Saturday, June 14th 2014
Today’s outing took us to two towns in Kent which, though they are separate and distinct, have confusingly similar names. They are, respectively, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells or, to give the latter its full title, Royal Tunbridge Wells. The two towns are but a short bus ride apart, as the following map shows (click on it for a live Google map):
Where the name ‘Tunbridge’ or ‘Tonbridge’ comes from is uncertain. There are several rival theories that are set out succinctly on the Tonbridge History site. Why the difference in spelling, given that they are pronounced the same (in both cases, the first syllable rhymes with “fun”)? As recounted on that page, it seems that the spelling alternated capriciously between ‘o’ and ‘u’ until Tonbridge formally adopted the ‘o’ spelling in the 1890s. Tunbridge Wells, on the other hand, preferred to remain with the ‘u’, perhaps to distinguish itself from its neighbour. It seems that while Tonbridge has existed since ancient times, Tunbridge Wells appeared only in the 17th century when the chalybeate springs were discovered and the settlement that grew up around them was named after the nearest town. The brief but glittering heyday of “taking the waters” brought wealth and renown to Tunbridge Wells and a prestige that, deserved or not, it still clings to. The town’s petition to Edward VII to be granted the Royal title was accepted in 1909. Since then it has acquired a reputation of conservative stuffiness symbolised by the name of the mythical anonymous author of readers’ letters to the Times, “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”.
We arrived first at Tonbridge. Our main reason for coming here was that we had not been to either town before. We did not know what we would find until we found it… or failed to find it!
I was of course interested to see the public library which opened in 1900 and then included a Technical Institute. We did not visit the library, though.
There is plenty of water in and around Tonbridge. It is on the River Medway which in this regions breaks up into several branches. Walking from the station you first cross a body of water with the unromantic name of Gasworks Stream. Whether this is a natural branch of the river or was formed artificially to feed the aforesaid gas works, I do not know.
In many towns, the grand old Post Office has ceased to be used as such and that is the case in Tonbridge, whose old Post Office is now a pub. There is more than a touch of irony in this, however, because before there was ever a Post Office here, a series of pubs occupied the site. Beer has once more gained the upper hand as a result of the acquisition of the premises by Wetherspoons. As for the name, who was Humphrey Bean? According to the pub’s Web site, this was the name of a former landlord of one of the pre-Post Office pubs.
Shortly afterwards, the High Street, which we were now following, meets the River Medway and crosses it by a bridge. A medium sized river here, the Medway gathers strength and volume from its tributaries further on and becomes a major river, eventually emptying into the Thames at Sheerness. The watery nature of the neighbourhood leads some to think that the name of the town derives from “town of bridges”, though this seems unlikely in view of the fact that evidence of the name long precedes any mention of a bridge.
Just opposite, we spotted the ruins of the castle. In front of it, from our angle, were some people in costume and a Morris Dance troupe was in action. We certainly wanted to visit the castle but before that I had pressing business to see to. The gents toilet had been out of action at the station (“Sorry for the inconvenience” – is that a pun?) and I had been keeping a lookout for pubs and cafes but none were open. Tonbridge business people are late risers, it seems. I was becoming a little anxious…
The Rose and Crown looked closed but I pushed the door and it opened. The Rose and Crown is an old inn – just how old, I am not sure, but it is a timber framed building with an 18th century façade. It is an hotel as well as a pub and although there were no other customers, there was someone at the reception.
Even though I think the bar was still not open, they kindly served us coffee in the timbered bar-dining room. Thus refreshed and fortified, we felt ready to continue our explorations.
The way to the entrance of the castle is in the appropriately named Castle Road, an offshoot of the High Street. First, though, we had a look at what is apparently called the New Memorial. Tonbridge already had three other war memorials – for the Boer War, the Great War and the Second World War, respectively – when this one was added in 2004. Its purpose is set out in an inscription: ‘In proud memory of all Tonbridge men and women who have given their lives in serving our community during war and peace’.
Not much is left of the built parts of the castle. Some stretches of wall, the motte and, above all, the massive gate, are all that remain to conjure up visions of what it must once have been. The castle was originally built shortly after the Norman Conquest, by Richard Fitz Gilbert to guard the crossing of the River Medway. His was a simple motte-and-bailey structure, consisting of a fortified enclosure (the bailey) and the castle’s keep or stronghold on an artificial hill called the motte (for more information on such structures, see here).
The castle was inherited by the de Clares, descendants of Fitz Gilbert. They rebelled against William II who took the castle by siege and then burnt it and the town as a punishment. Nothing daunted, the de Clares rebuilt the castle. They put up new walls and the present gate which took 13 years to build, being completed in 1260.
The gate gives access to the large courtyard, an open flat area surrounded by walls. Here would have been all the supplementary buildings necessary to house, feed and maintain the personnel, with stabling for the horses. Today it is just a wide space in which several groups of children were playing. The keep no longer exists on top of the motte, where a spiral pathway has been cut. The whole would have been protected by a ditch or moat, traces of which can still be seen. Henry VIII seized the castle and it was further fortified in 1643 by Parliament. More peaceful times came and the castle was bought in 1897 by the town and served as its seat of government until 1974.
Beside the gate (which, despite its robustness, seems to have lost some of its upper fabric) are modern buildings which today accommodate the Tourist Information Office.
The Medway runs close beside the castle, serving as part of its defences. The bridge is the latest in a series of bridges that have provided a crossing point through the centuries. In times past, the bridge here was known as the Great Bridge, showing its strategic importance to the region. The 18th century stone bridge was replaced in 1887 with an iron bridge, which, in modified form, is the one we see today: as traffic increased in volume and the size of vehicles, it became necessary to widen the bridge in 1913 and again in the 1920s. It now looks adequate to the task but who knows what the future holds?
We went down to the riverside and, beneath the castle walls, found this memorial to those from Tonbridge who died in the Boer War. Its inscription is a period piece, expressive of the way people of the time thought about war and Britain’s role in the world.
Feeling that we had more or less exhausted what Tonbridge had to offer, we took a bus to the other Tunbridge, which spells its name with a ‘u’. The bus deposited us at Tunbridge Wells Station, at the bottom of Mount Pleasant Road. The railway reached the not-yet-royal Tunbridge Wells in 1846 and I assume the station dates from that time though I am not certain of that, though English Heritage gives a date of 1845 to the Up platform. Either way, the name of the station remains plain unadorned ‘Tunbridge Wells’.
We had a look at the Great Hall Arcade, a Victorian-style shopping arcade where the BBC has studios. I say “Victorian-style” because I do not know the date of this building though it existed before 1912 when it is mentioned in a book about Tunbridge Wells. Then we began to walk up the hill.
At the top of the hill stands the Town Hall. It was built in 1939 and English Heritage is enthusiastic enough about it to give it a Grade II listing. The listing text describes it as ‘Neo-Georgian with “Moderne” details’ but I would be inclined to call it “corporate bland”. The remarkable feature is that the complex contains everything you need to start a town: town hall, library and museum, police station, law court and an Assembly Hall that performs the functions of a theatre. All of this resides on the one site.
We wanted to have a look at the museum which, fortunately, is open on Saturdays, but before that, we crossed to the appropriately named Church Road to look at a building there.
If you wander around this building looking for the board giving the church’s details, you will do so in vain. Today it operates as the Trinity Theatre. It obviously was once a church, though, and the theatre’s name gives a clue as to what it was called: Holy Trinity. Designed by Decimus Bruton, architect and garden designer, Holy Trinity was consecrated in 1829 but finally became redundant in 1972. After lying derelict for a decade, the old church found new life and purpose as a theatre.
Returning to the town hall, we went through the library and museum entrance to find the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery on the first floor. It is a fairly small museum with a permanent collection and special exhibitions. It is run along traditional lines and is none the worse for that. Happily, it has not succumbed to the current fad for dumbing down museums. As a bonus, photography is allowed.
One section is deservedly dedicated to locally produced Tunbridge Ware. This is a highly developed form of decorative art in which patterns and pictures and decorative motifs are made in the form of inlaid work in wood. Different colours and textures of wood are used to their full advantage and the results are remarkable. Some of the pictures could be mistaken for photographs at first glance. This marquetry art work flourished as a local speciality during the 18th and 19th centuries and the best pieces have both antique and aesthetic value. Information on the history and techniques of Tunbridge Ware can be found here.
Across the road, and startlingly different in style from the surrounding buildings, the Old Congregational Church and Lecture Hall impresses with its Classical lines. The main part of the structure dates from the 1840s (it opened in 1848) and was made of local stone. The Tuscan columns forming a narthex were added in 1866. As the signs indicate, this elegantly compact pile no longer serves as a church but has been dedicated to the gods of retail.
Walking on we found more items of interest – and curiosities. As an example of the latter, consider these elephant heads decorating the door of number 7 Camden Road. The ground floor of this building is occupied by shops while the upper floor accommodates the Victoria Snooker Centre. I cannot see any obvious connection between the shops or the snooker centre and elephants, so I assume they must have been installed by a previous occupant of the building. I have not been able to discover who or what this might be.
In the category of curiosities too – at least, for me – is the Millennium Clock, sited at Fiveways, Grosvenor Road. By Jon Mills, the clock has attracted criticism, amid hints that it may be moved to make way for a water feature. A clepsydra, perhaps?
Fronting onto Mount Pleasant Road but bounded by Monson Road and Newton Road, stands the Neo-Georgian Opera House. I gather that it was purpose-built as a block incorporating shops as well as the theatre. It was completed in 1902 but has experienced a slightly chequered life since then, becoming a cinema in 1931, a bingo hall in the 1960s and, saved from demolition by being listed, a Wetherspoons pub in 1996. Moreover, it was damaged by a bomb in the Second World War and restored.
Though the entrance now leads to a democratic single open space, the lettering above the door is a reminder of a time when audiences were separated into different seating locations according to the amount paid for a ticket, a division that was as much class-conscious as financial.
Though the interior has of necessity suffered alteration in order to turn it into a pub, it remains recognizably a theatre, and a rather splendid one, at that.
Above the unconcerned heads of the drinkers, there is still the elaborately styled ceiling from which hangs a brilliantly lit chandelier though whether it is the original, I doubt.
To conclude our visit, we went to the end of town known as The Pantiles, the nearest thing Tunbridge Wells has to a tourist attraction. The name, which may seem mysterious to present-day visitors, derives from the fact that what is called the Upper Walks were once paved, not with gold but with pantiles. Here I at last located the Corn Exchange, though it turned out to be a rather unusual one. Its design is explained by the fact that it was originally built as a theatre, opening in 1802, and continuing in that function until the mid-19th century when it became the Corn Exchange. I at first thought the figure on the roof belonged to the its days as a theatre but a lady with a scythe and a sheaf of corn could even better symbolize the trade of grain merchant.
The Pantiles, and indeed Tunbridge Wells itself, owes its existence to mineral water. The plaque on the bath house gives as neat an explanation as you are likely to find, so I will simply quote it.
Dudley Lord North, a young nobleman, discovered the spring in c 1606 and taking the waters soon became fashionable. By 1619 “The Wells” had become a popular meeting place for royalty and the aristocracy.
By 1676, a flourishing village had grown up around the spring, with a number of London shopkeepers taking up residence along the Upper Walks for the summer season.
The Bath House was built over the spring about 1804, to a design by J.T. Groves. It originally contained vapour shower and hot and cold baths using the spring waters. “Dippers” served the Chalybeate water for drinking from the basin over the spring. In 1847 the columns and the portico were added but the baths soon fell into disuse and by 1857 the eastern wing had been removed and replaced by a shopfront.
The Bath House façade was restored again in 1987. The Chalybeate spring waters are still dispensed by the “dipper” from Easter until the end of September.
The Pantiles has inevitably departed from its original purpose though it maintains something of its old historic appearance. To be honest, it makes me think of an imaginary studio set for a TV drama series set in Georgian Cheltenham. Perhaps it is the self-consciously earnest historicity of the place.
This ended our tour and we wearily retraced our steps to the station and there took a bus back to Tonbridge as our train tickets were valid only from there. I would say that the visit had been “interesting” but that neither town captivated me. While I am glad to have seen them and learnt something about their history, I will be in no hurry to return.