools, and the Angel Centre has sports and fitness classes plus space for community groups to meet.

The Old Fire Station first opened its doors in 1901 but since 2015 has been transfortmed into an exciting space hosting  pop-ups and tailor made one off events (photo: Manu Palomeque)The Old Fire Station first opened its doors in 1901 but since 2015 has been transfortmed into an exciting space hosting pop-ups and tailor made one off events (photo: Manu Palomeque)

There are not one but two theatres - the Oast Theatre is a small community theatre putting on its own productions, while Tonbridge School's EM Forster Theatre offers touring plays, comedy, dance and more. Each year it hosts local theatre company Wicked Productions for a hugely successful family pantomime. This year it's the turn of Peter Pan, until 5 January.

If getting outdoors is your thing, there's a huge recreation ground close to the centre of town. Here the Tonbridge Park Run takes place every Saturday morning, regularly attracting 700-plus runners who love the flat course and scenic route around Barden Lake. Families also make good use of the excellent children's play area.

A short drive away is the award-winning Haysden Country Park, with its lakes and woodland walks. And if you'd like to see Tonbridge from an altogether different angle, there's the excellent Tonbridge River Tours business, based under the town's Big Bridge, offering tours by electric boat, wildlife-spotting trips and rowing boat hire.

The Bakehouse at 124 is a very popular artisan bakery, coffee house and tea room set in an ancient timber-framed building (photo: Manu Palomeque)The Bakehouse at 124 is a very popular artisan bakery, coffee house and tea room set in an ancient timber-framed building (photo: Manu Palomeque)

These days Tonbridge is seen as a foodie destination, thanks to a number of inspiring independent food and drink businesses setting up shop. A great deal of regeneration has taken place in the once flagging town and it seems to have found a new niche for itself, with exciting bars, pubs, delicatessens and restaurants.

Verdigris chef Scott Goss has put Tonbridge firmly on the foodie map by winning Chef of the Year in the Kent Life Food & Drink Awards (see page 81).

An unusual attraction in itself is Paws Cat Café in Angel Walk, one of Kent's growing number of cat cafés, where you can book in a time to spend with their resident rescue cats over coffee and cake.

The surrounding villages have plenty to offer too. Visit the pretty rural village of Hadlow and you can't miss its impressive tower. And there's an excellent garden centre and public gardens at Hadlow College, famous for its annual lambing event each spring. One of Kent's top gin distillers, Greensand Ridge, is based in Shipbourne and offers tours and tastings at its impressive distillery.

Tonbridge has two covered shopping areas off the main High Street. Find always-busy Finch House and the fruit and veg stall and florist run by fifth-generation greengrocer Rob Smith inThe Pavilion (photo: Manu Palomeque)Tonbridge has two covered shopping areas off the main High Street. Find always-busy Finch House and the fruit and veg stall and florist run by fifth-generation greengrocer Rob Smith inThe Pavilion (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Developments

Construction is well under way on the new Tonbridge Medical Centre on River Lawn Road. The 'super surgery' will include a pharmacy and wellbeing centre, and is replacing the old Teen & Twenty Club which was demolished last year.

And plans have recently been drawn up for the redevelopment of Tonbridge Angel Centre, more than five years after Sainsbury's pulled the plug on a £70million overhaul of the site they share with the centre. The previous plans had involved replacing the buildings with a larger complex - including a superstore, sports centre, shops and cinema.

However, the proposals met with mixed opinions from local residents. At the time of writing it is unclear exactly what the new proposals will involve.

Meanwhile, there are controversial plans to build thousands of new homes on Green Belt land surrounding Tonbridge. They include the creation of an entire 'garden village' of 2,800 homes in the Tonbridge/Tunbridge Wells border village of Tudeley, with proposals for a further 4,000 homes in a ring around Paddock Wood.

Local councillors and the Civic Society have heavily criticised the plans from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.

Events

This active community gets behind a number of popular events each year. Among others, there's a Food & Drink Festival in the castle grounds each May, the Tonbridge Carnival each June, Tonbridge Castle Music Weekend in July, and both Dragon Boat Racing on the river and a Medieval Fair at the castle in September.

Shopping and eating

When it comes to shopping, there's everything you could need along the town's recently revamped High Street.

With a renewed interest in shopping local, the residents of this Fairtrade Town have adopted a 'use it or lose it' approach to their local businesses - wholeheartedly supporting small independents and encouraging others to open up.

The proactive Tonbridge Town Team runs a loyalty card scheme with dozens of local businesses participating, as well organising several large events each year. Look out for places like Sankey's fishmonger, Mr Books independent book store, ArtSpring Gallery, Gorgeous George gift shop (now on the High Street), Cycle-Ops, Aquavie Boutique Spa, Ian Chatfield butchers and gift shop Little Blue Finch. Castons furniture shop opened on Boxing Day in the former town post office site.

With so many eateries and bars opening in the last few years, you're spoilt for choice. Try Verdigris, Fuggles Beer Café, Basil, Havet, Nii Haw sushi, The Gatehouse, Gurkha Planet, Bakehouse at 124, Gaab Kao and The Beer Seller ale house. And don't miss Tonbridge Farmers' Market on the second Sunday of the month.

New developments include Hattusa Turkish takeaway, Mamma Mia has been replaced by Ela Bella, and 65mm coffee has moved out of the Old Fire Station to take over the former Beyond The Grounds building. Local chef Ben Sulston has closed Sulston's Kitchen and moved to the Old Fire Station as the venue's resident chef.

Getting there

Tonbridge offers an easy commute into London from its recently updated railway station, with a 40-minute journey into Charing Cross and lines towards Redhill, Ashford and Hastings. By car, it's accessed via the A21 which was dualled between Tonbridge and Pembury a couple of years ago to ease traffic flow in the area.

Property prices

Tonbridge is highly desirable, thanks to its easy commuter links and good schools, but it's a little more affordable than neighbouring Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks. Expect prices to start at around £200,000 for a one-bedroom flat, with two-bed terraced houses between £250,000 and £350,000. Three-bed semi-detached homes cost from £320,000 to £570,000. Larger properties are available up to around £1.75m.

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