Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent has many great features from Dunorlan Park and the Pantiles, to the Forum and Spa Valley Railway, as well as a number of great pubs
A town blessed with spring water and a royal stamp of approval has been named one of the most underrated towns in the UK.
Tunbridge Wells in Kent is one of six places highlighted by World Atlas as deserving of more recognition than it gets. Having spent 18 happy years of my life there, I tend to agree.
Arguably the place has a bit of a reputation issue. Since King Edward VII awarded it the ‘royal’ prefix in 1909 (one of just three in the country), Tunbridge Wells has been known for being a little hoity-toity. In popular culture it is perhaps best known through letters sent to newspapers signed off ‘Sincerely, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’. The tradition dates back 80 years and is a nod to the deep conservative values sported by many of the town’s residents.
In recent years the town has moved away from such fustiness and shed its status as a true-blue stronghold, even daring to elect a Lib Dem led council. While its roads are populated with more than its fair share of luxury black Range Rovers on the school run, I’d argue it is far more than a posh, Tory loving dormitory settlement 40 miles from London.
For one, the architecture in parts is excellent. The Pantiles down the bottom of the town is a beautiful Georgian colonnade lined with boutique shops, art galleries, cafés, and restaurants. Here you will find the Chalybeate Spring which put the town on the map almost 400 years ago when the young nobleman, Dudley Lord North, stumbled upon it during a ride.
For decades people came from far and wide to taste the metallic water, believing it had health giving properties. Today you can see what the fuss is all about for yourself by buying a hefty glass bottle from a vending machine in the Pantiles next to the spring’s source, beneath a strange, perpetually playing animation telling the town’s history.
Also on the Pantiles is the Sussex, a particularly good pub which hosts live comedy in its cellar. The Ragged Trousers is not only excellent, but is named after the seminal work of famed Hasting’s socialist Robert Tressell.
The pub’s owners run the nearby Forum, a small music venue regularly named the best in the country that has hosted dozens of famous names over the years – many of whom enjoy telling the crowds that it stands in what used to be the largest public toilet in Europe.
The Forum remains a gathering place for music fans and teenagers looking for somewhere to gather in the evenings. If moved along from the jazz evening which takes place weekly on the Pantiles during the summer, the grass and woodland outside the music venue is the go to place for teenagers planning a vape and a loiter.
Just a few hundred metres down from the Forum is the starting point of the Spa Valley Railway, which takes passengers on a trundling steam powered ride through parts of the Kent and Sussex countryside.
Richard Cobb, a professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, wrote movingly about his time growing up in Tunbridge Wells in Still Life. Lovely as the book is, as a man who lived in the south end of town Cobb – as many others have since – pours scorn on those who live in the north. He identifies the war memorial outside the town library as the point where things begin to go wrong.
Being a proud north of town man myself, I strongly disagree. If you are brave enough to leave the safe havens of the Nevill Ground (Kent County Cricket’s second home) and the Pantiles, you will find Camden Road. The long street is full of excellent cafes, pubs and restaurants. A particular favourite is the Spice curry house which handily sits next to the recently revamped Black Horse. The chippy one door down does arguably the best battered Mars Bars this side of Hadrian’s Wall.
A little further along Camden Road is Grosvenor Rec, one of the town’s several public parks and one designed by the renowned Victorian landscape architect Robert Marnock in 1889. It boasts a skate park, football pitches, a really quite large play area, a landscaped marshy section and a boating pond.
Walk up the hill from here and you’ll get to Dunorlan, an even larger park which stands in the former grounds of Yorkshire-born millionaire Henry Reed’s mansion. In the summer the lake is a great spot for a bit of rowing.
If you are heading down to Tunbridge Wells for a day trip, then I’d recommend walking down the High Street to the Pantiles and then up to the Beacon Pub in the direction of Rusthall village. The Beacon is a lovely pub, particularly in the summer when the large decking area out the back has the best view of the town you’ll find anywhere.
With a glass of locally brewed Larkins or Harvey’s in hand, many a happy afternoon can be spent looking out on the undulating hills of the North Downs.
Getting to the town is quite easy. From London, it is a 45 minute train ride from London Bridge or 55 minutes from Charing Cross. Day return tickets with a railcard cost around £10.