Tunbridge Wells – a lively town full of shops, bars, restaurants and local businesses. But did you know that, compared with some other places in our lovely county, Tunbridge Wells is the new kid on the block? And this relative youngster is set for some controversial changes to the heart of its historic town when, subject to planning approval, the new Civic Development will be built at the entrance to Calverley Grounds…
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council’s plans for the Civic Development in the heart of the town are not without controversy. But as Councillor Tracy Moore, Cabinet Member with Responsibility for Civic Development Communications, told INDEX: “Change is never without controversy and I realise that not everyone is going to be supportive but there are few projects, if any, that would get unanimous support from all quarters…”
Thirty councillors voted for the ambitious project – which could see a new 1,200 seat theatre, civic centre, underground car park and new office space at the entrance to Calverley Grounds, 13 voted against and three abstained. The council’s vision – “a financial plan to borrow £77 million has been independently audited and verified by experts as being sound and prudent,” according to Councillor Moore – is to grow the town’s role as the cultural centre of the Kent and Sussex High Weald, so that by 2024 the borough of Tunbridge Wells will be nationally recognised for its vibrant cultural provision.
The Civic Development project is one of a number of schemes that will see millions of pounds invested in our historic spa town, including a major development on the former ABC cinema site, expansion of Royal Victoria Place shopping centre and the development on the site of Union House on the Lower Pantiles.
Going Back to its Roots
Tunbridge Wells came into existence after the chance discovery of a health-giving spring. Sometime in 1606, an ailing Lord North was travelling to London when he noticed a foaming spring. The young nobleman tasted the iron-rich water and took samples for analysis. He later returned and, over time, his illness disappeared.
The good news spread quickly. A well was sunk and the aristocracy flocked to what became known as the Chalybeate Spring in the hope of a cure from many different ills. At first, everyone – even Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria (right) – had to camp or lodge in nearby Southborough until a hamlet gradually established itself. Named Tunbridge Wells because of its proximity to Tonbridge (originally spelled ‘Tunbridge’), this town rapidly gained a reputation as much for style as for curing illness. To cater for their spiritual needs, visitors donated money to build the Church of King Charles the Martyr, opened in 1676.
Since then, the town has gone from strength to strength, patronised by royalty, a magnet for the style conscious and a haven for the retired and young families alike. It is justifiably proud of its ‘royal’ heritage and carefully preserves its unique history and picturesque surroundings.
The Earliest Days
The High Weald, once a densely forested area and site of present-day Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, was once home to Stone Age hunter-gatherers. They cleared the forest, using fire and flint tools, hunted for food and later began to farm. They sheltered beneath the High Rocks, as evidenced by ancient tracks and artefacts found there by local archaeologist James Money. During the Iron Age (1,200–1,000 BC), Crowborough became a centre of a flourishing iron industry that was further exploited by the Romans.
Hordes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes landed in Kent during the 5th century and the Kingdom of Kent was established. Settlements sprang up at Rotherfield and Groombridge, while records show that Egbert, King of Kent, granted Rusthall (named after the colour of its water) and Speldhurst to the Bishop of Rochester somewhere around AD 770.
The sparsely populated High Wealden forest was widely used for pig feeding (pannage). Each year, people herded around 10,000 pigs along the drove (track) roads from North Kent to graze on the autumn acorn harvest in the Tonbridge/Tunbridge Wells area. These swine pastures were called ‘dens’, and form the origin of many place names, such as Mouseden or Culverden. Connected by well-worn tracks, these eventually became permanent settlements.
The Middle Ages
By the time the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, Kent remained the most densely wooded part of the country. Specific mentions were made of Tudeley and Tonbridge where Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare built a motte and bailey castle after the Battle of Hastings. To supply and maintain it, Richard created a circular area of land, about five miles in each direction, around it called The Lowy, which incorporated what is now Tunbridge Wells.
Most of the area south of Tonbridge became the Clares’ hunting chase, South Frith. There was probably a small settlement in nearby South Borough, with further communities (and churches) at Bidborough and Pembury by 1150 and, later, at Hawkenbury and High Brooms. Nobles began building and enclosing castles and halls in parks for hunting.
The Making of a Town
Several decades after the discovery of the Chalybeate Spring, a building boom was creating a fashionable spa town, with The Pantiles already in place by 1700.
A century later, the town was becoming a retirement haven for wealthy Londoners, drawn by the cheaper cost of living and a reliable (five-hour) stagecoach service to the capital. People played cricket, watched horse racing or visited the High Rocks, a popular tourist destination.
In 1835, Tunbridge Wells became a town with powers of self-government and its own police force. It was made a royal borough in 1889 and Mayor David Salomons held the country’s first motor show here in 1895, the year that the Nevill Ground was opened.
Modern Tunbridge Wells
• In 1909 King Edward VII granted the town a ‘Royal’ prefix.
• It was also a hotbed of suffragette activity – the centenary of which is being marked this year. The ladies were blamed when the Nevill Cricket Pavilion burned down in 1913.
• Tunbridge Wells survived two world wars, experiencing relatively little bomb damage although the influx of refugees and evacuees from London in 1939 severely stretched resources. The town was considered a strategic point on the road to London and Number 78 Mount Ephraim became Kent, Sussex and Surrey’s civil defence HQ, the Army occupied Dunorlan House while the Nevill Cricket Ground hosted Field Marshal Montgomery’s troops.
• By 1951 the town had one of Kent’s highest populations of elderly people. The 1960s saw a huge growth in the numbers of commuters to London and in 1974 the Borough of Tunbridge Wells was created. By 2014 overall population had reached around 114,000.
Tunbridge Wells has long enjoyed royal patronage.
• In 1630, Queen Henrietta Maria camped near the spring, convalescing after the birth of the future Charles II. He brought his own queen to take the waters some 30 years later.
• Queen Victoria visited several times, the Prince of Wales came in 1928 and his mother, Queen Mary, shopped here six years later. During World War Two, King George VI met General Montgomery at Broadwater Down.
• The town enjoyed a visit during Jubilee Year (1977) by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales opened Royal Victoria Place shopping centre in 1992.