The Pantiles in Royal Tunbridge Wells is THE must-see of the borough.
In Georgian times a day’s stage-coach ride could get you to Tunbridge Wells, as it was known in its embryonic era.
For this reason, The Pantiles in Royal Tunbridge Wells was a major holiday destination for the gentry and royalty and today remains a charming place to be entertained, to shop, eat, drink and stroll.
History of The Pantiles
The chance discovery in 1606 of a Spring with distinctive reddish tinted mineral deposits led to the development of the Pantiles and later on, Royal Tunbridge Wells.
The practice of drinking from natural springs for health reasons dates back to Roman times.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the practice of taking these natural waters for health purposes became more popular among the nobility.
The royal and noble parties would leave the Court and travel to the established Spa towns of Bath and Buxton pursuing curative well-being.
Away from Court they took advantage of the opportunities provided to establish relationships with individuals from different social backgrounds to exchange ideas and opinions. Free from the restrictions of Court the concept of a holiday as we know it today was started.
The First Royal Visit to Tunbridge Wells
The news of Lord North’s discovery spread around Court.
In 1629 the first royal visitor to the ‘Wells’ was Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, who stayed for six weeks.
As there was no accommodation available at that time, the Royal entourage camped on the Common. It was not until the latter part of the 17th century that the first permanent lodging houses were erected on Mount Sion including Jerningham House, Fairlawn House and Sion House.
With the royal seal of approval, Tunbridge Wells quickly became the most fashionable drinking spa near London, since it was in much closer proximity than Bath or Buxton.
The Beginnings of Tourism in Tunbridge Wells
Following the Royal visit, Dr Lodwick Rowzee, a physician from Ashford, published a paper on the medicinal qualities of the spring.
He established guidelines for the quantity of water that should be drunk and recommended starting with 2½ pints a day increasing to four times that amount during the course of a visit and reducing the amount when preparing to leave the Wells.
After drinking the correct quantity of water the ladies would meet at a coffee house near Pink Alley, whilst the gentlemen visited the pipe house.
Dr Rowzee also recommended walking after taking the water and this became part of the daily ritual.
The green bank, which was located near the Spring and known as the Upper Walk was raised and levelled. A double row of lime and elm trees were planted in order to provide shade for the ladies and gentlemen promenading on the Walks.
In its halcyon days during Georgian times, the ‘Walks’ became the place to be seen.
Pleasure, Leisure and Scandal at the Spa in Tunbridge Wells
After the Civil War and the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles II and his Queen, Catherine of Braganza, came to Tunbridge Wells.
The presence of the Court attracted other visitors who were primarily focused on the pursuit of pleasure rather than necessary medical activities.
The demand for entertainment and social amenities, together with the breakdown of rigid social barriers lead to a less formal atmosphere. It was at this time the Wells acquired its reputation as “les eaux de scandale”.
In 1698, Princess Anne, who was a frequent visitor to the Wells gave £100 to have the Upper Walk paved after her son, the Duke of Gloucester, slipped and fell whilst playing.
When she returned the following year nothing had been done and she left never to return.
Eventually the Walks were paved with Pantiles which were clay tiles baked in a pan.
Next in this timeline, we introduce Richard ‘Beau’ Nash who came onto the Spa scene. He was an 18th century fashion icon and famous celebrity of the time.
In 1735, Beau Nash established himself as Master of Ceremonies during ‘the season’. He did this by establishing the social protocol thus: the ‘Upper Walks’ for the gentry only, the ‘Lower Walks’ for everyone else.
The day would start by drinking the waters, this was followed by breakfast and attendance at Chapel. The rest of the morning was taken up by such activities as walking or riding in the surrounding countryside.
After dinner, visitors were seen promenading on the Pantiles in formal dress before attending the Balls and Gaming held in the Assembly Rooms.
There is a red plaque on 40-46 The Pantiles to celebrate Beau Nash’s contribution to the history of the Pantiles.
The Pantiles Today
The elegant covered and colonnaded walkway has become the most well known and photographed vista of the town.
Not only that, the Pantiles, with its many buildings dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, is a very attractive and stylish part of Royal Tunbridge Wells.
It is home to a pleasing variety of specialist independent shops, art galleries and open-air cafés, restaurants and bars.
An entertaining and varied programme of regular events, including a free summer Jazz Festival on Thursday evenings, a Food Festival and a fortnightly Farmers’ and Craft Market, are all held on the Pantiles.
The natural Chalybeate Spring is still situated at the northern end of the Pantiles.
The Tourist Information Centre is in the historic Corn Exchange building on the Lower Pantiles which used to be the site of a theatre.
There are a number of buses to catch take you up (and down) the hill to other parts of the town and to Rusthall. The 281 Arriva bus (green) is one and it is possible to purhase an all day ticket that for Tunbridge Wells.