Town guide to Tunbridge Wells, Kent
PUBLISHED: 11:18 12 December 2017 | UPDATED: 16:25 12 December 2017
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This historic town is shaking off its stuffy reputation and becoming a centre for culture, creativity, food and shopping. Boasting a royal stamp of approval, it has to be Tunbridge Wells
Despite its reputation, Royal Tunbridge Wells is a vibrant and creative town. The old ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ jokes will probably always be thrown at it, and you can’t ignore the fact that even the local Wetherspoon’s pub is a magnificent former opera house, but there is so much more to this thriving town.
With great shopping, excellent restaurants and attractions to keep the visitors happy, it also boasts good schools, beautiful countryside and a quick commute to London for those thinking of setting up home here.
And according to recent research by the property website Rightmove, it ranks as the second happiest place to live in the country - pipped to the post only by Leamington Spa.
It’s a town of two halves. The historic end is known locally as ‘the village’ and is set around the High Street and the Pantiles.
Famous as an attraction in its own right, the Georgian colonnade of shops is a pretty pedestrian area filled with independent boutiques, shops, bars, cafés and restaurants – many of which have outdoor seating.
Last year it was voted runner-up in the best parade of shops in the country category, by the Great British High Street Awards. It also hosts food fairs, vintage fairs, French markets and open-air music nights.
It’s at this end of the town that you’ll find The Forum, an excellent live music venue which attracts some surprisingly big names for such a small space, along with all the local musical talent and up-and-coming artists.
Even more culture is on offer at the top end of town, thanks to not one but two theatres; the Assembly Hall Theatre and Trinity Arts Centre. And if all this entertainment isn’t enough, Tunbridge Wells even hosts its own music festival called Local & Live at Calverley Grounds each summer.
At this time of year, Christmas shoppers flock to the town and there are the usual family treats in store. The Assembly Hall is hosting its annual pantomime – this year it’s Aladdin, starring Michael Greco (see page 40) – and Calverley Grounds becomes a winter wonderland with festive food and drink, craft stalls and an open-air ice rink.
And if the recent roadworks have put you off, then there’s good news. The enormous project to upgrade part of the A21 between Tonbridge and Pembury is finally complete. The work, which began in the spring of 2015, has turned the congested stretch of road into a dual carriage and also created a new flyover, two new junctions, a cycle path and 18 hectares of new woodland. It’s thought around 35,000 travellers a day are now benefitting from the upgrade, which cost nearly £70m.
Shopping and eating
When it comes to shopping, the town has it all, from high-end boutiques on The Pantiles, Chapel Place, the High Street and Mount Pleasant Road to the eclectic and bohemian Camden Road, to all the big brands you might expect.
There’s the huge Hoopers department store at the bottom end of town and a large branch of Fenwick in the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre, along with dozens of other shops - including a new Cath Kidston and a new Yankee Candle. The centre is currently poised for major redevelopment.
Tunbridge Wells and its surrounding villages are bursting with great places to eat and drink. The town has several restaurants mentioned in the latest Michelin Guide - Thackeray’s, The Warren, The Black Pig, The Old Fishmarket, The Beacon and The Twenty Six, with even more within striking distance.
Some other highly rated restaurants are Rendez-Vous, Kai’s Kitchen, Kitsu and Vittle & Swig. Great cafés include Casa da Claudia, The Earl Grey in Southborough, Basil, Gusta, Fine Grind and The Scallywag Café. Stop in for a drink at the Vale Vault, Jean’s Kitchen and Wine Bar, The Bedford, The Beer Boutique, Chapel Place, Fuggles Beer Café and many more.
Calverley Adventure Ground
This year an unused part of Calverley Grounds, the park in the centre of town, was given a new lease of life thanks to a group of determined volunteers. Fundraiser and local resident, Kate Bourne, tells us about the community project to turn an old bowling green into an exciting new children’s play area
“A friend told me about two ladies who had an idea to develop the bowling green, which had laid dormant for a decade, into a playground. Having two small children myself I thought the idea was fabulous but didn’t ever anticipate the extent to which I would become involved.
“I agreed to meet with Rhiannon Harfoot and Nathalie Bere-Adams, who were determined to get the idea off the ground. Their passion for the project convinced me to jump on board and the very next morning I found myself arranging meetings with playground contractors.
“When the council was first approached about the idea, it was clear that they were unable to fund it so if a playground was to be created, it would need to be done by the local community. Several months in, we were made aware that the acclaimed landscape architect, Jennette Emery-Wallis, who was behind the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial playground, was a local resident. We couldn’t believe our luck when she agreed to create a bespoke design for the area.
“An original team of 20 grew to several hundred people who volunteered their time and skills to help make Calverley Adventure Grounds a reality. Thousands more donated in some way to the project. Now, to see Jennette’s inspirational vision brought to life is so wonderful.
“My children love the huge sand stream that snakes through the centre of the area, the water tables and the awesome boats that swing as though they are on the high seas. Almost every day somebody takes the time to leave a positive comment on our Facebook page but it’s seeing the children delighting in their new space that is the only feedback we really need.”
Although it’s been a fairly contentious issue, plans to develop a new civic centre, theatre, office space and car park in the centre of Tunbridge Wells are moving forward, with a decision expected after the full council meeting on 6 December. If it is given the go-ahead, the development will see Tunbridge Wells Borough Council invest around £72m in the scheme.
The proposed 1,200 seat theatre will establish a new cultural facility for the borough and replace the Assembly Hall Theatre, offering a modern auditorium able to attract major shows. Rather than building on the old site, the new centre will be set on the edge of Calverley Grounds.
But this isn’t the only project awaiting the green light. The adult education building, town museum and library are all set to be consolidated into a Cultural & Learning Hub in the centre of town. The hub will also house tourist information and the council contact point, the Gateway.
The project is supported by Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund. Having passed the initial stages, the project team has submitted a second round of bids to both organisations and hopes to hear the results in the spring of next year.
Shopping and eating
When it comes to shopping, the town has it all, from high-end boutiques on The Pantiles, Chapel Place, the High Street and Mount Pleasant Road to the eclectic and bohemian Camden Road.
There’s the huge Hoopers department store at the bottom end of town and a large branch of Fenwick in the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre (currently poised for major redevelopment), plus dozens of other shops, including a new Yankee Candle.
The town has several restaurants mentioned in the latest Michelin Guide – Thackeray’s, The Warren, The Black Pig, The Old Fishmarket, The Beacon and The Twenty Six. Great cafés include Casa da Claudia, The Earl Grey in Southborough, Basil, Gusta, Fine Grind and The Scallywag Café. Stop in for a drink at the Vale Vault, Jean’s Kitchen and Wine Bar, The Bedford, The Beer Boutique, Chapel Place, Fuggles Beer Café and many more.
Property in Tunbridge Wells is some of the most expensive in the county. With the average house price in the UK at around £226,000, it’s no surprise to hear the average price of a home in Tunbridge Wells is £478,000. Expect to pay anything from £140,000 to £280,000 for a one-bed flat, and from ££250,000 to £390,000 for a two-bed terraced house. Three-bed semis are priced between £300,000 and £600,000. Larger detached properties are on the market right up to £4million.
Tunbridge Wells in west Kent, accessed by road via the A21 or A26. Great for commuters, its station is right in the centre of town and offers services to London in around 45 minutes.
Sat nav: TN1 1BT
Postcard from Tunbridge Wells
Hi, I am Sylvia Kus, the woolly part of The Silver Sheep in Tunbridge Wells. Caroline Smith is the silver side. After running a six-week pop-up shop and then graduating to our own shop in Monson Road for 18 months, we are now newly located in Chapel Place.
Our shop is unique in that we can both be seen working at our craft. Caroline is a silversmith and creates the most wonderful and unusual jewellery. I design and make knitwear in local wool where possible, plus alpaca, cashmere and linen. We also showcase around 20 unusual artisans from ceramics, glassware and textiles to candles, clothing and ironwork. We just love beautiful and quirky things and stock is always changing as we find new and exciting creative people.
I am delighted that the shop is so popular. It is something different and people seem to be craving a hands-on experience so we started doing courses which reflected the ethos of the shop. Caroline organises the specialist artisans in felt making, silk painting, weaving and many other crafts, including wreath making at Christmas. Courses are held at the shop and can be bought online or in the shop.
I think Tunbridge Wells has an extraordinary profile and it is built in a series of hills. There are two distinct parts of the town, both festooned with wonderful buildings. I love the Decimus Burton-designed villas, and the many surrounding parks which give it that country town feeling. It has become a very foody place. You can eat in independent places like Woods on The Pantiles and The Old Fishmarket. I love attending the many food fairs that are now taking place and sampling the street food. Also, I have always thought that Camden Road will one day have it’s time and that may be soon as more interesting eateries spring up, like The Black Dog and Pasta Madre.