Royal Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells
Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells is the jewel in the crown for the county known as the garden of England. Without a doubt Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells is most certainly an elegant and historic town. The buildings are predominantly Georgian in origin and their understated elegance is not overshadowed by monstrous developments of later years that seem to plague other spa towns. It is as if Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells has had its own planning department through the centuries that has reigned in any ill thought construction and care has be given to create scenic vistas even in the centre of this thriving town.
Is there much more than the health giving waters of this spa town?
The majority of the residents don’t “take the waters” on a daily basis thinking it is more of a tourist thing rather than something that well established residents partake in. Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells has throughout the centuries had something more than just water to offer its visitors and the same can still be said of today. There are plenty of small specialist shops selling artisan jewellery, antiques or even clothing, as well as a vast range of restaurants that cater for a range of different tastes. It is the international cuisine that helps to give Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells a cosmopolitan air especially when the café tables are brought out in the summer and it is possible to sit outside and enjoy a light lunch or just a cup of tea and watch the world hurry by.
This beautiful town has all of the vibrancy that one would expect of a city and yet its position in the Weald is one of tranquil countryside little disturbed through the ages by man. It is in this very setting a paradox, it is remote but in the same instance easily accessible. This is one of the reasons why the area is so popular with visitors who are able to find entertainment and restaurants of a quality that one expects in a metropolis but are also able to flee “far from the madding crowd” The communication network surrounding Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells is particularly good, Heathrow, Gatwick and London are all a short drive or train journey away, so you can easily enjoy the best of both worlds. A well off southern enclave close enough to London to combine Barbour’s and Hunter wellies with the café culture and urban sophistication. However living in a spa town can seriously affect your wallet as on the whole they are exclusive enclaves with property prices far higher than one would expect to pay in the surrounding villages.
Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells can be found in the Weald of Kent and this particular corner of the South East is home to more castles, stately homes and gardens than anywhere else in the country and it is probably this little piece of paradise that gave rise to Kent’s title of “the garden of England” Although the town has a much older namesake (Royal Tunbridge Wells) that is where the similarity ends. Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells was the party town in its youth whereas Royal Tunbridge Wells with its Norman Castle and ancient roots is far sterner in outlook. The social scene at the Wells was very lively for the time and a lot of the entertainment was organised by a dandy called Richard Beau Nash. He ensured that the visitors and residents alike adhered to the strict social protocol of the time; even so many Georgian debutantes put the spa to good use and ensnared wealthy unsuspecting young men.
Although comparatively youthful Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells past is reflected in the buildings that line the elegant roads – Regency villas, large Victorian mansions and small clapboard cottages all surrounded by plenty of green space – a modern buzz word of today’s planning departments but very much in evidence here. During the 19th century and similar to today, Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells was a highly desirable place to live and the middle classes and the professionals of the time wanted properties that reflected their status. It was Decimus Burton an architect and planner who envisaged the “garden city” that was to become famous in Victorian Britain.
Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells came to life in 1606 with the discovery of the Chalybeate Springs, which in essence means mineral springs. From this source of water a spa town quickly developed and became a playground for the rich and famous during the 17th and 18th centuries. The spa resort was soon to become a rival for Brighton and was on the social calendar as the place to be for the winter season. Visitors flocked to the spa town to try the water, including members of the royal family. Queen Henrietta Maria wife of tragic Charles I came to Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells to convalesce after the birth of Prince Charles (he became Charles II). Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor when she was a child. She suffered from “flat worms” which I believe are these days known as tape worms. Her mother the Duchess of Kent rented a house called Mount Pleasant House of which Calverley Park still remains.
There were so many visitors to the spa town that development continued apace. Coffee houses, gaming houses, taverns soon materialised around the spring. This development was soon covered by a colonnaded walk way that was to become known as the Pantiles. It was so called because of the clay tiles which were used to pave the ground. These were laid by order of Queen Anne after her son the Duke of Gloucester slipped and fell during one of his visits. The area is little changed; it is still as charming as when it was first built. There are however no gaming houses these have been replaced by antique and other specialist shops.
In its heyday when Richard Beau Nash was over seeing the entertainment walking through the Pantiles was more than therapeutic, it was a social event, a chance to be seen. Only members of the gentry were allowed to parade on the “upper walks” everyone else made do with the “lower walks” and no one would dare transgress this social edict.
The Chalybeate Spring still rises within the Pantiles and in the summer it is still possible to sample a cup of water handed out by a dipper in Georgian dress. The ‘dipper’ used to be royally appointed as it was quite an important position but nowadays it is more of a tourist gimmick!
Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells did not become “Royal” until the beginning of the 20th century when King George VII officially recognised the popularity of the spa with other members of the royal family and aristocracy by granting the town its “Royal” prefix in 1909 the town became known as Royal Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells the only one of two towns to be granted this honour.
The rolling countryside surrounding this historic town forms an equally attractive backdrop. It is almost as if some well known artist and not evolution has been involved in creating this masterpiece. The oast houses and hop gardens that surround this county town are used in the production of something that the average English man couldn’t live without, and for some is equally as life giving as the natural spring water for which the spa town became famous.
Not many counties have their very own spa on their doorstep especially one that was to become known as a “royal spa” In fact to some, quintessential Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells is better known for a resident whose famous pseudonym is “disgusted of Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells”. This infamous person was actually an imaginary character invented by a local journalist who had space to fill in his weekly rag. Logically is there any reason for anyone to be disgusted living in what is probably one the most idyllic spa towns. Although outwardly the town epitomises the spiritual ground of middle England, a bastion of traditional Englishness. It may well be the home to overachieving schools that are the envy of its neighbours and in the desire-ability ratings second only to Westminster. Yes outward appearances can be very deceptive. Dig a little deeper and you find that in reality Tunbridge Wells despite its orderly appearance is bohemian in its outlook which is in part thanks to the town’s ability to assimilate the influx of young professionals and still cater for everyone else.
Don’t think for one moment that Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells is full of traditionalists it has also had a few rebels amongst its residents Sid Vicious being one of the more notorious. Royal Tunbridge Wells Wells is one of those rare places beautifully preserved but not pickled. It is still able to appeal to young and old alike just as it did in its Georgian “hey day”. Whatever you are looking for you are sure to find
A Place that has Something for Everyone!
Royal Tunbridge Wells is surrounded by an idyllic pastoral landscape that has been moulded by many years of settlement and industry from farming and forestry to the more invasive iron industry. Some of the activities have long since ceased, and although they have left indelible marks on the countryside they have proven to be a positive addition to its character and beauty. The dense forest which gave the Weald its name has vanished but ancient broadleaved woodland is still abundant.
Agriculture is still important to the rural economy and the patchwork of fields surrounded by dense hedgerows provides a stunning vista. The area is further enhanced by the unusually large number of historic homes, castles and abbeys.
Despite being a relative new comer to this Western corner of Kent being a few centuries old as opposed to a thousand years or more like neighbouring Tonbridge, the town’s heritage in similarity to the surrounding countryside is well protected.
This is rightly so as Royal Tunbridge Wells has an abundance of mellow Georgian and Victorian buildings. It also has the reputation for being the epitome of conservative middle England namely because of the barrage of letters published in tabloids penned by a “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”. The unknown writer even inspired an episode of Spitting Image in which a Tunbridge Wells separatist campaign was portrayed under the slogan “Liberty, Equality and Gardening”.
The Romans discovered the healing properties of mineral spas thousands of years ago and have left plenty of evidence of their occupation, they, however were not responsible for the discovery of the chalybeate spring which was stumbled upon in 1606 by Dudley, Lord North, who was a courtier to James I. The high iron content of the water was believed to have healing qualities so what was then a sparsely populated area of farmland soon became a spa town. The word "chalybeate" is derived from the Latin word for steel, "chalybs".
Although plenty of royals have visited Tunbridge Wells it was Beau Nash; a legendary gambler and socialite who was ultimately responsible for the town’s meteoric rise on the social calendar. In its Georgian and Regency heyday it was a magnate for well heeled fashionable members of society seeking a cure for their over indulgence by getting a yearly fix of healthiness by drinking the foul tasting therapeutic water. Despite the health kick, abstinence was definitely not the order of the day. The wealthy devoted their lives to an endless round of pleasure seeking indulgence and as soon as they had drunk their daily ration of mineral water they were off to the coffee shops. Two of the earliest coffee houses were situated just off the Pantiles in a place called Pink Alley. They resembled today’s coffee bars as they were places where people would gather to socialise, exchange gossip and were seen as an essential part of community life. Unfortunately the coffee that they imbibed was a thick dark liquid which was said to resemble "syrup of soot or essence of old shoes".
Royal Tunbridge Wells is still full of reminders of its once colourful past but these have been slightly diluted to cope with modern day expectations! There are still Georgian buildings aplenty and the famous spring still flows with water served by a “dipper” in Georgian attire, but these days Royal Tunbridge Wells offers a slightly different experience for residents and visitors alike. Still as popular as it once was but this time its popularity is based on retail therapy and the heavenly surroundings!
Just waiting to be discovered are plenty of little side streets and historic alleys leading down to The Pantiles with its colonnaded walkways full of small independent shops selling everything from cooking utensils to antiques and designer jewellery. The restaurants and cafes that inhabit the Pantiles give the place a decidedly continental air in the summer when the cafe tables and chairs are set outside!
Camden Road is a Mecca for arts and crafts with a range of bohemian and specialist shops, which include galleries and trendy clothes stores, health shops and patisseries. On the High Street are shops full of designer fashions, jewellers and furnishing specialists. Last but not least is The Royal Victoria Place Shopping Centre which houses a huge number of well known retailers, department stores and exclusive designer shops from Fenwick’s to Boots which all conveniently housed under one roof.
The retail experience is further enhanced by the number of restaurants, bistros and cafes. The choice is limitless from Michelin Award winning gourmet restaurants like Thackeray’s offering the very best cuisine, to traditional English fare served in the relaxed atmosphere of a public house!
This prosperous town on the far western reaches of Kent is a mere forty miles from central London in distance and yet a world away in other respects. It is a place that has something for everyone from a wide choice of excellent schools, both local authority and fee paying, to restaurants and shopping on a par with London. It is a safe frontier for urban émigrés, in that it’s close enough to the city to provide the cafe culture and sophistication that they take for granted and yet allows them to retire from the hustle and bustle and dip their toes in the peace and quiet of a rural life style.
A wealthy haven for rich and poor alike!
Royal Tunbridge Wells, the epitome of middle England has for a number of centuries been the envy of its neighbours both near and far. In its heyday it enjoyed the patronage of royalty and gentry alike. Anyone with social aspirations to join a higher class made space in their social calendar to take the waters at the Wells! It was the party capital of the South East, not quite the Ibiza of its time as both young and old enjoyed the same hedonistic pleasures. The wealthy devoted their lives to relieving boredom; undiluted pleasure-seeking, and over-indulgence were the order of the day. The social scene at the Wells was very lively for the time and a lot of the entertainment was organised by a dandy called Richard Beau Nash. He ensured that the visitors and residents alike adhered to the strict social protocol of the time. Even so many Georgian debutantes, the Wags of their time put the spa to good use and ensnared wealthy unsuspecting young men!
The buildings that can still be seen today and for which Tunbridge Wells is famed line the elegant roads. Regency villas and large Victorian mansions surrounded by plenty of green space were as desirable then as they are today. During the nineteenth century the middle classes and the professionals of the time wanted properties that reflected their status and Royal Tunbridge Wells was happy to oblige! But was every resident able to share in all of the wealth created by the spa? Well the answer is yes. An underclass was needed to provide all of the services that were required to keep the whole show on the road! Even the residents both in Tunbridge Wells itself and those living in the surrounding villages who fell on hard times or were unable to work because of illness or disability could expect what is equivalent of today’s DHSS to pick up the pieces and ensure that they didn’t starve and had the very basics of health care. It was known as the workhouse and has been the subject of conjecture for years. Charles Dickens wrote about Oliver Twist, a fictional character who escaped from the workhouse to join a gang of pick pockets. The famous line “Please Sir can I have some more” is ingrained on the national psyche and because of Dickens we think of workhouses as hellish places to be avoided at all costs!
A tax known as “poor relief” came into being towards the end of Queen Elizabeth I rein in 1601. An Act was passed which made parishes legally responsible for looking after the poor within their district. The tax was levied upon local property owners and was the council tax of its time! Money, food and materials that would provide work were handed out to the people who required help. In those days there was no such thing as a work house but provision of housing could be made available for those that were incapable of providing their own.
The workhouse gradually began to evolve in the seventeenth century both to save the parish money, and also as a deterrent to the able-bodied who were required to work, usually without pay, in return for their board and lodging.
Parish workhouse buildings were often just ordinary local houses, rented for the purpose. Sometimes a workhouse was purpose-built like the one at Pembury which was purpose built and later went on to become the Pembury Hospital. There was a "workhouse test" to verify that the person was deserving of care which was usually granted to those in desperation. The workhouses employed a harsh regime of Spartan conditions and the segregation of the sexes. These conditions were considered the ultimate degradation, but what we need to remember is that they were well fed and received medical care if needed.
If an able-bodied man entered the workhouse, his whole family had to enter with him. Although not a prison all inmates were required to wear a uniform and to sleep within communal dormitories once they had passed through a fairly strict form of quarantine! Men, women and children were all housed separately and I think it was this that made the place so off putting. This aside the inmates could expect to be well fed in most instances, three good sized meals a day. On top of this, men were given two pints of beer a day with women receiving a pint of beer and a pint of tea.
By the mid nineteenth century the majority of workhouse inmates were the old, infirm or mentally ill, orphans and unmarried mothers. The later were often disowned by their families and the workhouse was their only option. Although workhouses were not considered to be prisons the occupants suffered a similar ignominy to that of real prisoners, until 1918 the receipt of poor relief or entry into a workhouse meant a loss of the right to vote.
It is strange these days to see how we treated the poor in the past, almost as inferior beings. At least Tunbridge Wells can be proud of the way residents who had fallen on hard times were cared for! It has been awash with money for centuries and it is good to know that some of it was spent on inhabitants who were unable to participate in the good times!
Royal Tunbridge Wells in the desire-ability ratings is second only to Westminster as a place to live. The wonderful period properties, night life and the surrounding countryside provide plenty of incentives to attract visitors and those wanting to establish roots. The town’s ability to assimilate the influxes of the wealthy and still cater for everyone else without detracting from its desirability is a credit to the people that live there!
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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