A day in…Tonbridge

By | Category: Travel destinations

the charity shops line-up in High Street

Often confused with a town a little bit south down the A21, (Tunbridge Wells) many people would wonder why you would want to spend some time in a commuter town.

Located south of the M25, Tonbridge is often the first stop the first for the long distance services down to the Kent coastline or an interchange for those going across country through Penshurst and Godstone to Redhill. Apart from the famed public school bearing the same name as the town, why stop there?

Frank Woolley – who played for Kent and England – was born on this site in his father’s bicycle shop. Today it is a Starbucks!

For a start the High Street is a little dispiriting at least towards the station end as it seems to be that every other building is a charity shop. In one row there are four charity shops next to each other and opposite another two more. The only consolation might be the blue plaque high above Starbucks which reveals that the great English cricketer, Frank Woolley was born here long before instant replays, twenty-over cricket and night matches began to dominate.  That building is no longer here having been replaced between the wars. Woolley – perhaps one of the greatest all-rounders of all time – represents an older age and, in most ways, so does Tonbridge. At one time, locals say, the annual cricket week was the highlight of the year!

Follow the High Street over the river and the buildings age and you can begin to see what Tonbridge might have been like a few hundred years ago. On your left you will see the remains of Tonbridge Castle which was built by a cousin of William the Conqueror. Except that it wasn’t. That castle was burned down before the eleventh century was out and replaced by one over a century later.  Its significance is that the Great Seal of England was stored in the castle for safety when a later king, Edward I went abroad. It was his daughter who married the castle owner, Gilbert de Clare.

The castle today. To the right is the later mansion, part of which serves as the tourist office

Today there is not a lot left of the castle, partially due to the fact that a later owner (john Hooker) in the eighteenth century sold of some of the castle stones to make bridges over the river.  His son built a manor house adjacent to the remains which, in time, became the council headquarters up until 1974. Now it is the tourist information centre for the town. Well stocked and with three people on duty when I went on a May Saturday, there is not just details of accommodation and events but there is enough about the history of the town to demonstrate that Tonbridge isn’t just a haunt for commuters and Sainsbury shoppers.

The castle lawn stretches to the river and thus it attracts families where children can play as well as walkers following a trail alongside the river. For those who fancy messing about on the water, boats can be hired just on the north side of the river.

The Rose & Crown. Coaches stopped every 30 minutes in the eighteenth century

The importance of the town in bygone days can be seen, one again on the High Street, at the Rose and Crown. This pub was a significant coaching stop, the double doors facing the street being a reminder when coaches stopped there every thirty minutes on weekdays in the eighteenth century either going to or leaving London.  The coat of arms above the entrance is that of the parents of Queen Victoria. Across the road is another venerable pub, The Chequers. It is rumoured that the brother of Wat Tyler who lead the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was hung from a beam jutting out over the street from one of the pub windows.

Further on up the High Street as shops begin to give to grass verges, Tonbridge School can be found. Dating back to Queen Mary’s time, nothing survives from those days as most of the present building is from the seventeenth century. It was here that luminaries such as E.M. Forster, Vikram Seth and Frederick Forsyth were educated but it is another, less-known man that is responsible for their being a literary trail through the town.   He is the Reverend George Austen, the father of Jane. Not only was George Austen born in Tonbridge, he went to Tonbridge School, taught there after his ordination and, in later years, brought his daughter to the town to see relatives.

The Chequers. Was Wat Tyler’s brother hung here?

The Austen family even had connections with the castle for Jane Austen’s great, great, great grandfather leased the castle and, a century later, Jane’s cousin married the owner’s daughter. Her grandparents lived in Bank Street which runs into the high street and her cousin lived at both 180 and 182 High Street. Her great uncle lived just four doors away and her great grandmother lived nearby. Jane’s grandfather is buried in the Church of St Michael and St Paul and you can spot the monument because it is the one protected by a carpet over it.

You can follow the Austen Trail by picking up a map and brochure from the tourist office or you can join one of the walks that the local tourist office arranges.

The High Street is the centre of Tonbridge’s activity and it is here, on the 17th of June that the Summer carnival procession will take place  followed by a fete on the castle lawn.

There is one other feature of Tonbridge life which many might not know. In both world wars Tonbridge and the surrounding area was often a post for soldiers. (My mother was even posted nearby in 1945.) At the George & Dragon – not the largest pub in the world – it is claimed that up to 100 soldiers were billeted there at any one time.  The nearby Salvation Army Hall was also a favoured billet during the war as well. At another pub, the Man of Kent, the image of the commander of British forces, Sir John French, was used as a pub sign! In front of the entrance to the castle there is a small grassy area with benches for people to sit. Here you will find a small collection of sculptured figures to remind us of the sacrifices made during WWI.

a memorial to those from WWI

The town is remarkably compact with much of the places that a visitor would want to see being near the High Street and within a mile’s walk of the railway station. For those that drive to the town, there is plenty of parking even on a Saturday.

I was surprised by how much there was to see in the town. Spending a day is the town could easily be filled on a nice, warm day but more than that would be hard to fill unless you based yourself there whilst visiting some of the nearby sights like Penshurst Place, Chiddingstone Castle as well as Haysden Country Park.

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