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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.