Royal Tunbridge Wells

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Royal Tunbridge Wells
Tunbridge wells pantiles.JPG
The Pantiles, the historic and tourist centre of the town
Grid reference: TQ585395
Location: 51°7’60"N, 0°15’53"E
Population: 56,500
Post town: Tunbridge Wells
Postcode: TN1-TN4
Dialling code: 01892
Local Government
Council: Tunbridge Wells
Tunbridge Wells

Royal Tunbridge Wells (usually shortened to Tunbridge Wells) is a large town and borough in western Kent, on the very boundary of Sussex and in part spilling over it. The town stands at the northern edge of the High Weald, the sandstone geology of which is exemplified by the rock formations at the Wellington Rocks and High Rocks.

The town came into being as a spa in Georgian times and had its heyday as a tourist resort under Richard (Beau) Nash when the Pantiles and its chalybeate spring[1] attracted visitors who wished to take the waters. Though its popularity waned with the advent of sea bathing, the town remains popular and derives some 30% of its income from the tourist industry.[2]

The town has a population of around 56,500. Tunbridge Wells has a reputation as being the archetypal conservative "Middle England" town, a stereotype that is typified by the fictional letter-writer "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells".[3]

Name of the town

Edward Hasted made the assertion that although the wells were originally named the "Queen's-Wells", they soon took on the name of Tunbridge Wells due to their proximity to the town of Tonbridge (then known as "Tunbridge"):

In compliment to [queen Henrietta Maria's] doctor, Lewis Rowzee, in his treatise on them, calls these springs the Queen's-wells; but this name lasted but a small time, and they were soon afterwards universally known by that of Tunbridge-wells, which names they acquired from the company usually residing at Tunbridge town, when they came into these parts for the benefit of drinking the waters.

—Edward Hasted, 1797[4]

The prefix "Royal" dates to 1909, when King Edward VII granted the town its official "Royal" title to celebrate its popularity over the years amongst members of the royal family.[5] Royal Tunbridge Wells is one of only three towns in Britain to have been granted this (the others being Royal Leamington Spa and Royal Wootton Bassett, which became a Royal town in 2011.[6])

Although "Wells" has a plural form, it refers to the principal source, the chalybeate spring in the Pantiles (where the waters were taken).


There is evidence that during the Iron Age people farmed the fields and mined the iron-rich rocks in the Tunbridge Wells area,[7] and excavations in 1940[8] and 1957–61[9] by James Money at High Rocks uncovered the remains of a defensive hill-fort. It is thought that the site was occupied into the era of Roman Britain, and the area continued to be part of the Wealden iron industry until its demise in the late eighteenth century – indeed, an iron forge remains in the grounds of Bayham Abbey, in use until 1575 and documented until 1714.[10]

The Church of King Charles the Martyr

The area which is now Tunbridge Wells was part of the parish of Speldhurst for hundreds of years, but the origin of the town as it is today, however, came in the seventeenth century. In 1606 Dudley, Lord North, a courtier to King James I who was staying at a hunting lodge in Eridge in the hope that the country air might improve his ailing constitution, discovered a chalybeate spring. He drank from the spring and, when his health improved, he became convinced that it had healing properties.[11] He persuaded his rich friends in London to try it, and by the time Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, visited in 1630[12] it had established itself as a spa retreat. By 1636 it had become so popular that two houses were built next to the spring to cater for the visitors, one for the ladies and one for the gentlemen,[11] and in 1664 Lord Muskerry, Lord of the Manor, enclosed it with a triangular stone wall, and built a hall "to shelter the dippers in wet weather."[13]

Until 1676 little permanent building took place – visitors were obliged either to camp on the downs or to find lodgings at Southborough,[12] – but at this time houses and shops were erected on the walks, and every "convenient situation near the springs" was built upon.[11] Also in 1676 a subscription for a "chapel of ease" was opened, and in 1684 the church of King Charles the Martyr was duly built[11] and the town began to develop around it. 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..."[4]

Photochrom of the Pantiles, 1895

The 1680s saw a building boom in the town: carefully planned shops were built beside the 175-yard long Pantiles promenade (then known as the Walks), and the Mount Sion road, on which lodging house keepers were to build, was laid out in small plots. Tradesmen in the town dealt in the luxury goods demanded by their patrons, which would certainly have included Tunbridge ware, a kind of decoratively inlaid woodwork.[11][14][15]

"They have made the wells very commodious by the many good building all about it and two or three miles around which are lodgings for the company that drink the waters. All the people buy their own provisions at the market, which is just by the wells and is furnished with great plenty of all sorts of fish and foul. The walk which is between high trees on the market side which are shops full of all sorts of toys, silver, china, milliners and all sorts of curious wooden ware besides which there are two large coffee houses for tea, chocolate etc and two rooms for the lottery and hazard board (i.e. for gambling)."
—Celia Fiennes, 1697
Engraving of The Calverley Hotel (1860)

Following Dr Richard Russell's 1750 treatise advocating sea water as a treatment for diseases of the glands, fashions in leisure changed and sea bathing became more popular than visiting the spas, which resulted in fewer visitors coming to the town.[16] Nevertheless, the advent of turnpike roads gave Tunbridge Wells better communications – on weekdays a public coach made nine return journeys between Tunbridge Wells and London, and postal services operated every morning except Monday and every evening except Saturday.[17]

During the eighteenth century the growth of the town continued, as did its patronage by the wealthy leisured classes – it received celebrity cachet from visits by figures such as Cibber, Johnson, Garrick and Samuel Richardson[12] – and in 1735 Richard (Beau) Nash appointed himself as master of ceremonies for all the entertainments that Tunbridge Wells had to offer. He remained in this position until his death in 1762, and under his patronage the town reached the height of its popularity as a fashionable resort.[18]

Calverley Crescent, part of the Calverley Park estate

By the early nineteenth century Tunbridge Wells experienced growth as a place for the well-to-do to visit and make their homes. It became a fashionable resort town again following visits by the Duchess of Kent, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert,[12] and benefited from a new estate on Mount Pleasant and the building of the Trinity church in 1827,[12] and improvements made to the town and the provision of facilities such as gas lighting and a police service meant that by 1837 the town population had swelled to 9,100.[14] In 1842 an omnibus service was set up that ran from Tonbridge to Tunbridge Wells, enabling visitors to arrive from London within two hours,[17] and in 1845 the town was linked to the railway network via a branch from the South Eastern Railway's London-Hastings Hastings Line at Tonbridge. During this time Decimus Burton developed John Ward's Calverley Park estate.[19]

In 1889 the town was awarded the status of a Borough, and it entered the 20th century in a prosperous state. 1902 saw the opening of an Opera House, and in 1909 the town received its "Royal" prefix. Due to its position, during the First World War Tunbridge Wells was made a headquarters for the army, and its hospitals were used to treat soldiers who had been sent home with a "blighty wound"; the town also received 150 Belgian refugees. The Second World War affected Tunbridge Wells in a different way – it became so swollen with refugees from London that accommodation was severely strained. Over 3,800 buildings were damaged by bombing, but only 15 people lost their lives.[17]


The sandstone Wellington Rocks on Tunbridge Wells common

Tunbridge Wells is on Kent's border with Sussex; the original centre of the town lies directly on the border,[20] as recalled by the county boundary flagstone that still lies outside the church of King Charles the Martyr.

The town is situated at the northern edge of the High Weald, a ridge of hard sandstone that runs across southern Britain from Hampshire along the borders of Surrey, Sussex and Kent – the town's geology is illustrated by the exposed sandstone outcrops at the Wellington Rocks and High Rocks (a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its exposed gulls[21]), and the quarries at nearby Langton Green from which sandstone was taken to build houses in Tunbridge Wells.[22]

The town is at the head of valley that runs south-east to Groombridge; like the River Teise, which originates in Tunbridge Wells,[23] the stream in the valley is one of the many tributaries of the River Medway, which runs through a much larger valley north of the High Weald.

The geology of Tunbridge Wells and the Weald

Nearby villages have been subsumed into the built-up area of the town, so that now it incorporates High Brooms to the north, Hawkenbury to the south, and Rusthall (whose name resonates with the iron content of the rocks) to the west.


  • Cricket:
    • The Nevill Ground hosts county and international cricket; Kent County Cricket Club uses it regularly as one of its outgrounds.
    • Linden Park Cricket Club, which plays in local leagues, hosts its home matches at the Higher Cricket Ground on Tunbridge Wells Common.
  • Football: Tunbridge Wells FC
  • Rugby: Tunbridge Wells RFC
  • The Tunbridge Wells Half Marathon is an open road running|road race that takes place every February 18th, organised by the Tunbridge Wells Harriers running club.

Cultural references

References to Tunbridge Wells occur in literature as diverse as:

  • Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear
  • Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
  • Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines
  • E M Forster's A Room With A View
  • Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Zadie Smith's White Teeth
  • The Inspector Bone mysteries by Susannah Stacey are also set in and around Tunbridge Wells.

Others include: David Lean's epic film Lawrence of Arabia closes with Mr Dryden answering King Feisal: "Me, your Highness? On the whole, I wish I'd stayed in Tunbridge Wells"

  • The James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service has Tracy Di Vicenzo saying to Bond that she "looks forward to living as Mr and Mrs James Bond of Acacia Avenue, Tunbridge Wells".
  • H G Wells's in his 1925 book Christina Alberta's Father has "Tunbridge Wells is Tunbridge Wells, and there is nothing really like it upon our planet".

In Spitting Image, when Britain enters a revolution, Royal Tunbridge Wells declares independence under the slogan of 'liberty, equality, gardening'.[24]

In the TV sketch comedy series Rutland Weekend Television, there is a musical sketch that tells the tale of 3 US Navy sailors who plan to spend an exciting - "More exciting than a book of Norman Mailer's" - and glamour-filled 24 hours in Tunbridge Wells.

In Jasper Fforde's book "Lost in a Good Book" one of the Thursday Next series of books, it is stated on Toad News that Tunbridge Wells is to be given to the Russians as War reparations for the Crimean War (which in the world that the book is set has gone on for the past 130 years).

"Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells"

As Tunbridge Wells has a reputation as being a bastion of the middle class and a typical example of "Middle England", it has attracted comment as an archetype. This is reflected by the name "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells", a fictional writer of letters to national newspapers in the 1950s to express outrage and defend conservative values.[3]

Sights about the town

The Pantiles and its spring have been the landmarks most readily associated with Tunbridge Wells ever since the founding of the town, though the 16-foot high steel Millennium Clock at the Fiveways area in the centre of town, designed by local sculptor Jon Mills for the Millennium celebrations, stakes a claim to be a modern landmark.[25][26]

Tunbridge Wells contains green spaces that range from woodland to maintained grounds and parks.[27] The most substantial areas of woodland are the Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons, which comprise 250 acres of wood and heathland and are close to the centre of the town. Open areas of the common are popular picnic spots, and there is a maintained cricket ground situated next to Wellington Rocks.[28]

The gardens at Calverley Grounds

Located in the town centre opposite the railway station, Calverley Grounds is a historic park with ornamental gardens and a bandstand (now demolished). The park was part of Mount Pleasant House – which was converted into a hotel in 1837 – until 1920 when the Borough Council purchased it for the town. The bandstand dated from 1924 and was damaged by an incendiary bomb in 1940 and parts of the metalwork were sold for scrap metal. The subsequently repaired bandstand and the adjacent pavilion were intended to form part of a new centre to the park but were never completed. The bandstand was demolished in 2010 although the pavilion still exists as a cafe.[29] Just inside the entrance to the park coming from the station is a memorial to Hugh Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding, Air Chief Marshal and hero of the Battle of Britain, who lived and died in Tunbridge Wells.[30]

Dunorlan Park, at 78 acres the largest maintained green space in the town, was once a private garden that was part of the millionaire Henry Reed's now demolished mansion, and only passed into public possession in 1941.[23] The gardens were designed by the renowned Victorian gardener James Green, but over the years they became overgrown, making it hard to distinguish the full scope of Marnock's design. In 1996 Tunbridge Wells Borough Council applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant to restore the park in line with the original designs, and in 2003/4 Dunorlan underwent a £2.8 million restoration. The River Teise rises in the park, and two dams on it have created a pond and a boating lake.[23] Dunorlan is listed as Grade II on English Heritage's National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.[31]

The oldest public park in Tunbridge Wells is Grosvenor recreation ground, located close to the town centre.(Quarry Road) It was opened in 1889 by Mayor John Stone-Wigg, on the land that was formerly Caverley Waterworks. The park was designed by landscape architect Robert Marnock. The lake area with dripping wells remains, but the other lakes, bandstand and open air pool have all gone. There is a bowls club, cafe, toilets and children's play area, including cycle track. It is adjoined by the Hilbert recreation ground, parts of which have been designated as a local nature reserve by the Kent High Weald Partnership; these include Roundabout Woods and the adjoining grass areas.The Hilbert Recreation Ground was donated to the town by Cllr Edward Strange in 1931, on the site of the form John Beane's Charity Farm. There are two football pitches, built as part of the King George V playing fields scheme, and a skatepark. [32]

The Salomons Museum preserves the home of Sir David Salomons, the first Jew to serve as Lord Mayor of London and the first non-Christian to sit in Parliament. It preserves the bench from which Salomons rose to speak as the first Jewish MP ever to speak in Parliament.[33]

The arts

The town's largest theatre is the Assembly Hall in Crescent Road, which has a capacity of 1,020.

Nearby, in Church Road, is the Trinity Arts Centre which is a converted church.

Outside links


  1. "The Chalybeate Spring". Visit Tunbridge Wells. 2012. Retrieved 8 April 2012. 
  2. "Economic Overview of Tunbridge Wells Borough" (PDF). Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. 2004-10. Archived from the original on 2006-07-09. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Tunbridge Wells: The spiritual home of Middle England". BBC e-cyclopedia (BBC). 1999-04-13. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hasted, Edward (1797). The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 3. Canterbury: W. Bristow. pp. 275–300. 
  5. "Local Coronation Souvenir donated to Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery". Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. 2007-10-02. Archived from the original on 2007-03-08. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  6. "Wootton Bassett to get 'Royal' title in war dead honour". BBC News. 16 March 2011. Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  7. Money, J. H. (PDF). Aspects of the Iron Age in the Weald. pp. 38–39. 
  8. Money, J. H. (1941). An interim report on excavations at High Rocks, Tunbridge Wells, 1940. 82. 104–9. 
  9. Money, J. H. (1968). Excavations in the Iron Age hill-fort at High Rocks, Tunbridge Wells, 1957–61. 106. 158–205. 
  10. Bateman, Jon (2008-06-20). "Iron forge at Bayham Abbey". Archaeology Data Service. ADS. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Burr, Thomas Benge (1766). The History of Tunbridge Wells. London. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Wilson, John Marius (1870–72). Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales. 
  13. Horsfield, Thomas Walker (1835). The History, Antiquities and Topography of the County of Sussex. Lewes, Sussex: Sussex Press. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Pigot & Co. (1839). Directory of Kent, Surrey & Sussex. London: Pigot & Co.. 
  15. Chalkin, C. W. (1965). Seventeenth-century Kent: a Social and Economic History. London: Longman. 
  16. Melville, Lewis (1912). Society at Tunbridge Wells in the 18th century. London: Eveleigh Nash. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Given, J. C. M. (1946). Royal Tunbridge Wells – Past and Present – July 1946. Tunbridge Wells: Courier Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd.. Archived from the original on 2009-10-27. 
  18. "Beau Nash". Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. 2006-02-09. Archived from the original on 2007-07-24. Retrieved 2008-08-27. 
  19. "Decimus Burton – Work Outside London". Hastings Borough Council. 2008. Archived from the original on 2007-07-02. Retrieved 2008-08-27. 
  20. Playford, John (1939). Tunbridglographia – Being Some Literary Reminiscences of Tunbridge Wells. 
  21. "High Rocks Site of Special Scientific Interest" (PDF). Natural England. Retrieved 2008-09-28. 
  22. Hynes, Leonora (2005). "A History of Langton Green". Archived from the original on 2006-08-05. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 "Memorandum by the Friends of Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells (TCP 20)". House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda. UK Parliament. 1999–04. Archived from the original on 2006-05-08. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  24. "Spitting Image clip". Retrieved 2011-07-05.  series and episode unknown.
  25. " Picture Gallery". Archived from the original on 2007-10-27. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  26. "Arts Development". Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. 2007-01-29. Archived from the original on 2007-11-08. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  27. "Parks and Green Open Spaces". Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. 2007-10-23. Archived from the original on 2007-11-08. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  28. "Tunbridge Wells Common and Rusthall Common". Tunbridge Wells Commons Conservators. 2008-04-09. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  29. "Calverley Grounds". Retrieved 2011-09-16. 
  30. "History of Calverley Grounds". Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. 2006-03-29. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  31. "History of Dunorlan Park". Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. 2007-02-07. Archived from the original on 2007-11-05. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  32. "Grosvenor and Hilbert Recreation Grounds". Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. 2008-03-12. Archived from the original on 2007-12-14. Retrieved 2008-08-26. 
  33. "Jewish History - Salomons Museum - Canterbury Christ Church University". Retrieved 2011-09-16.