Lovely Tunbridge Wells in Kent formed around the natural mineral Chalybeate Spring discovered in 1606 by Lord North, who claimed the iron-rich waters improved his ailing health. But it wasn’t until the 18th century — when the rich and famous flocked in led by celebrated dandy Beau Nash, the self-appointed master of ceremonies who held sway for nearly 30 years — that the spa town gradually became a holiday hotspot.
Nash’s influence in transforming Tunbridge Wells to a popular resort is still evident today, with the royal town offering a combination of culture, history and beautiful architecture.
It has become a favourite day out for Londoners who enjoy the smart boutiques and restaurants in the High Street and The Pantiles, and a place where buyers leaving the capital find cheaper homes, green spaces, good schools and a chic shopping scene.
House hunters heading for Tunbridge Wells can choose property from the Georgian period onwards, with prices starting from £250,000 for a Victorian cottage. For commuters, the town is 38 miles south-east of central London close to the A21, with Tonbridge to the north, Cranbrook to the east, Heathfield to the south and East Grinstead to the west.
According to estate agent Robert Jacobs, of the local branch of Savills, local parks are the main attraction for families despite the variety of homes.
The idea of building residential areas around a park came to Tunbridge Wells via architect Decimus Burton. During the 1830s, inspired by the rus in urbe or “country in the town” concept, he built Calverley Park, where large detached houses sell now for as much as £4 million, while terrace houses in listed Calverley Park Crescent sell for about £750,000. The local council calls these areas “Arcadian” and gives them special mention and protection.
Tunbridge Wells is in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, offering a number of parks and acres of open countryside — small wonder it holds plenty of family appeal.
What there is to buy in Tunbridge Wells
This three-bedroom flat in a fine Regency house in London Road is opposite the common and is for sale for £1 million.
Tunbridge Wells has homes from most periods as well as more modern ones, for example this five-bedroom house, built in 2006, in Pembury Road to the east of the town centre is for sale for £1,325,000.
The “village” close to the station is always in demand. This three-bedroom Victorian terrace house in Little Mount Sion is for sale for offers over £500,000.
Trains from Tunbridge Wells take between 45 minutes and an hour to Charing Cross via Waterloo East or Cannon Street via London Bridge. An annual season ticket costs £4,364.
The area attracts: Jacobs says about half of his buyers are locals trading up or down, while the other half are families moving from south London, although the area is also popular with expats returning to live in the UK.
“We are beginning to attract a few overseas buyers, too, from Russia and even China,” he adds. In addition to green space, families are drawn by the excellent schools both state and private — including grammar schools — and an easy commute.
What there is to rent in Tunbridge Wells
Jade Carter, lettings manager at the local branch of Savills, says there is a big demand for family houses to rent in Tunbridge Wells.
“Many families coming to live in the area can’t always find a house to buy. We also get local downsizers selling a house with 8,000sq ft moving to a rental house with 4,000sq ft. And we can’t get enough two-bedroom flats close to the station — these rent for between £1,300 a month to £2,000 a month.”
Four-bedroom houses range up to about £3,500 a month. This four-bedroom Victorian terrace house in East Cliff Road is available to rent for £1,795 a month, while this four-bedroom detached modern house in Broadwater Down is available to rent for £2,750 a month.
Postcode: TN1 is the central Tunbridge Wells postcode, TN2 is to the east of the town centre and TN4 is to the west.
Best roads: all the roads in Calverley Park, Nevill Park, Camden Park and Hungershall Park, where there are large detached Victorian houses.
Up and coming
Robert Jacobs, of the local branch of Savills, tips the Molyneux Park area where there is a hidden private garden open only to residents between Molyneux Park Road and Court Road. Here Edwardian semi-detached houses sell for between £1.1 million and £1.5 million, less than in the better-known park areas.
Staying power: Tunbridge Wells is a place where families put down roots. “We sometimes get called in to value houses that have been lived in by the same family for 40 years,” says Jacobs.
The 14-year saga of the ABC cinema site, now lying derelict next to the station, is Tunbridge Wells’s biggest grot spot. The current developer is in the process of selling the site and the local council is keen to see a mixed-use scheme promoting employment, so it is likely to be a combination of retail, restaurants, possibly a hotel and some offices.
Berkeley Homes is developing Royal Wells Park (01892 532011) in the former Kent and Sussex hospital site in Mount Ephraim. There are 243 one-, two-, and three-bedroom flats, three-, four- and five-bedroom townhouses and six detached houses. The development also includes a 43-flat retirement block and 10 flats for intermediate rent. The development is set in a landscaped garden with a cascading water feature. In the current phase, prices range from £479,000 for a two-bedroom flat to £700,000 for a three-bedroom house. The next phase of four- and five-bedroom townhouses launches at the beginning of October and prices are expected to start at about £800,000. The development should be complete in 2018.
Council: Tunbridge Wells comes under the Borough of Tunbridge Wells, which is Conservative-controlled. Band D council tax for this year is £1,524.19.
Photographs by Daniel Lynch
Leisure and the arts
The Assembly Hall Theatre in Crescent Road stages children’s shows, classical and popular music concerts, opera, plays, talks and a Christmas panto. Trinity Theatre in Church Road puts on plays, including a puppetry festival next month, comedy and films. The Odeon in Knights Way is the town’s multiplex cinema. Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery in Mount Pleasant Road has collections featuring dolls, toys, games, costumes, textiles and local history.
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Shops and restaurants
Tunbridge Wells has shops, cafés and restaurants — especially along High Street between the station and The Pantiles — that, according to Jacobs, attract Londoners to come and live in the town. Shopaholics will love the mix of high-street brands and chain stores such as Crew, Joules, Oska, Whistles, Jack Wills, Cath Kidston, Mint Velvet, White Company and Brora.
Changing Room is a top womenswear boutique stocking Chloe, Kenzo and Isabel Marant, top designer Caroline Charles has one of only four stores here and Polarn O.Pyret is a Swedish children’s clothes brand with only five stand-alone stores.
There is more shopping choice in Susie Watson Designs, one of a seven-strong chain, which is good for soft furnishings and interiors, Olive & the Fox has unusual lighting, while in The Pantiles Trevor Mottram is a long-standing kitchenware shop. There are also a good number of cafés, delis and even a butcher, Peter Speaight.
The offering in the main shopping area in the northern part of the town is more mundane by comparison. The shopping centre, the Royal Victoria Place, has branches of Boots, Fenwick, Gap, H&M, HMV, M&S, Next, Superdry and Topshop. Morrisons has a large branch near the station and there is a John Lewis at Home in the Kingstanding Business Park off the A21 to the north-east of the town centre.
For foodies, there is Carluccio’s, Zizzi and Pizza Express — but there is also plenty of small local chains and independents too. Thackerays is Tunbridge Wells’s Michelin-starred restaurant, while the recently renovated The Beacon in Langton Green, with a terrace overlooking open countryside, is getting good reviews under new ownership.
Open space: the town itself has some impressive parks. Grosvenor & Hilbert Park, a town-centre space with a lake and bowling green, has recently been awarded £2.36 million by the Heritage and Big Lottery Fund for improvements. Calverley Grounds is another historic town centre park with a café, croquet lawn and tennis courts. Dunorlan Park on the outskirts of town on the A264 has a boating lake and café.
Three things about Tunbridge Wells
What do comedienne Jo Brand and tennis star Virginia Wade have in common?
Both Jo Brand and Virginia Wade were pupils at TWGGS — Tunbridge Wells Girls’s Grammar School.
Who is the link between the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden in London and The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells?
They were both developed by Thomas Neale (1641-1699), a prominent politician and entrepreneur in Stuart England. His name lives on in Covent Garden in Neal Street and Neal’s Yard, but there is no street named after him in Tunbridge Wells.
Why were lots drawn for Queen Victoria?
Tunbridge Wells was once famous for its wooden inlaid furniture that became known as Tunbridge ware. In 1826 the people of Tunbridge Wells decided to present Queen Victoria with a specially made piece. It cost the town £25 and lots were drawn for the privilege of making it.
Most of the primary schools in Tunbridge Wells are rated “good” or better by the government’s education watchdog Ofsted. These are the primary schools that get the top “outstanding” rating — Claremont in Banner Farm Road, St Peter’s CofE in Windmill Street, St James’ CofE infants in Sandrock Road (the junior school is rated “good”), St Gregory’s RC in Reynolds Lane and, in the outlying villages, Speldhurst CofE and Langton Green. A new free primary school, The Wells Free School, opened in September 2013 and is judged to be “good”. Currently it is moving into a new school building in the Royal Wells Park development in Ephraim Road.
Tunbridge Wells has three grammar schools — Skinners’ (boys, ages 11 to 18) in St John’s road and Tunbridge Wells Girls’s Grammar, TWGGS for short, (ages 11 to 18) in Southfield Road, both rated “outstanding”, and Tunbridge Wells Grammar for Boys (boys, ages 11 to 18, with girls in the sixth form) in St John’s Road, which is judged to be “good”.
There are two “outstanding” comprehensive schools — Bennett Memorial CofE (co-ed, ages 11 to 18) in Culverden Down and St Gregory’s RC (co-ed, ages 11 to 18) in Reynolds Lane.
State school academies
Top–performing Skinners’ is the sponsor of two Tunbridge Wells state school academies — Skinners’ Kent (co-ed, ages 11 to 18), which is judged to be “good”, and Skinners’ Kent Primary, which opened earlier this month, both in Sandown Park.
Private primary and prep schools
The local private primary and preparatory schools are The Mead (co-ed, ages three to 11) in Frant Road, Rose Hill (co-ed, ages three to 13) in Coniston Avenue, Holmewood House (co-ed, day and boarding, ages three to 13) in Barrow Lane, while there is one all-through school — Beechwood Sacred Heart (co-ed, day and boarding ages three to 18) a Catholic school in Pembury Road.
There are two top private schools nearby — Tonbridge (boys, day and boarding, ages 13 to 18) and Sevenoaks (co-ed, day and boarding, ages 11 to 18).