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. You might even get a tour guide in the form of local celebrity Sapphire. 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.
Visit a castle
Yes, 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.
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.
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 ghost(sign) 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.
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 delights and repulses in equal amounts, a beautiful carved redbrick building shot down in its prime by awful mirrored windows.
It has a secret island
Alright, not secret secret, but one that this particular correspondent failed to notice for the first 26 years of her life. Tinker's Island is tucked away on the western side of the park. It was hit by a doodlebug during the second world war, but has left 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.
For the eats
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 Tapas are now on the menu in the high street. Sweet toothed explorers are well catered for with an ice cream parlour (opening hours tend to be a bit hit and miss), and independent cafe Finch House. Our top tip: pick up a chocolate flapjack from Basil (one will easily feed two people), and wash it down with a Beyond The Grounds hot chocolate.
If it's coffee you're after, TOFS will sort you right out — that's The Old Fire Station, which has been converted into a coffee shop and cafe. There's even a beer cafe if you need something a little stronger — gin, cheese, meats and bread are also specialities.
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, a miniature railway for all your choo choo needs, and an indoor climbing wall for the kids to let off steam. The 5-mile cycle route out to Penshurst Place begins in the town too.
Take a blue plaque walk
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.
It's got some fascinating snippets of history
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.
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 Judde 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.
See also: Why you should go to Slough.