The Kent countryside is laden with spectacular walking routes, but how many boast Stone Age shelters, and graffiti dating back to the 1700s?
That's what you'll find at High Rocks, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, located on the edge of Tunbridge Wells. It's a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin job, in that it's a collection of rocks which are fairly high. That makes for some spectacular views of the countryside, which ramp up an extra notch when the leaves turn in autumn. And that's just the start.
First things first, you'll need to get a ticket before you can enter the National Monument site. There's no advance booking — just turn up on the day and head into the pub opposite. Tickets — joyously, physical printed tickets, which you don't get in many places these days — are sold in the bar downstairs, so take the staircase immediately to your left as you enter the building. Tickets, a map — and safety warnings about slippery rocks and a lack of railings — will then be provided.
Back across the road, the entrance gives off grotto-like vibes, putting us in mind of the entrance to Chislehurst Caves, or perhaps a funicular railway up a seaside cliff. Sadly, we've never seen the old-fashioned turnstile entrance open, so it's a case of pressing the buzzer on the rather more modern metal gate and waiting for the disembodied voice to let you through.
At the top of the ramp, you're free to follow any path you like. Whichever way you go, look out for a stone staircase to take you up on top of the rocks, as that's the best place to be. A word of warning: the rocks don't have any barriers, so take care, stay away from the edges, and keep a tight hold on children.
The rocks are linked with a series of aerial bridges — from below, they look like a modern aerial ropes adventure course, but in reality, they're just a practical way of getting between outcrops, passing over the somewhat daunting crevices below.
The whole complex has enough examples of various rock formations and states of erosion to thrill any geography teacher, adorned with tenacious trees — ancient oaks, pines and beeches — which cling to the rocks, having curled themselves around their sandstone barriers into some unlikely shapes over the centuries.
At times, particularly among the twisting, winding staircases and dim passageways at ground level, it feels like you're the only humans to have passed this way for centuries.
The map points out sites of interest within the complex, including the charmingly-named Wishing Rock, the squint-to-see-it Giant Toad, and the Bell Rock — shaped like a bell if you catch it from the right direction, but actually named for an as-yet-unproven claim that when struck, it created a sound that could be heard in the town centre.
Pottery found here was identified as being made by man in the Middle Stone Age, and is therefore among the earliest discovered anywhere in the country, and Stone Age rock shelters still exist, though the average passerby could be forgiven for bypassing them simply as crevices between the towering cliffs.
But by far the most noticeable souvenir left by generations past is the graffiti — dates, names and other messages carved into the rocks in fonts more precise and cursive than anything a modern-day street artist would conjure up. Hours could be spent reading the inscriptions, particularly the dates. Apparently, the earliest date spotted in the rocks is 1702, though the earliest we found on our visit dated to a few years later. Note, that adding your own 21st century message to future generations is strictly against the rules.
So unique is the High Rocks landscape, that it's been used as a filming location for productions including Cursed on Netflix (sadly cancelled after its first series, through no fault of the backdrop), and series three of Sky Atlantic show Britannia, set in the year 43AD. We've also seen it claimed that The Mind Robber, an episode from series six of Doctor Who, was filmed here, though other sources claim that filming actually took place at nearby Harrison's Rock in East Sussex.
Once you've finished exploring, head back across the road to the ivy-draped High Rocks Inn. It's a proper country pub, weighty with history, split into a formal restaurant upstairs and a more casual pub downstairs, with a sprawling patio for fair weather days. It's a popular wedding venue too, so it's common to be served your pint by a staff member dressed rather formally. Either way, the pub is a great place to end your walk, for drinks, light snacks, afternoon tea, or even a cheeky ice cream sundae.
Steam train to High Rocks
For a special treat, you can take a steam train to High Rocks on certain days. It's on the Spa Valley Railway line, which runs from Tunbridge Wells to Groombridge via High Rocks and Eridge. The station isn't served by any 'regular' National Rail trains, so it's a case of checking the Spa Valley Railway website for when trains are running to High Rocks.
High Rocks, High Rocks Lane, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN3 9JJ. The location is fairly remote, so if you're not arriving via the Spa Valley Railway, you'll need your own car. Note that both the pub and the rocks themselves often close for weddings and private events, so check in advance that it will be open before making a special trip.