Thursday, 16 June 2011

Tunbridge Wells

I had to visit a site in Tunbridge Wells yesterday and arriving early I came across the Pantiles. I had heard the name before and knew it referred to a street of historical houses but thought they were in the centre of the town.

Tunbridge Wells originated from the chance discovery of the Chalybeate Spring by a young nobleman in 1606. Soon after Lord North's discovery, word of the purported health-giving properties of the spring water soon spread, and visitors from London and elsewhere flocked to 'the Wells' to try the waters. Coffee houses, lodgings, shops, taverns and gaming houses soon sprang up in one continuous line near the Spring joined by a covered colonnaded walkway which later became known as the Pantiles.

The Bath House itself is at the eastern end of the Pantiles. Chalybeate (pronounced Ka-lee-bee-at) means iron-rich, and the iron taste apparently gives the water its unique taste.

A sceond of the Pantiles from the Bath House

According to the local website ‘In the eighteenth century the Spring became a central feature of the daily routine for any self-respecting lady or gentleman visiting 'The Wells'. The day started with a glass of spring water, followed by a promenade on 'The Walks' or a visit to the coffee house for the latest gossip, then off to church at the nearby Chapel of Ease, King Charles the Martyr'.

I saw the church and was not very impressed by its appearance but was intrigued by the name (given that I went to the only King Charles I Grammar School on the country).

The church began as the first permanent building in Tunbridge Wells although it was not actually a church. Before 1676 there was no village nor even any name on a map. Visitors had come in the Summer to take the chalybeate waters, but there were no lodging places close by.

Thomas Neale, entrepreneur and London builder, saw the commercial possibilities of the place. He purchased the site of the springs and the area now called the Pantiles, and assisted with a scheme to design and build a chapel which served additionally as an assembly room or temporary shelter from inclement weather.

The first thing you notice inside the building is the incredible ceiling. There is a symmetrical pattern of five round domes decorated by John Wetherell, a plasterer who had worked for Christopher Wren at Greenwich. Slaked-lime plaster was used for ceilings of this kind, the 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.

There are umbrella racks at the end of many of the pews – Joseph (or Jonas) Hanway who it is said introduced the umbrella to England, was a member of the Vestry (church council) in 1775.

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