Leisure, Pleasure and Taking the Waters at Royal Tunbridge Wells

By Wendy Hughes


The Pantiles

 I had always wanted to visit the old part of Royal Tunbridge Wells, and as the Pantiles area is famed for its natural springs we set off.  Despite being told that it was not an easy place to get around, I was pleasantly surprised.  Having parked in a disabled parking area opposite the Corn Exchange I headed for the Tourist Information Centre situated inside the building, where I was given a booklet entitled Tunbridge Wells Disabled Access Guide showing places where seats were available ,hearing systems, large or Braille print , where sign language was used, and venue information.  I was also handed a clear map showing the important places to see, and all within easy proximity. I set off walking along Lower Walk to the natural springs that put Tunbridge on the map.

King Charles the Martyr


Drinking from natural springs date back to Roman times, but it wasn’t until during  the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st that the taking of the waters for health purposes became more popular.  The nobility left their courts to travel to places like Buxton and Bath, but it was thanks to a chance discovery in 1606 of a chalybeate spring – meaning it contains iron and staining the ground a rusty colour – that led to the development of the town that has now become known as Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Notice Board explaining the history of the springs 1606

In the early 17th century people believed that they would be healed from diseases if they bathed in or drank from certain spas. In the year 1606 a nobleman, Lord North, a courtier during the reign of King James, after a rather excessive lifestyle at court, retired to Eridge to restore his health.  One day returning from Eridge to London he came across the springs and wondered if they had any health giving properties and decided to try them  – at the time he was suffering from tuberculosis, which he claimed was cured by the waters.  On his return to London he told all his well-to-do friends who then flocked to Tunbridge to try it out for themselves.  As for Lord North, it obvious did the trick, as his health remained restored and he went on to live until he was 80-years-old.

Sign above Corn Exchange

Legend of course  prefers to give us a different explanation as to why the water is red.  We are informed that one day St Dunstan, working as a blacksmith in the neighbouring county of Sussex came across the Devil who asked him to shoe his ‘single hoof,’, but St Dunstan instantly knew who he was, tied him to the wall and hammered a nail into his cloven hoof until he promised never to enter his premises again.  Once released the Devil thought he would get his revenge and returned disguised as a beautiful girl to seduce the saint, but as she danced before him he noticed hooves sticking out from the girl’s dress, and seized her by the nose, with a red hot pairs of tongs taken from the blazing forge.

The Devil’s screams could be heard three miles away, and he fled across the sky and landed at Tunbridge Wells where he plunged his sizzling nose in the water, tinting the water red and leaving a faint smell of sulphur.

Sundial at King Charles the Martyr Church

However, to return to Lord North’s recovery.  This fuelled great public interest and Lord  Abergavenny, ancestor of the current Marquess of Abergavenny, cleared the area around the spring,  and by 1608 wells were dug and a pavement laid but there were no actual buildings at Tunbridge until 1636. In that year 2 houses were built, one for ladies and one for gentlemen, and the late 17th century these developed into coffee houses where after taking the waters the ladies would retire to one near Pink Alley and share gossip, whilst the men retired to the pipe house –a coffee house where you could drink coffee (a new drink at the time) or chocolate,smoke their pipe and read a newspaper.   The water as it is today, is served from a ladle by a ’dipper’ for a small fee.

The dipper on duty and ready to explain its history

By 1676 a flourishing village grew with London shopkeepers taking up residences along the Upper Walk for the summer. As the spring’s popularity spread, its reputation grew with visitors including Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, who visited in 1629 after the birth of her son, later to become King Charles II, and stayed for six weeks.  Following  her visit Dr Lodwick Rouzee , a physician from Ashford published a paper on the medical qualities of the water, and recommended that visitors should drink two and half pints of the water a day, increasing to 4 times that amount during their visit, then reducing it when preparing to leave.   Furthermore in 1632 a book was written praising the wells and their supposed health giving properties. It was called ‘The Queens Wells that is a treatise of the nature and virtues of Tunbridge Water‘.

This influx of visitors led to the further development of the area with a colonnaded walkway built in the eighteenth century.  In its heyday in Georgian times, this colonnaded walkway was known as The Walks.  It was the ‘in place’ for visitors to been seen, but a strict protocol had to be observed with only the gentry allowed to promenade on the Upper Walks – everyone else was restricted to the Lower Walks. This was enforced by the dandy Richard Beau Nash, a self-appointed Master of Ceremonies during ‘The Season’ in Tunbridge Wells.

The Pantiles in 1895

 In 1663 Charles II and his queen came and camped near the wells.  And thanks to a steady stream of visitors who needed somewhere to worship the Chapel of King Charles the Martyr was built in 1878 – and more about this later. After 1680 houses were built at Mount Ephraim, and in 1682 lands near the common was sold and just after houses were built in the area of Mount Sion, but five years later the shops were burned in a fire. But the owner rebuilt them, this time with a colonnade in front of their entrances.

In 1698 Princess Anne (she became Queen in 1702) was visiting Tunbridge Wells and her son fell over while playing and broke his arm. The Queen ordered that the Upper Walk should be paved and gave £100 towards it. This had not been done by her next visit to Tunbridge in 1699 much to her annoyance and the offended princess left. After she left the authorities hurriedly paved the area with pantiles but she never returned.

There are two remaining pantiles to be seen today – one in the window at the Information Centre and the other in the Museum. These pantiles were later replaced with stone but the name has remained.

The Walks were subsequently renamed The Pantiles after the pantiles were laid in 1700. These were one-inch thick square tiles made from heavy Wealden clay and got their name as they were shaped in a wooden pan before being fired.  The prefix “Royal” dates to much later when in 1909, King Edward VII granted the town its official “Royal” title to celebrate its popularity over the years among members of the Royal Family.

Today The Pantiles is still the top tourist attraction in Tunbridge Wells.  For visitors and locals alike it continues to offer the chance to sample the waters.  It is also a thriving shopping centre with a tempting range of independent stores, plus it provides delicious opportunities for eating out at the diverse restaurants, cafes and bars, many with al fresco dining. The Pantiles is also important to the cultural life of Tunbridge Wells, with regular open-air events such as farmers’ markets, art exhibitions, an annual Food Festival and many other events. The day I visited there was an excellent famer’s markets, fresh fish stall, and unique crafts. Now The Nevill Estate is investing in The Pantiles with the redevelopment of the Corn Exchange on the Lower Pantiles.

After meandering around the Pantiles I crossed the road, walked past the church and made for Mount Sion discovering a delightful cafe serving snacks, lunches and drinks. Suitably refreshed I retraced my steps to the Parish Church of King Charles The Martyr to discover more of its history, which began in 1676.  Prior to this Tunbridge Wells had no church and it is now the oldest Anglican place of worship in the town of Royal Tunbridge Wells.  The land was given by the Purbeck family of Sommerhill and the construction financed by donations from visitors.  Two years later it opened at there is a beautiful vellum subscription list displayed on the landing of the staircase to the south gallery, which contains names such as the diarist Samuel Pepys, writer John Evelyn, Master of the Royal Mint Thomas Neale, etc.  Interestingly at least fifty of the original benches still survive and most of them can be seen in the side aisles or the galleries.  Many have umbrella racks, thanks to Josiah Hanbury, who introduced the umbrella to England, and a member of the church council in 1775. But what impressed me most of all was the beautiful ornate ceiling with it symmetrical pattern of five round domes exquisitely decorated by John Wetherell, a plasterer who had worked for Christopher Wren at Greenwich. The slaked-lime plaster work used for these ceilings, were applied by men standing on scaffolds, and working from tables. Beyond the five domes is a larger octagonal one with a date, 1682, moulded in the plaster, and the first altar, stood under this octagon dome with the galleries inserted later.  Do sit and take in the beauty of the decorated ceiling before going out.

In 1835, the church was visited by a young Princess Victoria (who later became Queen of Great Britain and Ireland), then a girl of sixteen. She sat in the North Gallery with her mother, the Duchess of Kent and Strathearn.  A large brass commemorates her visit andat  the time, the church was ordered differently and this seat was at the front of the church, overlooking the preacher in a big three-decker pulpit that formerly stood against the west wall

As I came out of the church to walk back to the car in The Pantiles I noticed the sundial affixed to the exterior south wall of the church, in the small alley off Nevill Street. It is thought to date from the 18th century and is said to have been installed to regulate the rather temperamental clock. The inscription reads:

You may Waste but cannot Stop me

in reference to the unavoidable passage of time. Below this, Alex Rae Facit is Latin for “made by Alex Rae”, the designer.



  • Wendy Hughes

    About Wendy Hughes Wendy Hughes turned to writing in 1989 when ill health and poor vision forced her into early medical retirement. Between then and her death in January 2019 twenty-six non-fiction books and over 1700 articles, on a variety of subjects were published. Her work appeared in magazines as diverse as The Lady, Funeral Service Journal, On the Road, 3 rd Stone, Celtic Connections, Best of British and Guiding. For many years Wendy campaigned and wrote tirelessly on behalf of people affected by Stickler Syndrome, a disorder from which she suffered. She founded the Stickler Syndrome Support Group and raised awareness of the condition amongst the medical profession and produced the group’s literature. Additionally she gave talks and instruction on the craft of writing, was membership secretary of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and was a member of the Society of Authors. Her catalogue of History Press publications is still available.

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