Tunbridge Wells grew up around the chalybeate (or iron bearing) spring on the present Pantiles site, which was discovered by Dudley Lord North in 1606. Lord North was a fast-living courtier in his early 20s who had heavily over-indulged himself in feasting and drinking at the court of James I, and was reckoned to be in danger of ‘sinking into an early grave’, as the contemporary histories say. So he consulted his doctors as to how he could put himself straight. And they told him that he needed to get completely away from it all and go and stay somewhere right out in the countryside. So he picked the High Wealden estate of Eridge Park, which was the country seat of Lord Abergavenny. But after a while he found that, not only did he not seem to be getting better, he also got bored and depressed, and he concluded that ‘If I’ve got to die young I might as well die happy’. So he set off to return to London, but on the way, riding along the Eridge Road which still runs along the back of the Pantiles today, he saw this spring emitting orange-coloured water. And he knew what that meant: there was already a well-established health resort in present day Belgium, known as Spa, with a similar type of iron-bearing water. And so Lord North thought to himself ‘Maybe – just maybe – I’ve found England’s answer to Spa’. So he borrowed a cup from a cottage on the Common on the other side of the road, he tasted the water, he postponed his return to London, and started riding out every day to drink the waters. And he claimed they restored him to perfect health. He returned to London a new man, singing the praises of the wonderful properties of the Tunbridge waters and launched the fame and fortune of the area as a health resort.
And from that point on you have anybody who was anybody – royalty, nobility, gentry – coming down to Tunbridge Wells to ‘take the waters’ as the phrase was. But not just to drink the waters – also to enjoy a country holiday in a place that seemed very remote even though it was only thirty miles or so from London. There were few buildings near the spring itself, so those early visitors had to lodge in cottages and farmhouses in the surrounding countryside, often in nearby villages like Rusthall and Southborough. So they felt that they were having a real adventure – they felt that they were really roughing it a bit.
As time went on, local landowners and entrepreneurs from the surrounding villages started to work together to provide facilities for the growing number of visitors. And, making it up as they went along, they created Britain’s first holiday resort. Tunbridge Wells became something of a fantasy world – a bit like a holiday camp – set apart from everyday reality. It was a place outside the normal structures of church and state. It was also a place where normal social distinctions broke down: men and women, and people of different social classes, could get together in a way that wasn’t possible elsewhere. You could be best buddies with someone at Tunbridge Wells who wouldn’t even acknowledge you if they passed you on the streets of London. So long as you had a bit of disposable income and you looked reasonably respectable, nobody would question your background or where you came from.
Tunbridge Wells’ first royal visitor as Queen Henrietta Maria who came in 1629, and she and her court camped out on the open Tunbridge Wells Common. Then in the 1660s Charles II and Queen Katharine made several visits to Tunbridge Wells.
A decade or so later, serious development started to take place around the spring. Thomas Neale, Lord of the Manor of Rusthall, Master of the Royal Mint, did a deal with the Freeholders who had grazing rights over the Commons to take a strip off the southern edge of Tunbridge Wells Common to build what we call the Pantiles, this colonnade with shops and other facilities for the visitors. It was originally known as the Walks. The Pantiles was in fact one of the earliest places where shopping became a leisure activity. And then there was a big development of lodging houses so that people could finally stay really close to the spring – along Mount Ephraim on the top of the Common, and particularly on the little hill of Mount Sion. The entrepreneurs who developed these estates gave them these biblical-sounding names to create the idea that Tunbridge Wells was a bit of heaven on earth. Then there was King Charles’ Chapel, built in 1678 completely outside the normal parish structure, paid for by the local residents and visitors themselves and named after the executed king to help promote the idea of Tunbridge Wells as a royal town.
In 1698 the future Queen Anne paid a visit to Tunbridge Wells, and while she was there her little son the Duke of Gloucester slipped up on the muddy Upper Walk of what we call the Pantiles, and so she left money for the Walks to be paved. Unfortunately when she returned the following year the work had not been done, so she went off in a huff vowing never to set foot in Tunbridge Wells again. Whereupon the local people got their act together and paved what was previously known as the Walks with these square, locally made ceramic tiles from which it got its now traditional name of the Pantiles.
The Pantiles was always very much the centre of early Tunbridge Wells. It was where the chalybeate spring was, where there were balls and other kinds of entertainments, and where the visitors would promenade. ‘The general desire of all’, say the guidebooks of the time, ‘is to see and be seen’, and they were entertained by musicians who played in the little music gallery raised up above the Upper Walk. The Pantiles was in a sense the ‘main street’ of this frontier town, which certainly had somewhat of a ‘Wild West’ atmosphere in those early days.
Because Tunbridge Wells was outside the remit of any established form of local government, local people and regular visitors developed their own do-it-yourself local government in which all services were paid for by subscription. So running the chapel, paying the minister, sweeping the streets, lighting the streets, running the school and so on, all had to be paid for by contributions from the visitors and the local inhabitants.
Tunbridge Wells reached the height of its fame and fortune as a fashionable resort under the leadership of Richard Beau Nash, who first came to Tunbridge Wells in 1735. He had already made his name as a leader of fashion in Bath and an organiser of the entertainments there, and he wanted to play a similar role in Tunbridge Wells. Originally he couldn’t get his foot in the door because Tunbridge Wells had its own organiser, the formidable Bell Causey. So it was not until after her death that Beau Nash was able to make his move and to appoint himself as Master of Ceremonies for Tunbridge Wells. His role was to organise a round of glittering entertainments for the visitors who came to stay at the Wells, often for a very prolonged period. He brought in to assist him his sidekick Sarah Porter whose main role was to get subscriptions to keep the show on the road. If you didn’t pay up she would pursue you relentlessly – you could shout at her, you could swear at her, it would make absolutely no difference – she would stay on your tail until you paid up. Because the orchestra, the library, the ball room, everything needed to be paid for someone and everybody had to make their appropriate contribution. Beau Nash operated as a sort of unofficial mayor of the town – he was an ambassador for the town, and he was a very flamboyant character. There are colourful accounts of him riding into Tunbridge Wells to start the season in his carriage with his outriders blowing French horns, and cannon being fired off on the Common in celebration.
The Beau remained in charge until his death in 1761, after which there were a succession of Masters of Ceremonies who were elected by the local people and the regular visitors. But after Beau Nash’s time Tunbridge Wells was in danger of falling into decline. There were clouds on the horizon. Benge Burr’s history of Tunbridge Wells in 1766 was already saying that the town needed to diversify its economy because ‘What would happen if the springs should fail or, as he says, more likely should become unfashionable?’ And that was very prescient, because as we move into the latter days of the 1700s and the early 1800s we have sea-bathing as the new health craze. When the Prince Regent, later George IV, starts to favour Brighton rather than Tunbridge Wells, fashionable society starts being sucked way from Tunbridge Wells to these up and coming coastal resorts. So Tunbridge Wells needs to do something about it, otherwise it’s going to decline into a ghost town. Elizabeth Shorey, Lady of the Manor, does make efforts with her Bath House, built at the turn of the century, the very early 1800s, on the principle that if the water is good for drinking it should be good for bathing in as well. She had hot and cold baths in her facility behind the chalybeate spring. Unfortunately what she didn’t reckon with was that the iron in the water would precipitate itself down on the bottom of the pool after the water had been standing for a while. So you went bathing in these pools and you came out covered with this horrible orange scum which wasn’t terribly attractive, and so before long the Bath House failed and reverted to becoming a gift shop.
Tunbridge Wells needed to reinvent itself, and fortunately it was able to do so thanks to the vision of the Kentish property developer John Ward. Which will take us on to a second instalment of our story.