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Tasting the Waters at Tunbridge Wells

A simple trail through this elegant spa town, discovering the origins of its famous Pantiles and Royal patronage.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 197ft (60m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Paved streets and tarmac paths

Landscape Bustling town and leafy common

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 147 Sevenoaks & Tonbridge

Start/finish TQ 582388

Dog friendliness They'll like common and rocks, otherwise it's a bit too busy

Parking Car park behind The Pantiles

Public toilets Tunbridge Wells centre

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1 From the car park behind The Pantiles, turn right and walk up to the main road. Cross over, and then walk up Major York's Road. Just after the car park take the footpath to the left and walk across the common, keeping ahead until you reach Hungershall Park, where you turn left. Keep following the road until you come to a footpath that leads up to the right.

2 Follow this path up through the trees which eventually leads on to a private road. Continue walking ahead and when you reach the top take the track that runs ahead through the trees. After a horse barrier, bear right to pass the churchyard, then turn right and walk around the church and up to the busy main road.

3 Turn right, then cross to walk up to the turning on the left signed 'Toad Rock'. The path now winds uphill to the rock (it does look rather like a toad, doesn't it?). Now return to the main road and turn left. Continue until you pass Fir Tree Road. On the common, hidden by the trees, are Wellington Rocks. If you've got a dog with you, this is a good place for them to have a run.

4 Continue along Mount Ephraim to some cottages on the right that are built into the rock. There are seats here and you get good views over the town. Turn right to walk across the grass to the picturesque old house that was once home to the author William Makepeace Thackeray (it's, unsurprisingly, known as Thackeray's House).

5 Go along the path that runs by the left of the house and walk along Mount Ephraim Road. This brings you out in front of a pedestrianised shopping area. Turn right and walk down, past the museum and library and the war memorial. Turn left to walk up Crescent Road and continue until you reach Calverley Park, a 19th-century housing development designed by Decimus Burton. As you enter the park you'll see an oak tree planted in honour of Air Chief Marshall Lord Dowding who once lived here.

6 Walk across Calverley Grounds to go down The Mews, then go right into Grove Hill Road. This brings you down to a roundabout where you turn left and walk along the High Street. At the end go down Chapel Place, pass the Church of King Charles the Martyr, cross the road and then walk along the famous Pantiles and back to the car park.

As you walk through the elegant streets of Tunbridge Wells, you quickly become aware that there are no medieval or Tudor buildings at all. This is because, until the 17th-century, there was nothing here except thick woodland and areas of common. The town only grew up after Dudley, Lord North, whose health had been suffering from too much high living, discovered a spring while out riding in 1606. He noticed that the waters were brown and looked similar to those at a spa in Belgium. He took a drink and soon felt better (possibly feeling that if it tastes that bad it must be good for you). Word quickly spread and the great and the good started to come here to taste the waters for themselves.

The area became very popular, as it was much closer to London than other spa towns like Bath or Buxton and it soon attracted a royal visitor, Queen Henrietta Maria, Charles I's wife. As there was nowhere to stay, she and her entourage had to camp out on the common. Later visitors included Charles II, who brought both his wife and Nell Gwynne (though not necessarily at the same time), Samuel Pepys, Beau Nash and Daniel Defoe.

Gradually, lodging houses grew up around the spring, which was enclosed in the Bath House so that people could take warm, curative baths as well as drink the waters. The area around the spring was laid out into 'walks' where people could promenade - for this was now the place to see and to be seen. The 'season' ran from Easter to October, when the roads from London were passable.

When Queen Anne's son fell on the slippery ground she gave the town £100 so the walk could be paved with clay tiles known as pantiles. When she came back a year later she was furious to find that nothing had been done and created a regal rumpus - leading some to suggest that she was the original 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells'. Eventually the work was carried out and The Pantiles, which you reach at the end of this walk, are still the heart of the town and have retained their elegance. Today Tunbridge Wells, which was given the right to be called 'Royal' in 1909, is the sort of place where you come to stroll, shop, browse in bookshops and have tea and cakes while watching the world go by. Apart from the traffic it feels as if very little has changed since the town's heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries.

While you're there

If you come to Tunbridge Wells during the summer you'll be able to try the waters of the Chalybeate Spring that Lord North discovered. Their taste comes from the high iron content - 'chalybeate' is derived from the Greek word for iron. The water also contains many minerals and is said to help conditions such as arthritis and anaemia. They also say that it's good for hangovers.

What to look for

On this walk you'll pass two sandstone outcrops, a distinctive feature of the area. Many of these outcrops have unusual shapes and became popular visitor attractions during Victorian times. Toad Rock was once described as the local equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The rocks made convenient shelters for the mesolithic hunters who lived in the Weald and archaeological evidence has shown that they used to camp beneath them. Today the rocks are home to rare mosses, ferns and liverworts.

Where to eat and drink

There are plenty of places to choose from but my favourite is the Regency Restaurant and Tea Rooms, which is situated on The Pantiles. The tea is good and they serve enormous slices of traditional sponge cakes, as well as scones and light meals. You can sit outside if the weather's good.

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