Spotlight on Tunbridge Wells

It may have temporarily lost its iron-rich spring but Tunbridge Wells has buckets of charm to make up for it, decides Anthea Masey
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Beau Nash, the 18th century rake who cut such a dash in the spa town of Tunbridge Wells, must be turning in his grave at the news that the tap has had to be turned off at the famous chalybeate spring, a likely victim of the current drought. Nash is one of a trinity of characters who over the centuries have determined the destiny of this fine royal town, 35 miles south of London on the edge of the lovely Kent weald.

Shoppers enjoy a break at the Pantiles; Dunorian Park has a boating lake
© Alamy
Shoppers enjoy a break at the Pantiles; Dunorian Park will host proms events this summer

First honours go to Dudley, Lord North, who discovered the health giving properties of the town’s iron-rich spring water in 1606, though it wasn’t until the following century that Nash, the self-appointed master of ceremonies, turned Tunbridge Wells into a fashionable resort to rival even Bath.

Today, it is still possible to imagine the cream of 18th century London society parading up and down the Pantiles, an area of quaint buildings and shops that has remained largely unaltered. Later still, in the Regency period in the early years of the 19th century, the architect Decimus Burton pioneered the concept of “rus in urbe” — the illusion of rusticity in town.

Pub in the Pantiles area of Tunbridge Wells
The Pantiles has changed little in 300 years
He left a legacy of fine houses, terraces and churches, so much so that houses are often described as being in the “style of Decimus Burton”, and many new homes mimic his version of regency architecture. His most famous buildings are the Holy Trinity church, a distinctive local landmark and Calverley Park Crescent, a row of 17 houses originally designed as shops with homes above linked by a colonnade.

Buying a home

Tunbridge Wells is famous for its regency houses and terraces but there are also large detached Victorian and Edwardian houses and small Victorian terraces, particularly in the “village” area close to the High Street. Anything genuinely Decimus Burton will command a high price. Estate agents Savills (01892 507000) is selling the four-bedroom western portion of a Decimus Burton villa in Calverley Park for £2.25 million.

The area attracts: Gavin Selbie of the local branch of estate agents Jackson-Stops & Staff says good communications, schools, shopping and a pleasant atmosphere with lots to do in the evenings makes Tunbridge Wells an attractive location for Londoners. “At least 20 per cent of the people registered with us are Londoners looking to move and once here they tend to stay.”

Trinity Theatre, converted from the Decimus Burton Holy Trinity church
Trinity Theatre, converted from the Decimus Burton Holy Trinity church
Renting: the rental market is strong with demand coming from a wide range of tenants, from young sharers and couples to families looking for four and five-bedroom houses. Rents range from around £750 a month for a one-bedroom flat up to £5,000 a month for a sizeable family house.

Postcodes: TN1 and TN2 are the Tunbridge Wells postcode; with TN1 having the edge over TN2.

Best roads: buyers aspire to roads with the word “park” in the name such as Calverley Park, Nevill Park, Hungershall Park and Camden Park.

What’s new: The old cinema site opposite the town hall, which local campaigners have dubbed the “grot spot”, has been empty since 2000. New owners have promised to demolish it and a planning application for a mixed use development is awaited. Vista (call Savills on 01732 442076) in Pembury Road, Dunorlan Park is a development of 18 two-bedroom flats in a contemporary style, which is unusual for the town, and may have provoked a few comments from “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”, by developer Purelake. Prices start at £225,000.

Up and coming: the northern side of town is where you can still find two and three-bedroom Victorian terrace houses in need of work for under £250,000.

Grand villas line Tunbridge Wells' best streets
Grand villas line Tunbridge Wells' best streets

Getting an education

Education in Tunbridge Wells is dominated by its three grammar schools: The Skinners’ School (for boys aged from 11 to 18); Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar (ages 11 to 18) and Tunbridge Wells Grammar for Boys (ages 11 to 18), all of which get excellent academic results and co-operate to offer a wide choice of subjects at A-level.

The two comprehensive schools Bennett Memorial (co-ed, ages 11 to 18), now an academy, and St Gregory’s both get above average results at GCSE. Skinners’ Kent Academy (co-ed, ages 11 to 18) is an academy sponsored by The Skinners’ School. It replaces Tunbridge Wells High School and is due to get a new school building next year, designed by the architectural practice Studio E.

It is not hard to find a good primary school in the town; however, only two are judged to be “outstanding” by the Government’s education watchdog Ofsted: St James’ CofE in Sandrock Road and Claremont, which is in Banner Farm Road.
There is also a choice of private schools: Beechwood Sacred Heart (co-ed ages two to 19) has a girls’ boarding house; The Mead (ages two to 11) sends many of its pupils to Kent’s grammar schools; and Rose Hill School (ages three to 13) is a more traditional prep school.

One of the independent cafés in Tunbridge Wells
One of the independent cafés in town

Shops and restaurants

Tunbridge Wells is a shoppers’ paradise; this is a town with two halves: there is the northern end of town where the big high street brands are found in the pedestrianised Calverley Road and the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre; then there is a sharp walk down the hill to the High Street and the Pantiles where the more up-market chains and independent stores are clustered.

Women’s fashion is well catered for with department stores Fenwicks in the shopping centre and Hoopers in the High Street. Caroline Charles and independent stores Hi Hi, Bod & Ted and Changing Room, recently cited as one of the 50 best boutiques outside London, are all in the high street. Style Workshop, also in the high street, is a flower shop with a difference, its shop window has an unusual Jubilee-themed tea party made up of a mosaic of flowers. Foodies get lost for hours in cookware shop Trevor Mottram in the Pantiles, where there are also regular farmers’ markets.

There are chain restaurants such as Zizzi and Carluccio’s as well as independent cafés and restaurants. The Brew House Hotel and the Hotel du Vin (housed in a large Decimus Burton mansion) both have restaurants and the Black Pig is a popular gastro pub. Thackeray’s, in a pretty weatherboarded house, once the home of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, is where locals go for a special treat. There are busy retail parks on the northern outskirts where there is a John Lewis Home store.

Large houses overlook a green on Mount Ephraim
Large houses overlook a green on Mount Ephraim

Open space

Tunbridge Wells Common extends into the town on its south west corner. It is remarkable for its sandstone outcrops, such as Toad Rock and Wellington Rocks, climbed and scrambled over by generations of children.

Leisure and the arts: There are two theatres showing a variety of events, from plays and musicals to ballet and comedy: the Assembly Hall and Trinity Theatre, converted from the Decimus Burton Holy Trinity church. There is an Odeon Cinema on the edge of town. The Tunbridge Wells Sports Centre in St John’s Road is the local council-owned swimming pool.

Travel: Tunbridge Wells is situated on the A21. There are commuter trains to Charing Cross and Cannon Street from both Tunbridge Wells (an hour) and High Brooms, although many commuters drive to Tonbridge which offers a quicker journey time of around 45 minutes). An annual season ticket from Tunbridge Wells costs £3,968.

Diana Segal outside her Gardener & Cook shop in the Pantiles
Diana Segal runs the Gardener & Cook shop
Council: Borough of Tunbridge Wells (Conservative-controlled); Band D council tax for the 2012/2013 year: £1,359.51.

Average prices

One-bedroom flat £125,000
Two-bedroom flat £220,000
Two-bedroom house £223,000
Three-bedroom house £306,000
Four-bedroom house £526,000
Source: Hometrack

One-bedroom flat £500 to £950 a month
Two-bedroom flat £650 to £1,500 a month
Two-bedroom house £700 to £1,800 a month
Three-bedroom house £900 to £1,950 a month
Four-bedroom house £1,350 to £2,800 a month
Five-bedroom plus house £1,600 to £4,500 a month

Photographs by Graham Hussey

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