The epitome of elegance and charm, Royal Tunbridge Wells has been Kent’s most stylish town since it was founded in 1606. Stumbling upon what we now know as the Chalybeate Spring, it was a courtier to James I who put this area on the map: crowning it Tunbridge Wells. Over the next hundred years, the mineral waters of the spring attracted hoards of well-to-do tourists and aristocrats. Still not so different today.
By the 1700s, all the style, sophistication and elegance of the Georgian era had shaped the identity of Tunbridge Wells – from its exquisite architecture to the vibrant, rakish nature of the town’s social scene – famed by both celebrities and royals of the time. So enchanted by the town, the Royal Family became frequent visitors and by 1909 it had officially received its ‘Royal’ prefix, granted by King Edward VII in honour of his mother Queen Victoria, another loyal fan.
Today, Royal Tunbridge Wells is just as fashionable and thriving as ever. Lying just 30 miles from central London, the town has been a sought-after spot with its easy connections to the city and the Kent and Sussex countryside.
Perhaps Tunbridge Wells’ most celebrated area is The Pantiles. Lying at the very heart of the town, it was originally a grassy area called ‘The Walks’. When Princess Anne visited with her young son in 1699, he slipped and hurt himself. As a result, the princess demanded the area be paved with tiles made in a pan. Only 15 of the original ‘pantiles’ remain. One of the Pantiles’ ‘must see’ bars is Charlotte’s On The Pantiles. Serving decadent cocktails of all kinds, its beautiful marble-topped pink bar makes it the ultimate spot for a weekend brunch.
The buzzy Pantiles is awash with places for coffee, breakfast, brunch and lunch. Framptons serves famously good brunch pancakes – try out their vegan pancake stack with berries and lemon drizzle for that sweet mid-morning hit. If you’re more of an avocado-on-toast fan, then visit The Pantiles Café and Bar for their avo’ poached egg on sourdough toast and a cup of seriously good coffee. As well as plenty of foodie havens and bars, The Pantiles has lots of artisan shops and boutiques, as does its neighbour: Chapel Place.
For the avid cook and kitchen lover, don’t miss Trevor Mottram, who sells everything from whisks and plates, through to clocks and cutlery. For the fashionistas, Tunbridge Wells is home to the much-loved US chain Anthropologie and several British chain clothes shops such as Mint Velvet. Chapel Place has plenty of other enthralling little shops, including Hall’s Bookshop for booklovers, Le Petit Jardin which sells luxurious gifts for gardeners and Settle Home for beautiful home interiors pieces. For those looking for all the high street favourites, including department store Fenwicks, head up to Royal Victoria Place.
A short car journey out of the town centre and you’ll find Dairy Barn, a beautiful holiday home with a fully equipped kitchen, hot tub and uninterrupted views across the rolling countryside. It is a truly special setting for a romantic break in the countryside. If you’re travelling to Tunbridge Wells as a bigger family group have a look at its neighbouring holiday home, Cart Lodge, which sleeps up to 4 additional guests and like Dairy Barn is also dog-friendly.
Tunbridge Wells has plenty of high-end dining options for those looking to mark a special occasion with a delicious meal. Southborough is home to the award-winning Tallow. Heralded for its exquisite food and ambient atmosphere, enjoy carefully crafted menus magicked up by culinary genius head chef Rob Taylor. Showcasing the best of Kent’s produce, the menus change monthly – capturing the season’s finest – and giving guests a new experience each time they dine.
As well as shopping and eating, Tunbridge Wells has a vast array of cultural hotspots and outdoorsy areas for activities. Theatre buffs and story lovers should take a look at what’s on at The Trinity Theatre. As well as traditional plays, Trinity Theatre also shows film screenings, community theatre, comedy and much more to suit all ages and tastes. Gig lovers and music maestros can visit The Forum Live Music Venue. With a standing capacity of 250, this is Tunbridge Wells’ best place to watch live music acts in the hope of discovering the ‘next big name’.
For those wanting to experience the beautiful Kentish countryside and some of the county’s most historical places, the surroundings of Tunbridge Wells will have you spoilt for choice. For those visiting the area with dogs, Dunorlan Park is a must. Here, you and your pooch can enjoy a richly varied Victorian garden, meadows and wildlife, as well as all the amenities of a modern park. Once the private grounds of a large and very grand mansion, the garden was laid out in the 1850s and 1860s by the renowned Victorian gardener, Robert Marnock. The mansion no longer exists, but the garden is one of the best-preserved examples of Marnock’s work.
About 10 miles from Tunbridge Wells check out Bedgebury Pinetum, a forest with a wealth of cycling and walking routes weaving through the trees and lakes. If you’re an adventurous group head to Go Ape to explore the Tree Top trails and then after a busy day of exploring check into Bedgebury Oast. A beautifully modernised home, designed with a distinctively calming feel retaining much of the charm and character of its former hop harvesting past. This 5-bedroom holiday home is ideal for enjoying a G&T on the balcony, getting involved with mid-afternoon competitive garden games and entertaining guests al fresco on the patio.
In the opposite direction to Bedgebury, another location famous for its heritage and links to royalty is Penshurst Place. Once Henry VIII’s grand hunting lodge, you can now enjoy acres of historic parkland as well as beautiful gardens and stunning tours throughout the house. Penshurst’s medieval Baron’s Hall was completed in 1341, crowned with an original 60ft high chestnut-beamed ceiling. Today it is still a breathtaking sight – featuring in many films and TV programmes.
One of the most exciting ways to experience Tunbridge Wells’s countryside and heritage is with the Spa Valley Railway. With a destination at every station, both children and adults will relish a day spent touring Spa Valley. Chug through the spectacular scenery of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and on to sweet, nostalgic stations. Travellers can even enjoy special extras, including cream teas, ploughman lunches, fish and chip suppers and even Sunday roasts.
If you’re thinking Tunbridge Wells is a spot that your friends and family will enjoy then spread the word and invite them all! Located in Goudhurst just outside of Tunbridge Wells, you’ll find a very special (and very large) holiday home – Finchcocks Oast. This light and airy contemporary barn sleeps up to 42 guests and gives you access to a private outdoor pool, tennis court, and indoor games room. This breathtaking place is perfect to mark those special family occasions.