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Tunbridge Wells                                                                                                                                                    24 February 2007 

I hated this town when I moved here as a student 30 years ago this year. I found a cuckoo in the nest – another student had already moved into my bedsit. I had 8 digs in that first year in Tunbridge Wells. I experienced one exploitative landlord after another, culminating in a search to find furnished/unfurnished accommodation for my husband-to-be and me. The good citizens of the borough were concerned about the prevalence of squatters. We finally found a landlady who took a shine to my fiancé and she would receive him on rent-due days – in her nightie.

In addition, the town was dull, dull, dull. I complained constantly that it was full of ex-pats and geriatrics. Having worked in Stockholm, Vienna, Berlin; I was not ready for Hicksville. 

Yet, in India earlier this month, I found myself homesick for Tunbridge Wells: the place, the people, the sense of security. It is my home. And it is the only home my two sons have ever known. For a young person’s view of Tunbridge Wells, you will have to ask them. This is my tribute…

from 'The County Books – Kent' pp 91-100 by Richard Church 1948 published by Robert Hale                 

"But now we approach Tunbridge Wells over the common. I know that many people sneer at Tunbridge Wells, calling it a stuffy Victorian relic, full of retired snobs and ex-professional people whose only amusement is to meet for morning coffee on Mount Pleasant and to be most unpleasant in their querulous frettings over their rheumatism and the disgusting habits of the younger generation, I know too that Tunbridge Wells, as a municipality, is affected by the influence of that somnolent layer of society, and lags behind in its cultural activity. It has no municipal opera house, or orchestra (which it ought to have). Nevertheless, I love it.

I agree with the diarist John Evelyn, who wrote of it just when it was rising to its full fame, describing it as “a very sweet place, private and refreshing.” It still has that quality of privacy. I know of nothing more pleasant than to sit on a day in spring on one of the chairs in the Pantiles, in a spot carefully chosen to catch the sun and avoid the draught. There one can meditate among the decaying survivals of vanished frivolities and fashions. Vanished; decaying, I say: for it is a disgrace to the town that the Pantiles have been allowed to slip into such neglect as they show today. All the life and sparkle and wealth have moved to the top of Mount Pleasant, the shopping quarter. The shops in the Pantiles are quiet and abandoned; some of them are empty. The assembly rooms are stores for second-hand furniture, where the bric-à-brac hunter may wander for hours. The old eighteenth-century music-gallery is a cranny now for the wind to fill with dust, paper, and dead leaves. Yet one great row of trees remains, and the paving-stones are delightfully set (though only a few of the original pantiles remain near the fountain at the entrance to the promenade).

Ghosts move along that promenade at noon, and round about chocolate time. I have sat there watching them, figures in Carolean and Hanoverian wigs, shaking their snuff-boxes and pointing a toe. I remember one day especially, when I had just bought a clean second-hand copy of Frazer’s Golden Bough in the bookshop at the approach to the Pantiles, surely one of the most endearing second-hand bookshops in England, with its library steps, its ceiling-height shelves, its spilled treasures flowing over tables, chairs, and floor [I am convinced he is talking about Hall’s Bookshop in Chapel Place, from whom I purchased this volume for the princely sum of 50 pence, or 10/- in old money, last summer, i.e. 2006 – winnie]. There I sat, and in wartime too, after a bout of influenza. I read upon Frazer’s old-fashioned, Gibbon-like prose, while a slant of my attention was given to the light on the paving and the foliage. A pigeon sat crooning above me, and the civilized odour of roast coffee floated from a shop nearby. I was transported. “Such a little thing, to remember for years; to remember with tears.” I forgot nations at war, and men torturing each other. I forgot the brutality of those ghosts, with their vile seventeenth- and eighteenth-century manners and social crudities. I forgot, in fact, mankind as he really is, and I dreamed, for an hour, in a world of charm, gentle habits, spiritual enthusiasm, and a sensuousness disciplined just this side of appetite.

That dream might have some sound historical foundations. Tunbridge Wells is a comparatively recent social flower-garden, but a crowded one. It was first laid out, in a very rustic way, in 1606, when Lord North, the hypochondriac mentor of Prince Henry, James I’s eldest son, took a rest cure at Eridge Castle, as the guest of Lord Abergavenny. The miraculous effects of the waters in this neighbourhood upon the disordered and much abused stomach of the young nobleman was rapidly publicized amongst the Court set, and from that year the patronage of the great was assured. Every summer St James’s spilt out its jaded beauties, its fops, flirts and overripes, to be driven in their painted coaches down to the old town of Tonbridge, whence they camped out on the near-by hills from which the health-giving waters sprang. For at that time there was no accommodation other than what they brought with them. This al fresco state of affairs continued until the later years of the seventeenth century. Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, came to Tunbridge Wells in 1629 with a great retinue which had to be housed in marquees. The queen, after her first confinement, benefited so much that it was proposed to call the place “Queen Mary’s Wells.” After this charming but politically dangerous lady, it is rather bathetic to describe the next queen who came to the Wells. Catherine of Braganza, the ugly Portuguese princess, may have been a suitable and complacent wife for Charles II, but there is little else to be said in favour of her character. She lacked both taste and tact; a handicap when pursuing a life of virtue, but fatal when following a career of frivolity and vice.

By 1639 the accommodation in the new spa had become more solid, for at Southborough and at Rustall settlements of huts and primitive cottages had been made, where the nobility and small gentry lodged, and hobnobbed in a democratic way; a holiday custom which the former made haste to discontinue immediately they returned to Town. It was a social axiom that all restraint and dignity should be put aside by the visitors, and the new watering-place became a centre of scandal, horseplay, sexual licence, and gambling. The morning parade up and down the promenade which is now the Pantiles, while the market was held down below, gave the fashionable world of the Stuarts and the Hanovers ample occasion for every folly that snobbery, malice, and affectation could invent. Innumerable legends survive of the practical jokes, pseudo-duels, amatory intrigues, and fantastic pastimes that enlivened the drinking of the waters. Town “spies” abounded, especially in the eighteenth century, those equivalents of our present-day newspaper gossips who chat, often with double entendre to the initiated, in our newspapers and society magazines.

Of a somewhat different kind of gossip from these Grubstreet “spies” was that infamous scoundrel Lord Rochester, who in addition to his brutal life, exercised a gift for well-turned but obscene verse. Hume called him “a plague-spot of English literature,” and rightly so, though some effort was made a few years ago to whitewash him. As well attempt to whitewash the surface of a cesspool. In a poem describing the follies of this midsummer madness which went on annually at the Wells, Rochester says:

Here Lords, Knights, Squires, Lades and Countesses,
Chandlers, and barren women, Sempstresses,
Were mixed together; nor did they agree
More in their Humours than their Quality.
Here, waiting for Gallant, young Damsel stood,
Leaning on Cane, and muffled up in Hood:
The would-be Wit, whose business was to woo,
With Hat removed, and solemn scrape of Shoe,
Advances bowing, then genteelly shrugs,
And ruffled Foretop into Order tugs. 

And so the satire goes on at great length, valueless and boring, except that it paints a picture of the gross manners and habits of the period. The most notorious and fantastic of these courtiers, whose conduct caused the French Ambassador at Charles II’s Court to say of Tunbridge Wells that “they may well be called les eaux de scandale,” was Lady Muskery, from the neighbouring great house of Somerhill. By the proximity of her home to the Wells she was able to offer entertainment to Royalty and the Court year after year. A completely foolish woman, she exposed her vapid mind and her deformed body to the ridicule of the fashionable world,, trying in vain to compete both with the wits and the beauties of the day. She ruined herself and dissipated the estate, so that after her death Somerhill fell into decay, in which condition it remained for a century.

These eaux de scandale, however, continued to flow, and in 1638 a covered promenade was built to shelter the visitors in bad weather, so that they might go from the waters to the coffee-houses without wetting their finery or even their dressing-gowns (for it was later the custom to take the waters in déshabille).

The doctors of the time profited as well as they could. Indeed, the first signs of popularity were carefully fostered by a certain Dr Rowzee, who published a treatise in 1632, prescribing a régime for the seekers after health. Both he, and another quack called Dr Madan, insisted that the waters could be taken only on the spot, and not transported, though this did not prevent a traffic in bottled water, at least for a time, between the Wells and London. “Waters once removed,” wrote Dr Madan, “lose their vivisick spirits in which a vurtue doth reside, which afterwards no diligence can restore. Chalybeate waters in long deportation will not tinge with gall.” And again he writes, in 1687, “The Tunbridge waters are impregnated with a chalcanthous or vitriolic juice, which, with its sulphurous particles, irritates and moves the belly to a blackish excretion and by frequent drinking thereof, blackeneth the tongue; because this member, being of a spongey substance imbibes some sooty sulphureous minims into its porosity, occasioning this tincture.” That is delightful. It makes me hope that some of the present-day writings about the virtues of synthetic vitamin pills, as set out in the literature which accompanies them, will make equally amusing reading in two hundred years to come.

Much of the character of nomenclature of the place was settled during the time of the Commonwealth. The timber cottages which were the first settled lodging-houses became separate political camps, those on Southborough hill being frequented by the Royalists, and those on Rustall being used by the Roundheads. The latter maintained an armed camp on Mounts Ephraim and Sion for over a year, as an army of occupation following an abortive Royalist rebellion which broke out at Tonbridge. It was also good strategy to maintain a military strength in this part of the country, which at that time was the arsenal where most of the guns and ammunition were manufactured.

The early part of the eighteenth century, during the reign of George II, showed the Wells at the height of its popularity, at least as a place of seasonal pleasure-making. A well-known print of celebrities in the year 1748  promenading on the Pantiles is annotated in the handwriting of Samuel Richardson, the author of the first novel of sentiment, Pamela. He names Dr and Mrs Johnson as two of the famous figures, amongst others, such as Mr Cibber (that gibbering little Poet Laureate and bore), Garrick, and William Pitt. Quite recently, however, this matter of the Dr Johnson mentioned being in fact the Grand Cham has been disputed by Miss Margaret Barton in a delightful book on Tunbridge Wells published in 1937. She says that, "since Johnson did not receive his doctorate until after Richardson’s death, it is clear that the figures are not those of the great Samuel and his Tetty. Who, then, was this mysterious Dr Johnson, evidently a person of some social importance? I cannot advance any proofs of his identity, but I feel confident that he was Dr James Johnson, the future bishop of Rochester and a man of large private means, whose unmarried sister, known as Mrs Johnson, became in her old age one of the first residents on Mount Ephraim.” This piece of Protestantism is worth recording here, because the famous print still plays such an important part of all historical reference to Tunbridge Wells. The argument for doubting the long-accepted is rather slender. Malone, Boswell’s friend, and editor in 1799 of the third edition of the great Biography, had a footnote stating definitely that the Johnsons were in Tunbridge Wells in 1748, making holiday after the labour of finishing the Lexicon, and that they are portrayed in the picture.

As the eighteenth century wore on, a heavier element crept into the gaiety of the Wells. The blue-stockings descended upon it, like blowflies. Elizabeth Montague, the Mrs Montague who aped the great Frenchwomen of the period, who kept their salons where the wits of Europe competed, came as a girl to Tunbridge Wells and at once contaminated it with her intellectual snobbery and cultural pomp (the worst forms of vanity and pride). What a detestable woman, with her glittering diamonds, her huge income, and her pretended help to hungry scribblers and scholars! Here she captured the professionally gloomy Dr Young, author of the Night Thoughts, a poetic rhodomontade of assumed melancholy. Here she took up the poor parson’s daughter, Elizabeth Carter, who was in fact a scholar, and a gifted linguist. Another poet associated with the pantiles was Richard Cumberland, now deservedly forgotten. In his time he was the most successful playwright of the day, and a formidable bore who would insist on reading his plays in manuscript to his friends. On one occasion he even served up a new play under a pie-crust, thus assuring himself of an audience at his dinner-table. He survived this indecency, however, and died on mount Sion in 1811, thus surviving his slender talent by many years. That talent was buried belatedly, with him, in Westminster Abbey.

Another man who made much out of little was Beau Nash, a queer mixture of character and foppery. Having become the uncontested legislator of social procedure at Bath, he turned his attention, during the last twenty years of his over-long life, to manners in Tunbridge Wells. He purged the place of many of its more flagrant habits of debauchery and gambling, regulating the latter pastime and giving it at least the semblance of decorum. I wish he could have stopped the practice of eating wheatear pie. This was one of the epicurean treats of the Wells, during the eighteenth century. The little birds were trapped on the downs by means of small horse-hair nets set in holes in the ground.

With the growth of Brighton, and the new enthusiasm for taking sea baths and breathing sea air, Tunbridge Wells dwindled as a watering-place, but continued to grow as a residential area. During the last decades of the eighteenth, and throughout the nineteenth, century, it grew larger and larger, and its present population is not far short of that of Maidstone, the capital of the county. From whatever approach one comes to Tunbridge Wells the contact is one of beauty and dignity. Kent is the Garden of England. Tunbridge Wells is the Garden of Kent. The many great villas, each standing in a substantial garden of many acres, that surround the town on the several heights, are by now matured for over a century. They are out-of-date, unwieldy, and often grotesque in their architecture. How pathetic it is to pass, and see from the top of the omnibus one pseudo-gothic villa after another, some of them absurd, as though designed from one of the romantic monochromes drawn by Victor Hugo while in exile. They are now obviously servantless and in a state of shabby-genteelism, though by some miracle their gardens still remain kempt, with the gigantic cedars, monkey-puzzles, and red pines slumbering aromatically on lawns punctuated by Victorian flowerbeds like beetroot salads.

In the midst of all this expensive horticultural approach to the Spa there is an interesting market garden, with a superb view, kept by a Dane who came over here when a youth. He belongs to a military family, and his grandfather was a distinguished poet in Denmark, being now one of the national figures. The present horticulturist’s father was a military attaché at the Russian court, where the boy was brought up. He came into contact with Tolstoi at the age of fourteen, and was converted to pacifism. This enthusiasm sent him to England, where he studied horticulture, and where he has since remained. He told me, some few years ago, that he still maintained a correspondence with two of the Russian princesses, a daughter and a sister of the Tzar (one in a convent) who found refuge in this country after the 1917 revolution. The nursery specialized in rock plants, and when this owner discovered that I was an English poet he charmingly gave me two miniature juniper bushes, which I reverently planted between the York flagstones round my lily pond. Oddly enough, this courteous and gentle lover of flowers and peacefulness reminded me instantly, both in figure and features, of Aylmer Maude, the disciple and translator of Tolstoi.

Have I said enough about Tunbridge Wells to make readers appreciate its present-day qualities? For it is full of them, in spite of a certain lack of municipal imagination in the running of the town as a holiday place for people of good taste and fastidious culture. How appropriate it would be, for example, as a music centre, with a first-class municipal orchestra run at a loss and at the ratepayers’ expense. For what a rotten state of affairs we have come to in this modern world, when nothing is thought to be practicable or worth while unless it yields something over five per cent in money profit, while every other form of profit, in mental, physical, and spiritual benefit, is written off as non-existent by the accountants and treasurers. Let us have a little less of the domination of these treasurers and accountants, who believe that financial mechanics are the only true morality and solvency.

Why does not Tunbridge Wells, as a corporation, take the right pride in itself that its superb geographical assets justify? Why does it not maintain a good theatre as well as an orchestra? It has lately built a quite impressive municipal building, which has a good hall at the back. The fathers of the town should see that this hall is used almost daily for music, readings of our vast inheritance of English poetry, and for lectures. The crowds may not come at first, but gradually a worthy taste would be built up in the native public, and the fame of Tunbridge Wells would spread throughout the world, as that of Salzburg has done. Let me assure those accountants and treasurers that in the long run it would be a good and remunerative investment to send the reputation of Tunbridge Wells soaring into the realm of what they might at present call the “highbrow”. Gloomy people say that the two wars, and the flood of American films and violent fiction, are destroying the historic culture of Europe, which has come down through the renaissance from the rich days of Greece and Rome. If that be so, all the more urgent is the need for those in authority in Europe, and especially in Tunbridge Wells, to do something about combating that flood of barbarism. But I think there is as much evidence to prove that since the wars our people are waking up to the great inheritance of music, literature, and painting that makes England comparable to Athens, that other small state which laid the foundations of civilisation two thousand five hundred years ago. The demand for books on philosophy, for verse, for the best prose, for pictures and music; the sudden upflow of new music from a school of younger English composers- all these are signs of a new emotional and spiritual vitality in the people. Tunbridge Wells, with it existing reputation and its noble position, has an opportunity to act as one of the most influential co-ordinators of this new force, this renaissance of all that is best and most permanent in our English nature and character. Why do not the governors of the town risk so long-sighted a venture? Why don’t they approach a few of the great motor-car manufacturers (who will soon be richer than ever) and openly ask for gifts of some millions of pounds in paper, or bank credit, or whatever fiction this financial jugglery demands, so that they can begin to build up real values that will delight the eye, ear, mind, and soul of the hundreds and thousands of human beings who surely will come flocking to Tunbridge Wells as soon as it has something to offer them, something more worthy than a neglected, dusty Pantiles, a dozen commercial cinema-houses, a chancy cuisine, and an occasional concert or dramatic show? But these occasional shows are pointers in the right direction, and so too is the excellent municipal reference library run by a helpful and courteous staff."     




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