Town Spotlight – Triumphant Tunbridge Wells
A Georgian town awash with timeless style and sophistication that seeps through its historic architecture, enthralling attractions and fabulous fine-dining.
Although Royal Tunbridge Wells shares the podium for being one of Kent’s most well-known towns with the likes of Canterbury and Rochester, it stands far apart from them in style and character due to the underlying fact it lays trace to no Roman or ecclesiastical heritage. Sevenoaks to the north and Tenterden to the east can boast medieval trading ties, but during the bustling historical periods in which these towns were solidly establishing their personas and prominence, Tunbridge Wells was yet to be born. It was an area still solely occupied by nature: a Kentish forest.
If anyone were to take a guess at how this beautiful town came to be, chances are they would be right. The clues lie in the two words that sit either side of Tunbridge. The ‘Wells’ part comes from when Lord North discovered the Chalybeate Springs in 1606 and also from the next decades to follow, during which members of the Royal Family and courtiers would travel from far and wide to take in the mineral waters, spreading the word of their health restoring qualities. By the 1640s, enterprising local people had begun to build what were the early beginnings of the town around the springs, and by 1735 Tunbridge Wells had really come into its own. The latter part of the 1700s welcomed Beau Nash, Master of Ceremonies. With his dominant and driving nature and links to royalty and celebrities of the day, Nash commandeered the town and took it from strength to strength. Royalty was a constant element of Tunbridge Wells, so much so that by 1909 it had officially received its ‘Royal’ prefix, which was granted by King Edward VII whose mother Queen Victoria had adored the town so much.
Today, Royal Tunbridge Wells is still very much a thriving and go-to destination. Years upon years of high-calibre characters and additions of beautiful architecture have granted the town a classic and original style with an unwavering air of timeless sophistication. Although prosperity and charm have evolved since the rakish days of the 18th century, these qualities never left, meaning today it is still a popular place brimming with businesses, activities, restaurants and hotels that have all taken inspiration from the town’s identity. Perhaps one of the most famous areas that accommodates these eateries and shops is The Pantiles. A lovely shaded walk lined with elegant shops and even overhung in places with its original ‘musick balcony’, the Pantiles was originally a grass area known as ‘The Walks’. When Princess Anne visited with her young son in 1699, he slipped and hurt himself. As a result, the princess complained and demanded that the area be paved with tiles – made in a pan. Only 15 of the original pantiles remain; these would have seen raucous fun including gambling, balls and concerts – the latter of which can still be enjoyed in the town. The Forum Live Music Venue is one of the best places to watch live music acts and attend club nights, with a standing capacity of 250. The month of March will see exciting performances including Boogie Nights, Back to the 80s and many more. If you are more of a theatre lover and would rather take in a play or musical, Trinity Theatre will never disappoint. As well as traditional plays, Trinity Theatre also shows film screenings, community theatre, comedy and more. A varied array of performances means there will be something to suit everyone, no matter their age or interests.
As well as cultural trips, Tunbridge Wells also comes with its fair share of adventurous activities. For families and those needing an energetic day out, visit the likes of Chimera Climbing or Bewl Water. Chimera is a modern, indoor bouldering gym offering an exciting climbing experience for people of all ages and abilities. The centre has a variety of different angled walls posing unique challenges, as well as a dedicated training area with campus boards, fingerboards, a 40-degree wall and more. For brighter days during which the great outdoors calls, visit nearby Bewl Water, the largest reservoir in the South East. With miles of scenic pathways to walk, cycle, run or ride and hundreds of protected species to discover, you will never get bored at Bewl. Fuel up after all the excitement at Bewl’s café, which has stunning views of the reservoir and serves light bites, good coffee and dreamy hot chocs for little ones.
As well as new and energetic activities, Tunbridge Wells also comes complete with a wealth of history, not only in the town itself but in the acres of beautiful countryside that surround it. It claims many of Kent’s castles and historic homes, now open to the public to enjoy and explore. One such example is Penshurst Place which lies just a 15-minute drive away from the centre of the town. More than just a mighty ancient house that saw many infamous guests, including Henry VIII who used it as his hunting lodge, Penshurst boasts an array of exciting things to see and do. Standing since the 14th century, the medieval Baron’s Hall was completed in 1341 and was crowned with an original 60ft high chestnut-beamed ceiling. This is still an unmissable sight for visitors today who may recognise the property as the setting to many TV dramas and big screen movies. After exploring the rest of the opulent state rooms, venture outside to be inspired by the beautifully designed gardens and grounds or use up extra energy at the adventure playground, woodland trail or with their country bike hire. Penshurst Place is also home to a charming toy museum, displaying interesting toys and books from across the centuries. Finish the day here with a trip to Porcupine Pantry, serving everything from drinks and cakes to sandwiches and paninis.
Another great home on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells that is waiting ready to enthrall everyone from history buffs to curious children is Chiddingstone Castle. A real ‘one of a kind’ castle, Chiddingstone has Tudor origins but was remodelled in the 19th century to look like a medieval castle. Bought in 1955 by Denys Bower, it became home to his splendid collections of antiques, which remain there for visitors to admire today. During the month of March, the castle grounds come into their own as the daffodils spill out across the lawns and the Japanese cherry blossoms dominate the landscape views. Hanami, which means ‘flower viewing’ in Japanese, is the traditional custom of enjoying the beauty of cherry blossoms. It is synonymous with public picnics, friends and families huddling down under the trees with food and drink. From mid to late March, Chiddingstone Castle will be inviting guests to a special ‘blossom viewing’, at which they can bring their own Hanami hamper picnic to welcome in the spring.
A large part of Tunbridge Wells heritage and a lovely way to honour this while seeing the beautiful countryside that surrounds the town is via The Spa Valley Railway. With the slogan: a destination at every station, a day spent touring with Spa Valley is certain to be full of excitement and plenty of enthralling sights. As you chug through the spectacular scenery of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and on to exciting stations, Spa Valley also offers the opportunity to enjoy special extras and events such as cream teas, ploughmans lunches, fish and chip supers and even Sunday roasts on selected days. Hop off at stations such as Groombridge to be greeted by pretty villages, traditional signal boxes and historic attractions. Groombridge is the principal intermediate station and is the best stop to walk to Groombridge Place Gardens. It is also possible to walk to Harrisons Rocks, one of the most popular sandstone crags in the UK complete with climbing challenges and if cycling, to get to the Forest Way (national cycle route 21).
When it comes to the foodie scene in Tunbridge Wells, you will not be disappointed. Awash with eateries of all shapes, sizes and styles, enjoy plenty of bakeries, coffee shops and cafés to watch the world pass by during the day and venture out in the evening to enjoy fine dining experiences, gastropub galore and a myriad of stylish restaurants and bars. Sophisticated smoked salmon brunches can be enjoyed alongside flutes of Champagne at beautifully designed destinations such as The Ivy, whereas more informal lunches with flowing cocktails and craft beer on tap can be found at trendy pubs in the town, such as The White Bear.
Elegant fine dining experiences are easy to come by in Tunbridge Wells too, one example being Thackerays, an exquisite restaurant free from pretension, while being steeped in charm and history. A former residence of author William Makepeace Thackeray, the building itself is more than 300 years old and is an architectural work of art. Odd angles, sloped ceilings and off-kilter stairways make the experience here captivating from the moment you set foot over the threshold. Sitting just off London Road, among a cluster of traditional-style English villas and overlooking the open grassy common – Thackerays is the epitome of everything Georgian Tunbridge Wells is so cherished and famous for. When it comes to food, Thackerays ethos states that they are not an exclusive restaurant and have no desire to be one. For that reason they offer a wide variety of menus, from a daily set lunch menu to their indulgent chef’s tasting menu. The head chef, Patrick Hill uses his immense knowledge, passion and creativity to craft ever-changing, seasonal menus to inspire and delight all tastes. Examples of Hill’s ingenious dishes can be found on their special Mother’s Day menu, which will be available on 19 March. After starting with a beautifully concocted sparkling cocktail such as the pomegranate royal, enjoy a starter of lamb shoulder croquette with wild garlic pesto and chicken of the woods before tucking into a main such as pan-fried stone bass with spiced red lentils, charred leek, sea radish, coconut and miso sauce. Finish your Mother’s Day meal with a heavenly dessert such as white and dark chocolate cremaux with honeycomb, rhubarb and ginger.
Contemporary British food is clearly something Tunbridge Wells excels at as another acclaimed restaurant resides in the town going by the name of Square Peg. Set in a homely yet chic environment “fairy lights entwine with hop bines at this sweet little neighbourhood restaurant which seats just 14. Self-taught chef, Rob, cooks the type of food he himself would like to eat; classic British dishes with a modern feel accompanied by a British wine list. The team is charming and the atmosphere convivial.” (Michelin Guide). Owned by head chef Rob Marshall, who cooks solo in the kitchen, the site blurs the line between a fine-dining restaurant and supper club serving an eight-course tasting menu with one dinner sitting. Originally from Zimbabwe, Rob came to the UK at the age of 22 having had previous careers including a brief stint in the British Army with The Royal Engineers and attending Sandhurst. He came to cooking later in life but has been fascinated with food and the experience of eating out from a young age. Rob is a self-taught cook by way of a well-worn collection of cookbooks, and, he jokes, YouTube. He says: “I wanted to pursue something I loved doing and hadn’t found my niche elsewhere. A bit of a square peg, if you like. I cook the kinds of things I like to eat – dishes of what I hope are robust flavours with contrasting and complementary textures, temperatures, and tastes.”
Rob has been finalist and a semi- finalist in both the British Culinary Federation Chef of the Year and the Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year competitions. British culinary traditions and food culture weave their influence through the Square Peg menu, which stretches to include anywhere British food culture may have influenced or been influenced. This might translate to something as simple as a syllabub with Yorkshire rhubarb, or a hotpot alongside best end of Pevensey Salt Marsh lamb. While Indian and Cantonese spices and flavours may be drawn on, when the mood takes. The menu changes every couple of months and might include oyster, apple, fennel and caviar; mallard, shallot ketchup, roast onion and consommé; ex-dairy cow, beef fat sauce and carrot; pear, honey, hazelnut and yoghurt, and banana, toffee and milk sorbet. A must-go.
The buzzy town’s foodie scene doesn’t stop at places to eat either. The town is also home to lots of artisan shops, delis and pantries that serve unique foodie products and specialist ingredients. The Cheese Shop is one such example and is unmissable if you are an avid cheese lover. Set up almost two years ago during the height of lockdown by Johnathan Cook, The Cheese Shop stands by its commitment to bringing customers a wide selection of brilliant British and European artisan and farmhouse cheeses, including the best from local Kent and Sussex cheesemakers. As well as independent shops and boutiques, Tunbridge Wells ode to retail therapy branches out to much-loved high street stores and bigger brands too. Royal Victoria Place, opened by Princess Diana in the 1990s, is one such shopping destination that promises to exceed your retail therapy needs. A broad range of top branded shops as well as cute cafes can all be found with ease under one roof in a building that remains airy and opulent in all seasons. From family jewellers such as Burrells, to the glittering department store that is Fenwicks, your only problem at Royal Victoria place will be not having enough time to indulge in it all.
When it comes to places to stay, Tunbridge Wells has plenty of luxurious options. For those wanting to stay centrally, the town itself is home to some gorgeous hotels including the Royal Wells Hotel, a tastefully renovated Victorian hotel with royal heritage and sweeping views over Tunbridge Wells. In keeping with the theme of royalty, the hotel owes its name to Queen Victoria, who visited frequently as a young princess in the early 19th century and later granted the use of her coat of arms, which is proudly displayed at the top of the building. It has recently undergone an extensive refurbishment, incorporating the latest facilities and contemporary style, while retaining its Victorian elegance and period features. The hotel presents an imposing picture, the first two storeys being almost entirely glass-clad and a major feature being the magnificent conservatory: a perfect spot for drinks in the evening.
For those wanting to stay away from the bustle of the town Salomons Estate is situated a convenient yet quiet two miles away in acres of rolling gardens and stunning parkland. Stay in one of the newly renovated holiday cottages in the grounds which will be exclusively yours, or opt to stay in the opulent guest accommodation just a short walk from the Victorian mansion house.