If Tunbridge Wells has entered your radar at all, it's probably due to the 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' stereotype that's still hanging round from the 1950s. It's not all Middle England these days though, and it's well worth a visit.
When Southeastern's trains are playing ball, you can be in Tunbridge Wells from central London in under an hour. It's a town of two halves. Turn left out of the station and head up the hill for the more commercial part of town, including Royal Victoria Place shopping centre. Nothing wrong with that, but it's mainly an identikit town centre, largely replaceable with any other metropolis in the south-east
For the more interesting and historic parts of town though, head right out of the station, down towards the high street and Pantiles.
Why is it 'Royal'?
Officially known as Royal Tunbridge Wells, it's one of a few towns and boroughs in England to officially be given a royal title. It came from King Edward VII in 1909, partly to commemorate the fact that his mother, Queen Victoria, had loved the town so much.
More recently, our Queen's favourite chocolates were manufactured in a nondescript cul-de-sac in the town, until Charbonnel et Walker announced the closure of the factory in early 2018.
Note: Tunbridge Wells is not to be confused with nearby Tonbridge. The latter had the name first, taken from a local bridge, although it was originally spelt 'Tunbridge'. Tunbridge Wells gets its name from wells that sprung up from the ground in the area. In 1870, the spelling of Tonbridge was changed to avoid confusion between the two, though as locals of either will tell you, confusion is still rife among non-locals to this day. Oh, and one more thing: don't be asking anyone in Tunbridge Wells for directions to Waitrose. It's a point of contention among residents of the posher town that while Tonbridge has one, Tunbridge Wells has to do without.
What about that spa?
Tunbridge Wells is the only spa town in the south-east of England, but what does that mean? Don't be envisioning Bath-style Roman baths — you won't be needing your swimsuit around here these days, although wealthy people used to come from miles around to take to 'the waters' of those eponymous wells and springs.
These days, you can still visit the Chalybeate Spring on The Pantiles and be served some of the water by tour guides dressed in historical 'dipper' costumes. That said, if you'd worked in the (now-demolished) office block overlooking the spring when the pubs kick out on a Friday night, you might think twice about having a sip...
If you want any actual spa action though, the Spa Hotel is your best bet.
Visit The Pantiles
Probably the best known attraction in the town, The Pantiles is a pedestrianised street with shops and cafes, and plenty of splendid Georgian architecture. It gets its name from the square tiles with which is was originally paved, and most of the buildings are listed. It's been shortlisted as one of the best high streets in Great Britain, and various films and TV shows have been shot around here, not forgetting Morrisons' 2007 Christmas advert starring Lulu.
Worth a wander, even if you're not looking in the shops.
Go frog hunting
The picturesque back street of Frog Lane, jutting off the high street, is home to dozens of frog statues, placed there by residents eager for their street to live up to its name. Some crouch in doorways, others cartwheel on rooftops, and seasonal frogs occasionally make an appearance. Rumour has it that there are 52 of them, but we've only ever found 42. Find out more about Frog Lane, and see if you can do any better.
Live music in a former public toilet
Think London is the only place doing inventive things with long-closed lavatories? Think again. The Forum is a grass roots music venue with an impressive line-up and a capacity of 250, inside a former public toilet block. The likes of Adele, Green Day, Ellie Goulding and Oasis all played here early in their careers, and more recently, Wolf Alice, Foals and Frank Turner have taken to the stage.
Board a steam train
Google Maps shows this place as Tunbridge Wells West station, but you can't catch the 08.09 to London Bridge. Instead, the Spa Valley Railway runs steam and heritage diesel trains between here and Eridge, via Tunbridge Wells and Groombridge. As well as regular train rides, look out for special trips, including kids' character days and dining events. The station itself is pretty photogenic, and includes 'Britain's smallest cinema'. But just wait until you get out into the countryside.
Go rock climbing
You won't find any mountains around Tunbridge Wells, but there's still rock climbing to be done. High Rocks is a group of sandstone rocks just outside the town centre, all interlinked with bridges. For a small admission fee, you can wander among the National Monument. The chances of encountering a bride and groom in full wedding garb are high — it's a popular photography spot. Stop by the the High Rocks pub across the road afterwards for lunch or a drink.
Visit the Wetherspoon
Bear with us here. We know there's nothing special about a town with a Wetherspoon pub, but we do think The Opera House is a beaut. It looks grand from the outside, its greening dome visible from all over town. Inside, its theatrical history can still be seen — the stalls are still in situ above drinkers' heads, tables are laid out on the stage, and chandeliers still hang from the ceiling. The only London Wetherspoon to come close is Forest Hill's The Capitol. That carpet is a treat for Spoon's Carpets fanatics too and, even better, they have two bars open on busy nights. Wahey!
Where to eat and drink
Tunbridge Wells isn't short of places to eat and drink, from the usual chains to more exclusive haunts (The Ivy's got an outpost here, and Thackeray's is pretty swanky...) and plenty of successful independents too.
From first-hand experience, we recommend Soprano, a tapas and wine bar on the High Street. Do book though — it's a tiny spot, with only a handful of tables.
The Barn is a good shout if you're just after a quick lunch — the pub part of the venue does a decent bar menu (the sausage baguettes are top notch), or seek out the upstairs restaurant for more formal dining. It's right next to the station, and has a decent garden if the weather's on your side.
If you want a genteel meal to match your surroundings (did we mention it's a royal town?), the afternoon tea at One Warwick Park is very good value, while the Spa is more of a push-the-boat-out experience.
Being sweet-toothed brunchers ourselves, we're fans of Delaney's Kitchen & Bar. Sure, they dabble in the occasional savoury dish, but the pancakes, crepes, waffles and milkshakes are where it's really happening. Quirky decor too — a mural takes up one wall, spray painted bikes and musical instruments are strung up above diners, and an unidentifiable (to our amateur eyes) set of action figures was doing a good job of captivating children on our most recent visit.
Quirky historical features
St Marylebone parish apparently extends all the way to Tunbridge Wells pic.twitter.com/3fogUlJKAz— M@ (@mattfromlondon) July 7, 2018
Sharp eyed Londoners may be drawn to a certain pair of bollards, located on Crescent Road near Calverley Park. The black and white bollards, spotted by Londonist Editor-at-Large M@ Brown on a recent excursion, are marked 'St Mary Le Bone'. It's though they were transplanted here from London's Marylebone, although no-one knows the details.
This VR-marked penfold post box can be found on The Pantiles, and while Victorian-era post boxes aren't impossible to find, they're a lot rarer than our modern ER boxes.
The town's not short of a commemorative plaque or two either, serving them up in a variety of colours. Queen Victoria's stay at Hotel du Vin (probably wasn't called that then) is marked, as is Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell and novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (who's even got a restaurant named after him). Not Sid Vicious though.
The architecture of Tunbridge Wells
Like many modern towns, Tunbridge Wells is a real architectural melting pot, from the beautiful Pantiles and splendour of Wetherspoons, to eyesore multi-storey car parks. If you're a bit of an architecture buff, there are a few buildings worth searching out.
Architect Decimus Burton, responsible for plenty of London buildings including London Zoo's listed giraffe house, dabbled in 'The Wells' too. Holy Trinity Church — now the Trinity Theatre, visible at the front of the picture at the top of this article — was one of his, as was the entirety of now-private residential road Calverley Park Crescent. In fact, he laid out the adjoining park, Calverley Grounds, the main green space in the town centre. (For those with kids, the recently updated playground in Calverley Grounds is superb, by the way.)
The Corn Exchange on The Pantiles is another building worth a look-see. Built as a theatre and later used as a shopping centre, it's now being turned into flats. According to a plaque on the building, before the county borders were moved when it was still a theatre, the stage was located in Sussex, but the auditorium was in Kent.
Opposite the railway station, next to Hoopers department store is the Great Hall Arcade, a rather fancy if petite (and dated) shopping arcade. These days it's home to a Sainsbury's and a furniture store, but it's worth peeking inside just to see the arcade itself. BBC Kent is also based there.
Things to do nearby
If you've exhausted the options of Tunbridge Wells town centre, there's plenty more going on nearby. Visit its namesake, Tonbridge, for a castle, river trips, ghost signs and street art. Penshurst Place is great for history buffs (with a lovely quaint village nearby). Check out our suggestions of places to go on a day trip from London for further suggestions.