Our Guide to Tunbridge Wells

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Want to visit one of the UK's most historic, extraordinary towns? Why not check our guide to see what's worth visiting, what's on this summer,

The Pantiles - a history

A photograph of the Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells, on a sunny summers day
Image via visitkent.co.uk

Stretching back to the genesis of Tunbridge Wells, upon the discovery of Chalybeate Spring, the Pantiles is a Georgian colonnade, with most of its buildings constructed in the early-to-mid 19th century.

Most of the Pantiles are listed buildings, with No.7 standing as the longest survivor, built around 1660. Today, the Pantiles contain a great number of independent and specialist shops, art galleries, cafes, restaurants, and bars, with the bandstand coming alive in the summer, and a farmers market held every other Saturday. 

This forms the de facto centre of the town of Tunbridge Wells, especially as Chalybeate Spring, for where the town gets its fame and namesake, trickles from the top of the high street.

Discovered by Dudley Lord North in 1606, the iron-rich spring waters were purported to have enormous health benefits, as they ridded Lord North of his ailments and supposedly helped him live to the age of 80. Once Lord Abergavenny cleared the area and sank the wells, inviting out-of-towners to sample this supposed healing elixir from the ground, these wells outside the town of Tonbridge became known as Tunbridge Wells. 

You can sample the water from spring at the north end of the Pantiles, by Dippers Hall, with aid from costumed ‘dippers’ during the summer season.

Will the natural spring water rid you of your ailments? Maybe if you’re suffering from iron deficiency, but don’t count on it.

Spa Valley Railway

Photograph of a steam train from Spa Valley Railway
Image via mailexperiences.co.uk

Step into the realm of a time gone by, as Spa Valley Railway runs steam and heritage diesel trains between Tunbridge Wells West and Eridge, stopping off at High Rocks and Groombridge.

The railway holds numerous events throughout summer, including a Faulty Towers-themed performance, and Live and Let Dine, a James Bond spoof, both to be enjoyed while you’re eating your supper on a moving steam train.

The kids can also have a day out with Thomas the Tank Engine, and the younger kids can get to see Bluey.

This only comprises a select number of events held at Spa Valley Railway through the summer, with the full list of events visible here.

Beyond the dining affairs, you can actually book a slot to drive one of the trains! For the price of £350 you can operate the cockpit of an antiquated locomotive! Where else can you think of that offers that? 

Bowles Outdoor Centre

Photograph of Bowles Rocks in Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Image via dayoutwiththekids.co.uk

The Bowles Rocks of Tunbridge Wells have long been a defining feature of the area as well as being a major tourist attraction, especially for climbers, as the quick-drying, south-facing sandstone makes for a more than ideal training ground for climbers.

The Bowles Outdoor Centre, whose patrons include Brian Blessed and Richard Branson, has been encouraging youth exercise and activity since the 1960s.

A comprehensive activities camp, your kids can learn to ski and snowboard on their artificial slopes, learn to kayak and canoe on their open body of water, and learn to boulder on real life boulders.

One of the most popular climbing areas in the UK, the Bowles Rocks offer routes for beginner to experienced climbers, with over 260 routes to take. A great guide can be found here.

Scotney Castle

A photograph of the castle and moat of Scotney Castle, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Image via whereangiewanders.com

While the kids are busy wearing themselves out on endless surfaces of sandstone, or anothersuch day event of choice, you may be tempted to visit the impressive Scotney Castle, a remarkable, picturesque, partially ruined 14th-century castle, encircled by a moat and containing the impressive formal gardens. 

The gardens, which are protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, are a notable and acclaimed example of the picturesque aestheticism. Emerging from the era of Enlightenment, stemming from contemporary Romantic sensibilities, the picturesque style sought to view, seek out, and indeed produce, the sights of nature as though they are a painting. Scotney Castle's Gardens, alongside Kew's Gardens, were designed in that same philosophy. 

The castle sits on the same estate as the 19th-century mansion house, built in the Tudor Revivalist style, though is atypically restrained and less reliant on vernacular architectural tropes that beleaguered most examples of mock Tudor. 

And, somehow, most impressively, the estate holds a 100-million year-old dinosaur footprint. The Scotney Castle estate is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

The Forum

Photo of The Forum, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Image via KentOnline

Once voted by the NME as Britain's best small venue, The Forum has made a name for itself for promoting up-and-coming indie acts from around town and far beyond. It is famously the spot where Slaves got their start, as well as Jeremy Pritchard of Everything Everything. 

This summers got a lot going on. Indie-soul star Willie J Healey performs on the 5th of May, Matt Osman of Suede on the 11th, Buzzcocks on the 24th, The Skints on the 27th, and most excitingly, the Sambroso All-Stars performing Buena Vista Social Club in full on the 31st! And this is all just in May!

Through May Bank Holiday, The Forum hosts Unfest 2024, Tunbridge Well's fringe festival, which sees a number of music and arts shows strewn around the town through summer. An exciting chance to see the town truly come to life, this might be the right way to spend May Bank Holiday. 

Food and Drink

Photo of the inside of Vale Vault
Image via tagvenue

There's glut of food and drink options to enjoy in Tunbridge Wells, with local 14 restaurants from the town and surrounding area featuring on the Michelin Guide. All 14 spots can be viewed here.

Thackeray's, named after William Makepeace Thackeray who once resided in Tunbridge Wells, is the oldest restaurant in town, featuring a first floor that feels like an art gallery, and a modern British menu that offers relaxed fine dining free from ostentation. Situated in a charming, cottage-style townhouse, Thackeray's presents a comprehensive fine dining experience, the finest in the town.

The Small Holding Farm and Kitchen boasts a farm-to-table menu, utilising the best available ingredients in the area, with emphasis on seasonal ingredients, with the menu evolving throughout the year. With the farm-to-table fad in full-swing, here's an opportunity to see it done right.

The bars which come with the highest recommendations are Chapel Place, The Glasshouse, both with tremendous cocktails, and the speakeasy-style Vale Vault, worth a look for any Boardwalk Empire fanatic.

For its size, Tunbridge Wells comes with an impressive pub list. With almost too many to list in detail, The Good Pub Guide have produced a helpful directory of all the recommended pubs in the area which you can view here.