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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Is Tunbridge Wells British?

Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells, Georgian shopping mall

It’s sometimes suggested that Britain has a bit of an identity crisis.  Stuffed full of a combination of mythical and genuine cultural heritage, we sometimes get confused about who we are and, perhaps, even a little nostalgic.  The past was a haven of comfortable certainty, where everything and everyone knew its place, God was in heaven - and almost certainly spoke English with a BBC accent called ‘received pronunciation’ (RP).  We were polite, reserved and emotionless.  Mostly, it was summertime; bees buzzed, birds sang and peasants toiled blithely in their fields, messing about with hay, cows, sheep and what-not.  We might even have trusted politicians.  During hard times, we were fond of saying things like, “mustn’t grumble”, standing with backs to the wall drinking tea and experiencing our finest hour.  The reality of mills, mines, steelworks and shipyards is neatly airbrushed out of this lop-sided fantasy, as is the fact that most people in Britain would regard RP as ‘posh’ and were only stoical because they had no choice in the matter.  I also have a sneaking suspicion that the Scots, Welsh and Irish have always seemed quite content with their own identities and it’s the English who may be bewildered.

Tunbridge Wells, Pantiles, visit Kent

So let me take you to Tunbridge Wells (population 56,500), in the very English county of Kent, hypothetical home to the legendary (or fictional) writer of letters of complaint signed, ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’.  The label - apparently unpopular in the town – is synonymous with died-in-the-wool conservatism, the preservation of a bucolic (and possibly faintly imperial?) past.  Could Tunbridge Wells be the last bastion of Englishness?

Once upon a time, prehistoric hunter gatherers may have come this way and perhaps Caesar’s legions marched nearby.  But Tunbridge Wells is a relatively new town.  It all began one day in 1606, when Dudley, Lord North, young courtier to James I, was in the neighbourhood to assist his ailing health.  Cantering through what was then open countryside, Dudley spotted some orangey-coloured liquid bubbling up from the ground and instantly recognised it as a chalybeate spring.  Well, you would, wouldn’t you?  Without hesitation, he supped his fill – a perfectly normal reaction for anyone seeing an oddly coloured fluid oozing out of the earth – was instantly cured, married the love of his life, never had a day’s illness thereafter and died a very rich man in bed at the age of 85.  I may have embellished that a little, but you get my drift; anyway, word spread.  Soon, the site of Dudley’s discovery became a spa retreat, frequented by the great and the good of Stuart Britain – including Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I.  Eventually, building took place around the spring, developing into a colonnaded Georgian shopping mall with an ‘upper walk’ for the gentry and a ‘lower walk’ for the rest of you.  I am unreliably informed that Royal Tunbridge Wells, as it became known, developed a reputation as a place of liberal morals, even debauchery; naturally, I will research that thoroughly and report in due course.  In time, ‘the Walks’ became known as ‘the Pantiles’, after the thick clay tiles shaped in pans that were used to cover the floor.

Pantiles, market, shops, Tunbridge Wells

The Pantiles remain RTW’s best-known feature and, arguably, are still a place to see and be seen.  So we went.  It was a Sunday in May, the Pantiles was basking in sunshine, looked chic, charming and, to be honest, a little un-English.  Let me be clear about this; it is not much like Wigan or Scunthorpe.  Most people appeared to be speaking English – and, yes, some of it was recognisably RP.  But accents varied.  Our fellow walkers were mainly elegant, confident, healthy and apparently well-heeled.  I know appearances can be deceptive, but the scents of Chanel, Moulton Brown, good coffee and freshly shampooed small dog mingled as we passed pavement tables where china chinked and snacks looked tasty and tiny.  There are more cafés and restaurants than you can shake a stick at and a raft of independent boutiques selling everything from handbags and jewellery to antiques and futons – everything you could possibly need for basic survival.  There’s even a vintage gun shop (surprisingly, you don’t see many of those in the middle of Manchester) and a shop entirely devoted to mirrors, which must be worth looking into.  Most of the mainly 18th and 19th century buildings seem dedicated to meeting 21st century essentials of one sort or another – though I was disappointed not to see too much debauchery on offer.  Perhaps we Brits like to keep that sort of thing hidden.

In the middle of all this was a temporary food market.  Rubbing shoulders with a stall flogging good no-nonsense British fare like beef pasties, Scotch eggs and sausage rolls, were traders offering a bewildering array of olive oils (what's wrong with lard anyway?), olives, dolmades – and one of the largest paellas I have ever seen.  Was this really England?  It felt a bit like France.  Or Spain.  With some relief, I spotted a Fullers sign – not frequently seen in Barcelona (or north of Watford for that matter).  In short, the place felt international.  One thing did strike me: the Old Fishmarket is in a building dated 1745, the year of the Jacobite rebellion when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army got as far south as Derby and, according to legend, the Government in London was in panic.  It would seem that life must have carried on in Tunbridge Wells, whatever anyone else was up to; and I’d like to think that this might have been a very British thing to do.

International food, Tunbridge Wells, Pantiles

Eat out, Tunbridge Wells, market, Pantiles

Just so you don’t mistake where RTWs’ loyalties lie, immediately outside the northern end of the Pantiles is the Jacobean church of King Charles the Martyr.  And also at the northern end is the original chalybeate spring, these days presented looking like a rather dodgy lavatory, where you can still take the waters.  At the time, I was disappointed to find that it was closed ‘due to poor water flow’ – a disturbing thought for many of us – but was subsequently relieved after I read Laura Reynolds in Kettlemag.co.uk, “Just take advice from a local and don’t drink the water from the famous Chalybeate Spring – you don’t want to know what goes into it when the pubs kick out on a Friday night.”  Further signs of national identity?

Indian restaurant, Royal Tunbridge Wells, coat of arms

In any event, here is a small part of modern Britain, wrapped up in historic surroundings.  It’s undeniably part of England, geographically, but also feels a wee bit wickedly exotic.  It seems wealthier than some other parts of the country for sure, but also wealthier, more egalitarian, more confident and more international than its own immediate past.  If there is any vestige of the rather nice, but partial fantasy, Britain described in the first paragraph, it isn’t represented in this part of Tunbridge Wells.  Nor, I suggest is it represented by ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’.  Complaining is the very antithesis of “mustn’t grumble” and, in any event, possibly amusingly non-politically-correct Englishmen in the south east don’t have the monopoly when it comes to moaning.  National identity – if it exists - is a complex and hugely varied thing, potentially dangerous and in a modern democracy certainly not a matter of black and white parochialism.  But perhaps the English need to work harder on their national costume.


Fuller's, London Pride, Duke of York, Tunbridge Wells

Just to wrap this up, beyond the Pantiles we walked past the same chain stores that are ubiquitous from Aberdeen to Truro, the same kind of tacky bits that cry out to be steam-cleaned, and then collected the car from a universally ugly multi-storey car park.  You want to know if we bought anything, don’t you?  Yes, we bought a very nice floral trilby from a charity shop – one of a national chain.

chalybeate spring, spa, water, Royal Tunbridge Wells

33 comments:

  1. What fun, great post, and now, having been driving around in Kent a few times, I can't understand why we never went there. Look what we missed!

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  2. Your post reminds me of old news reels I've seen where the narrator declares in a very RP accented voice titles like "Youth speaks for Awwstralia"! I don't recall any of my grandparent's generation speaking like that - perhaps they only did when speaking for Awwstralia. :)

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    1. ...some of us still speak like that...can't stop, Camilla says it's my turn to cook.

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  3. It may be rather more cosmopolitan these days but it's still a beautiful place I'd steer clear of that water though!

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  4. Interesting post. Perhaps this is why I love Yorkshire. Unlike Tunbridge Wells, many of the villages there seem not to have quite stepped into the modern international, cynical age. Of course, I do realize that we see what we want to see, and I love glimpses, nostalgic though they may be, of a more uncomplicated past. How hard did you hunt for the debauchery? ;-)

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    1. You should try Kent and Sussex, CM. Still trying to find a bit of debauchery...

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  5. I'm not sure if it's the conversation between toddler and babe (charming baby-buggy) or the clock begging to be noticed, or just the magical charm (probably the gorgeous day as well) but your first photo really tugs at a writer's need to well, write! Lots going on there, and it makes me truly sad, (again) that I missed my opportunity to stay in Kent when we were deciding on places to visit besides London. We stayed at Folkestone and Dover, and Bath! Let them eat cake indeed! How delightful, relatively new town of 1606, where I live presently, that is unheard of around here. Thank you for such an engaging post!

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    1. I understand Bath, but Folkestone and Dover were an interesting choice.

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  6. Never been to Tunbridge Wells, not a place that has been on my list to vist and even less now. What is it with these food markets they have with different dishes to try. Paella is somthing that does not apeal to me what soever. Whats wrong with good English food liek Fish n Chips, steat pie, & or course curry. Saying that I do like my food though not paella. A lot of town centres now seem to have an area like the one you visited so are good others bad and do nothing to help the place

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    1. You should go, Bill. Nothing English about curry and I believe fish & chips was invented in Belgium. Paella's great - chicken, shellfish, chorizo, saffron rice - what's not to like?!

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  7. Ha! So the US isn't the first melting pot. I'll still claim we're the biggest pot, though.

    *wink*

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    1. I think most of Europe got there before you, and then shipped the ones they didn't want west :-). Yes - you're about 5x bigger - and growing even faster after yesterday's news?

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  8. I've seen the waters in Bath, but I'm not familiar with this town. Very interesting mix of old and new.

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  9. wish we had those magic waters these days... :) seems better than popping pills.

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  10. Karen's remark about photos striking the writer's need to write sticks with me- I had the same reaction.

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  11. That brings back vague memories of my mother taking my brother and I there for a day out when we were children and lived in Gillingham. Mum was travel sick for the entire journey there - about an hour - so we stayed on the bus and went home.

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  12. Excellent post! I am loving the laid back atmosphere and buildings in these photos, and I just love the clock in your first photo. Thanks so much for sharing, Mike.

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  13. I enjoyed reading your post on Tunbridge Wells. I have been there several times and really enjoyed it. The area around the Pantiles is beautiful. Next time I visit I will see the town in a different way. Taking your words into account. Have a good evening!

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  14. It does look like a nice place for a wander!

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  15. Enjoy researching that debauchery!

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  16. As always, you write such interesting posts with sprinkles of humor....lucky for you that the chalybeate spring was closed. Here in Texas, I would say, "You dodged a bullet".
    Thanks for your comment on my Brown Betty post.

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  17. Fabulous pictures, making even a hardened northerner like myself want to visit RTW. The Duke of York looks particularly inviting. Yours etc. Disgruntled of Huddersfield

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  18. I love this story of TW - have never visited there. The part about the chalybeate spring is fabulous to me because here in North Carolina we actually have a small unincorporated community, "located in Hector's Creek Township of Harnett County, NC", named Chalybeate Springs. First settled in 1760 and named for the nearby springs containing iron salts around which developed an early health resort, the community was formally laid out as a 100 acre town in 1902 along the Raleigh-Cape Fear Railway, now part of the Norfolk Southern Railway. I never knew what chalybeate was until now - it's pronounced cal-libby-at here I believe. I must take a drive down there and check it out soon.

    Those French markets pop up in Devon too - I loved one in Brixham last time I was home - best bread and French cheeses - I'm a cheese-aholic - but prefer wine with it, not liquid iron salts!!!

    Mike, thanks again for another wonderful post.
    Mary

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  19. I nearly spit my evening tea on my screen reading that funny post. If it makes you feel better about Tunbridge Wells, we also have those olive stands in the market of the nearest town to my Cottage... And Brittany is not really known for its olive trees! We're more an apple and pear land! I'm looking forward to reading the post about the debauchery... Maybe that's the French in me!

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  20. Well, at least I didn't see a Mickey D's or a Starbucks. :-)

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  21. RP? Silly man, everyone with good sense knows that only King James English is spoken in Heaven! (LOL?)

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  22. I was having such a fine time reading your commentary that I forgot to look at the photos and had to do that the second time around. You do have a flare for humor. And I have a feeling this is even more humorous to your fellow countrymen than to this citizen of the USA that I happen to be, who may be missing some of the nuances in your well chosen words.

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  23. A lovely piece Mike! I've been to quite a few places that are similar - so I suppose it is in that way quintessentially English in a contemporary way...just not the kind of "English" that you and I remember. Mind you I am rather dismayed to hear you suggesting that it wasn't summer all the time then .....

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  24. Hi Mike , thank you for commenting on my blog Anne in Oxfordshire , interesting to know how you found me, I love to see new commenters,.. This is a very interesting blog , I love to bring France of Spain to our country , as I love going over there , and Italy. I hope the chefs who cooked the paella were from over there somewhere. So is Tunbridge Wells English.British or something else ? I might even visit one day , as I don't do much in England , will read your blog again,

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  25. I remember patio season! Glorious photos.

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  26. Oh I remember Tunbridge Wells and the Pantiles, many many moons ago! The pubs around there were fantastic (so, actually I should correct my comment to say I 'think' I can remember Tunbridge Wells and the Pantiles :) )

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  27. An interesting and entertaining post! You write so well! I've never been to Tunbridge Wells (I'm not at all well travelled) but it's one of the many places I'd like to visit and explore one day.

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.