Want to get out of London for the day? Why not head to Tonbridge? It's less than an hour on the train, sitting between the better-known towns of Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells. A rose between two thorns, if you will.
That's right: Tonbridge is not Tunbridge Wells. They're two completely separate towns, located a few miles apart. Take it from someone who was raised in the former; if you confuse the two in front of someone from Tonbridge, they'll be delighted. If you do so in front of someone from Royal Tunbridge Wells, you'll get a less complimentary reception. You've been warned. Let the Tonbridge tour begin.
The public artworks
The first sight on your tour of Tonbridge can be seen before you've even left the station. The tunnel joining platforms 3 and 4 to the station car park has a beautiful mural painted on its curvaceous walls, depicting local and station life. It's by local artist Graham Upton.
If public art is your thing, turn right out of the station and head up to the roundabout to see this sculpture dedicated to Olympic gold medallist and Tonbridge resident Dame Kelly Holmes, unveiled in 2017. It's Tonbridge's own equivalent to the Angel of the North.
Tonbridge has its fair share of art galleries. Art Spring Gallery, located towards the north end of the High Street, showcases contemporary works by local artists.
Escape Art Centre is a new addition to the area, located in the beautiful old fire station building. It only opened in June 2021 so it's still finding its feet, but keep an eye on the website for future exhibitions and events.
Visit Tonbridge Castle
And Tonbridge has a castle, which is more than can be said for Tunbridge Wells. It describes itself as "reputedly England's finest example of a Motte and Bailey Castle with a splendid 13th Century Gatehouse". Where that reputation comes from is unstated, but don't let that deter you.
It may not attract the visitor numbers that the Tower of London does, but on the plus side... it doesn't attract the visitor numbers that the Tower of London does. In fact, pick the right day and you might have the place to yourselves.
It's completely free to wander through the gatehouse and out onto the castle lawn, which has views over the river and town below. You can also climb the motte, which'll give you views in the other direction, over Tonbridge Park. It's best done in winter, when the leaves are off the trees. However, if you find yourself in the area in summer, and you're something of an early bird, it's also an excellent place to watch the sunrise.
Budding Attenboroughs will like it round these parts — swans tend to cluster in the river here, a particularly beefy family of squirrels lives in one of the trees halfway up the motte, and the castle walls have more pigeons living in them than any spot in London. We've seen London's parakeets in the fields surrounding Tonbridge too, though they've yet to make it into the urban centre of town.
If you're really into this history malarkey, head to the Tourist Info office and hire yourself a headset to take the tour inside the gatehouse. Plus, there are cannons, which makes every good day trip at least ten times better.
Go on a ghostsign hunt
It's worth casting your eyes upwards as you wander along the high street; Tonbridge has plenty of ghostsigns. Our favourite can be seen on Barden Road, right outside the station:
Just round the corner in Avebury Avenue is this gem:
The excellent Tonbridge Daily blog has plenty more information on the town's many and varied ghostsigns, if that's your thing.
Look up at the buildings
While you've got your eyes peeled looking for ghostsigns, there's plenty else to see above head height. A noose and gallows still hang ominously over the high street outside the olde-world style Chequers Inn. As you walk past, consider the fact that Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, in 1955, had links to Tonbridge — although she met her premature end at Holloway Prison.
The high street itself is a mish-mash of architectural styles, and is well worth perusing. Of particular interest is Wetherspoons (bear with us here...), which proudly displays its heritage as a former Post Office. The library on Avebury Avenue is a beautiful carved redbrick building with a 'Technical Institute' plaque hinting at its origins.
Okay, the high street's got its charms. But for our money, the best architectural ogling is to be had around the quiet back streets opposite the castle. Head down East Street to see some beautiful buildings, including a former Methodist church that's been converted into flats, a couple of historic timbered cottages, and the Man of Kent pub (Thursday is quiz night).
Head down Church Street towards St Peter and St Paul (whose tower is silhouetted in the sunrise photo above), and cut through the churchyard onto Church Lane. On the right is what we consider to be the most beautiful house in Tonbridge, a half-timbered construction, and unusual in colour -it's beige instead of the usual bright white that timber houses tend to carry.
As you follow Church Lane back towards the high street, turn and look towards the church for a rather lovely view:
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Tonrbidge's secret island
Alright, not secret secret, but one that this particular correspondent failed to notice for the first 26 years of her life living in the town. Tinker's Island is tucked away on the western side of Tonbridge Park. It was hit by a doodlebug during the second world war, but has led a pretty peaceful life since, inhabited mainly by fishermen taking advantage of the fork where two branches of the River Medway meet. If you visit the town in summer and have time to spare, have a wander over to the island. Accessed by a wooden footbridge, it all feels a bit Enid Blyton. Visiting in winter? Don't bother — the park famously floods most years, with Tinker's Island being one of the first areas to become submerged.
Where to eat and drink in Tonbridge
Tonbridge has seriously upped its game in recent years when it comes to food. Gone are days of choosing between KFC and Pizza Express; Turkish, Thai and Italian are now on the menu in the high street. Sweet toothed explorers are well catered for with an ice cream and dessert parlour (opening hours tend to be a bit hit and miss), and independent cafe Finch House. Our top tip: a chocolate flapjack from Basil will easily feed two people.
Pastry lovers should head to The Bakehouse At 124, a serious bakery and cafe inside what we reckon to be the prettiest building on the high street. The windows are filled with fresh-baked breads, rolls and pastries on a daily basis, but the speciality is the cruffin, a croissant-muffin hybrid, sold only on a Friday, and flying out the door as soon as the shop opens at 8am.
If it's coffee you're after, 65mm Coffee will sort you right out — it's a sleek coffee shop set in an historic building on the river, with views of the castle. Tonbridge even has a beer cafe if you need something a little stronger — gin, cheese, meats and bread are also specialities — and The Beer Seller serves up local ales in cosy wooden booths, in a former high street jewellery shop.
Soak it all up with dinner at The Ivy House, as beautiful, traditional pub at the top of the high street, atmospheric on the inside with a terrace outside for sunny days.
If the castle isn't enough tourist-ing for you, tee off at one of the town's two crazy golf courses — one in the park and the other a little out of the centre (but it has dinosaurs, so is worth the trip). Otherwise, there are boat trips to be had on the Medway in the summer, and a miniature railway for all your choo choo needs. The 5-mile cycle route out to Penshurst Place begins in the town too.
Take a walk around Tonbridge
Think London has the monopoly on blue plaques? Oh no (it doesn't even have the monopoly on Monopoly anymore). The most famous name acknowledged by Tonbridge's own blue plaque schemes is George Austen, father of Jane, who taught at Tonbridge School for a period. Elsewhere, cricketers Frank Woolley and Colin Cowdrey and writer EM Forster are immortalised. Here's a more thorough guide to the blue plaques of Tonbridge.
If you've got a bit of spare time, the excellent Walk Tonbridge website, run by local man James Pavlou, has some fantastic walking routes in the surrounding area, whether you're after pubs or pillboxes. The routes are clearly described, photography is fantastic, and each walk is accompanied by snippets of local history. Speaking of which...
Historical sites of Tonbridge
Like any old town, Tonbridge has a lot of history. One of the more interesting snippets is the Prisoner of War camp that was located at one end of the town during the second world war, on the site now home to Weald of Kent Grammar School. There's nothing left of the camp now though.
At the opposite end of town, an average-looking house on Dry Hill Park Road was once visited by Mahatma Gandhi — a mere 20-minute visit on his way to Canterbury, but it counts, right?
Most recent in memory is the heist. Ask any Tonbridgian for a fact about their town, and most will tell the tale of the Securitas robbery of 2006, the biggest heist in British history. £53m was swiped from a building so non-descript that most local residents hadn't even noticed its existence until the police and press descended.
It's got plenty of London links
If you can't spend a day out of London without getting twitchy, look at it like this:
- This area of north London is named after Tonbridge and surrounding areas. In fact, former Mayor of London Lord Andrew Judd(e) hailed from Tonbridge himself.
- In 1939, 615 boys from Dulwich College were evacuated to Tonbridge for safety. If the posh lads can stick it out for a term, you can make a day of it.
- Lillywhites, the huge sports emporium in Piccadilly Circus, once had a cricket ball factory at Bradford Street in Tonbridge.
- When the Eurostar used to run out of Waterloo, the trains ran through Tonbridge on their way down to the continent. Next stop: Paris.
Tonbridge is approximately half an hour by train from London Bridge station. For other places to visit near Tonbridge, take a look at our guide to day trips in Kent, including castles, seaside towns and an island that's home to 8,000 teapots. Our interactive map has more suggestions for day trips from London.