Granted its royal prefix in 1909 by Edward VII, this elegant Kent spa resort owes its fortunes to the discovery of its iron-rich spring in the early 17th century. In the space of a handful of decades, royalty and fashionable society were flocking here to sip the restorative waters, said to cure everything from infertility to a ‘moist brain’, and to mix and mingle in a relaxing countryside setting.
The spring may no longer be Tunbridge Wells’ raison d’etre but this comfortably off town continues to be a prime place to unwind with plenty of urban pleasures close at hand. Having had 400 years to hone its commercial acumen, it is one of the most attractive places to go shopping or have a meal in Kent.
The immediate proximity of natural landscapes to Tunbridge Wells is one of the town’s most compelling attributes. Within a few minutes’ walk of the town centre you can be surrounded by greenery and nature. There are plenty of great walking trails to follow and the nostalgic Spa Valley Railway is another way to connect to the extraordinary High Rocks and the gorgeous gardens of Groombridge Place. A little further afield, in Speldhurst, there’s a church with superb stained-glass windows by the key Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones.
What to see and do in Tunbridge Wells
Much of what made Tunbridge Wells attractive to Regency and Victorian visitors endures today. The obvious place to begin is the pedestrianised Pantiles, the oldest part of town, after which you could work your way steadily uphill via High Street to its more modern suburbs to find the newly revamped museum The Amelia and the prestigious buildings and parks laid out by Decimus Burton.
Named after its paving of Wealden clay square tiles, The Pantiles has been Tunbridge Wells’ epicentre of fashion and polite society for over 350 years. Distinguished by the colonnades added to the shopfronts in the 17th century, and its pedestrian upper and lower walks, it remains a place to indulge in eating, drinking, shopping and generally watching the world go by. At its northern most end is the chalybeate (pronounced ‘ka-lee-bee-at’) spring that made the town’s fortunes. The rusty-coloured waters don’t always flow but when they do (usually in the summer months) a ‘dipper’ in 18th-century costume is usually there to dispense them to anyone who wishes to find out what all the fuss was once about.
Church of King Charles the Martyr
Opposite the north end of The Pantiles is the Church of King Charles the Martyr. The London entrepreneur Thomas Neal, who recognised the commercial possibilities of the spring, commissioned the original 1684 chapel here. It was not only a place of worship but also somewhere for visitors to shelter when the weather turned nasty.
The church has been much altered over the years, but has retained its original late 17th-century plasterwork ceiling with highly decorative domes made by John Wetherell and Henry Doogood, both of whom had gained their skills working with Sir Christopher Wren in London.
Chapel Place, behind the Church of King Charles the Martyr, leads on to High Street which climbs up towards the town’s train station at the foot of Mount Pleasant Road. To the right and accessed off Mount Pleasant Avenue is Claverley Grounds. This park was laid out in 1825 as part of the private Calverley Estate, a project overseen by the eminent architect Decimus Burton to create a neighbourhood to rival the older Pantiles. Claverley is the location for the summer world music festival the Tunbridge Wells Mela.
Trinity Church and old Opera House
Burton also designed the nearby Trinity Church, a Gothic Revival-style building that today serves as the Trinity Theatre. Another grand historic building at this high end of town that has undergone a conversion of use is the old Opera House, now a Wetherspoons pub. Dating from 1902, the early Edwardian interior has largely been retained and on its walls you can read about some of the personalities with historical links to the town, including Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, Master of Ceremonies at Tunbridge Wells from 1735 until his death in 1765.
Opened in April 2022, The Amelia is a new arts and culture centre that display the collections of Tunbridge Wells’ old museum. Renamed after Amelia Scott, a local social reformer and women’s suffrage campaigner, there are seven artworks integrated into the building’s design, including gate panels that reference the history of ironmaking across the High Weald and a ‘living-gallery’ courtyard with plants and trees indigenous to the Kent countryside. The Amelia have also developed a free app, Tales of Tunbridge Wells, which you can download for an entertaining and informative audio-led walking trail through the town.