TUNBRIDGE WELLS COMMONS:
THACKERAY’S HOUSE – An early lodging house of the late seventeenth century, whose true name is Rock Villa. The novelist William Thackeray lodged here in 1860. He greatly enjoyed his walks over the Common, which he describes in his Roundabout Papers.
BELLEVILLE — Built probably about 1840 on the site of an earlier cottage shown on Bowra’s map of 1738. Thackeray describes a house on the Common near Rock Villa in which he stayed as a child in 1823; this has been identified with Belleville but was more likely Gibraltar, the only one of the three rock built cottages at the apex of the Common known to have been used as a lodging house at that date.
SAINT HELENA — Built between 1828 and 1838 on the floor of a small stone quarry and used in early times as a lodging house. It replaced an earlier and much smaller cottage shown on Bowra’s map of 1738 and illustrated in a number of eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrations along with a second small structure to the north, on the other side of the rock. At the foot of the rocks a manhole cover marks the entrance to caves excavated for sand and open to the road until its level was raised in a controversial road levelling scheme carried out by the local Turnpike Trust in 1833. Residents complained that the loss of the caves spoiled the picturesque and much illustrated first view of the town which visitors saw as they travelled in from London. The caves were reopened at the outbreak of World War II to serve as air raid shelters.Photo 10 Oct 2004.
GIBRALTAR COTTAGE – Built as a lodging house between 1814 and 1824 on the site of an earlier and smaller cottage of the same name. It was occupied by members of the Tunbridge ware making family of Burrows from the 1820s to c.1845. Having fallen into decay, it was restored and altered in 1970-71. The name is an allusion to the rocks on which the cottage stands; in the past Gibraltar has been used as a general term for the rocky eastern apex of the Common. Until the mid-nineteenth century, a pond known as Parson’s Pond existed below the cottage alongside London Road.
JORDAN HOUSE — Premises occupied in the first half of the nineteenth century by Tunbridge ware makers Humphrey Burrows Senior and Junior. Their factory and show room was patronized by Princess Victoria, as is commemorated on a well-known print.
LOWER CRICKET GROUND — First used as a cricket pitch in the 1850s by the pupils of Romanoff House School. From 1860 it was the site of an annual bonfire on 5 November, and it was regularly used as a venue for civic celebrations of coronations and jubilees. It was levelled and railed in 1885-6. There was a Territorial Army encampment here in 1914. The original railings, along with those of the Higher Cricket Ground, were taken for the war effort in 1942.
JUBILEE OAK– Planted in June 1887 by Mrs Stone Wigg, wife of the Chairman of the Local Board, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
MOUNT EDGCUMBE ROAD– Traditionally known as Donkey Drive, from which animals were hired for riding. This pastime was introduced in 1801, and enjoyed by Princess Victoria in the early 1830s, continuing into late Victorian times. The avenue of flowering cherries (King’s Avenue) was planted in March 1937 for the coronation of George VI. The contemporary King’s Grove, a circle of scarlet chestnuts between Mount Edgcumbe and Victoria Grove, did not flourish and the trees, described twenty years later as ‘small and stunted’, became obscured by the later growth of saplings.
MOUNT EDGCUMBE ROCKS — Well-known in Victorian and Edwardian times and a popular vantage point for views across the town. They were known to children of the mid-twentieth century as the Devil’s Dyke. A pond at the foot of the rocks was filled in in 1879. By the 1960s, the open grassy space in front of the rocks had become overgrown by scrub which obscured them completely, but the area was cleared in 1994-5.
MOUNT EDGCUMBE — A hillock named after Emma, Dowager Countess of Mount Edgcumbe, who spent the summers of 1795-7 in the town. The group of three buildings here appear as early as Bowra’s map of 1738. They were originally two lodging houses (Mount Edgcumbe [A], now a Hotel, and Ephraim Lodge [C]) and a private house (Mount Edgcumbe Cottage [B]). The Arctic explorer Sir William Parry stayed at what is now the hotel in 1839.
MOUNT EPHRAIM PROMENADE – Originally levelled as a turf walk on the northern edge of the Common in 1881, but later gravelled (1891) and asphalted (1925). Just as in the early nineteenth century seaside resorts modelled themselves on the older spas, so in later times Tunbridge Wells adopted seaside terminology. Alongside the Promenade is one of the Common’s surviving areas of acid grassland, an important wildlife habitat.
WELLINGTON HOTEL – Opened in 1875 by John Braby. Braby was an admirer of the Duke, whose wife stayed in the town on a number of occasions.
MOUNT EPHRAIM HOUSE – Charles II and Queen Katharine stayed here in 1663 while their court camped on the Common. The house served as the Assembly Room for the entertainment of visitors from 1665 to 1670. It was substantially altered in the 1840s, acquiring an extra storey and a new facade. Together with the Chalet, built in its grounds around 1800, it served as the Tunbridge ware manufactory of William Fenner from the 1790s, the business being subsequently taken over by Edmund Nye around 1840 and Thomas Barton in 1863. Manufacture continued until Barton’s death in 1903. On the edge of the Common around the corner of the boundary wall is a row of seats: this area was traditionally noted as a sun trap and named the South of France.
WELLINGTON ROCKS — Named after the Wellington Hotel. In earlier times they were variously described as the High Rocks on Mount Ephraim, or as Castle Rock (either named after the nearby Castle Tavern, or because of the shape of rocks’ highest point). Early nineteenth century guides report that “small transparent pebbles are found on the paths of the Common, especially after rain. These crystals are called Tunbridge Wells Diamonds, and, cut and polished, form brilliant additions to the jewel-case”. Small rounded pebbles can still be seen here today embedded in the sandstone, and it is presumably the most attractive of these, eroded out of the rock, which were once collected.
JUBILEE LIME — Planted in March 1977 to commemorate Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee.
HIGHER CRICKET GROUND — Although cricket was played on this site informally from the mid-eighteenth century, its status as an official ground dates from 1839 when the newly formed Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club were given permission to use and improve it. It was enlarged in 1859 and 1875. County matches were played here from 1845 to 1880, but they ceased due to the poor condition of the pitch which was regularly trampled by the public and grazing animals. On either side of the pavilion are flowering cherries planted in June 1953 to commemorate Elizabeth II’s coronation. Around the cricket ground, and elsewhere on the Common, can be seen a number of cast iron ‘hawthorn’ benches dating from the 1860s and restored in the early 1990s; subsequently, many replicas of the originals have also been made and installed.
ROYAL VICTORIA GROVE — Planted in February 1835 as a double avenue to commemorate visits to the town by Princess Victoria with her mother the Duchess of Kent. Just to the north was the earlier Queen’s Grove, planted for the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702 and replanted in 1811; this never did well and died out in the early 1850s. Victoria Grove was planned as three rows of sycamores, limes, and elms, but some trees had to be replaced in later years and often did not conform to the original plan. The elms succumbed to disease in 1972, and in 1992 the third row was replanted to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Elizabeth II’s accession. For a few years from 1911 a moveable bandstand was set up to the south. To the north of the Grove is a small patch of surviving heathland, a type of vegetation once much more widespread on the Common.
RACE COURSE — Appears on Bowra’s map of 1738 and remained in use until 1851. Race meetings were held for two days each year, in August or September. The winning post, stand, and enclosure stood on the north side of the present Higher Cricket Ground. The Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria attended in 1834. In 1845 residents petitioned for the suppression of the races, on the grounds that they were a cause of drunkenness and riotous behaviour. After races ceased to be held, the course (apart from the section crossing the Cricket Ground) was preserved as a footpath and bridle-way and can still be followed today. Along the southern section, between Major York’s Road and Hungershall Park, is a clearing where heathland restoration is in progress. Near the north west corner is the site (formerly marked by a plaque) of a thatched shelter destroyed by a flying bomb in 1944, with the death of an elderly resident. Hidden in the undergrowth north of the car park where the race course meets Fir Tree Road is the site of a small quarry.
CASTLE ROAD – Possibly named after the Castle Tavern, opened between 1665 and 1670, which stood on Mount Ephraim between the junctions with Church Road and Castle Road. The building, no longer extant, was converted to a lodging house in the mid-eighteenth century. An alternative theory is that the tavern was named after Castle Rock (now Wellington Rocks).
ROMANOFF LODGE – Built in 1852 by Thomas Allfree on the site of a late eighteenth century cottage occupying, along with Castle Cottage, the site of old gravel or sand pits. Allfree was the proprietor of Romanoff House School (occupying the building in London Road now known as Vale Towers), founded by him in the 1830s; the present Rose Hill School is in lineal descent. Allfree used the name Romanoff because he had been a tutor to the Russian royal family.
ONSLOW HOUSE – The original Onslow House was built in the early 1880s on the site of the late eighteenth century Castle Cottage. As a condition of permission to build, an old sand pit on the opposite side of the road latterly used as a stonemason’s yard was filled in and restored to the Common. Onslow House was replaced by the present row of houses in 1965.
CORONATION CHESTNUT — A red-flowered tree planted in December 1911 to commemorate the coronation of George V. The trees that now surround it have all grown up subsequently.
PRINCESS ANNE’S OAK – Overlooking London Road, between Mount Edgcumbe Road and the Vale Road corner, is an oak tree said to have been planted around 1700 to commemorate the several visits of the Princess (later Queen) to Tunbridge Wells between 1684 and 1698. The Victorian railings around the tree were restored in 1995, and a plaque affixed.
HIGHBURY — Built around 1906 on the site of Exeter Villa, a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century lodging house. In the vicinity of the house is one of the Common’s surviving areas of acid grassland, characterized by the nest mounds of the Yellow Meadow Ant. Lizards are frequently to be seen here.
STRANGE’S AVENUE – Planted c.1810-20 by Edward Hilder Strange, proprietor of the Royal Kentish Hotel, as an ornamental avenue leading down to his front entrance. It consisted originally of some forty sycamores and chestnuts, but many trees have been replaced in subsequent years.
FONTHILL — The present pavilion (which since 1993 has functioned as a live music venue known as The Forum) was built in 1939 by the Borough Council to provide ‘rest rooms and general conveniences’ for locals and visitors enjoying the Common. It replaced a forge, coach builders’ workshop, and attached cottage (Fonthill House) dating from 1833. An earlier forge on the site is shown on Bowra’s map of 1738. This is said to be the site of the cottage occupied by Mrs Humphreys, who provided Lord North with a cup to drink from the chalybeate spring when he discovered it in 1606. The buildings on the edge of the Common east and west of Fonthill were from early times an untidy clutter of small cottages and rough working buildings: the present unattractive structures are in lineal descent. The present garage is on the site of the Kentish Stables, then belonging to the Royal Kentish Hotel opposite.
COLD BATH AND SPRING – The Cold Bath was constructed around 1766, falling into disuse with the construction of the Bath House in 1804. The well was sunk over a chalybeate spring about 1700. Both structures became buried in the early nineteenth century and were rediscovered during road works in 1971.
JUBILEE OAKS, 1935 — Contemporary press accounts report that a pair of scarlet chestnuts were planted near Fonthill in May 1935 to celebrate George V’s Silver Jubilee. It is presumed that the original trees did not survive, and that the two oaks on the site today are replacements.
MILE STONE — This small pillar of local sandstone originally indicated thirty-six miles to London, but is now illegible. It dates from at least the early nineteenth century.
YORK COTTAGE – Built by George Mercer, a chaise driver, who in 1820 obtained permission from the Freeholders and the Lady of the Manor (Elizabeth Shorey) to enclose a small portion of the Common for the purpose. It is a survivor of a number of small cottages on the Commons, most of which were replaced by more substantial structures in Victorian times.
CHARTER GROUP — A group of limes planted by John Stone Wigg, the first mayor of Tunbridge Wells, to celebrate the granting of borough status to the town in February 1889.
LUTWIDGE GROUP – The pine tree on the corner is the most conspicuous survivor of five trees planted in November 1895 by the mayor elect, Major C.R. Fletcher Lutwidge, as part of a scheme promoted by the Tradesmen’s Association by which individuals and organisations had subscribed around 150 trees. Trees planted on the opposite corner by the outgoing mayor, Sir David Lionel Salomons, succumbed to a gorse fire.
FIR TREE POND – A noted beauty spot in Victorian and Edwardian times, named from a pair of Scots pines (affectionately named Darby and Joan) with a seat around them which stood on top of the slope above. Having succumbed to old age, they were cut down in 1914 and replacements, still to be seen today, were planted. The pond is situated in a an extensive hollow described in 1957 as an ‘old quarry’. The pond was restored in 1992.
ERIDGE ROAD – Formerly known as Brighton Road, hence the name given to the lake situated beside it. As is the case generally on the perimeter of the Commons, the Common officially extends across the road and includes the strip of grass with trees on the other side.
BRIGHTON LAKE — Fed by a chalybeate spring (visible on the northern edge) and excavated in 1858 as part of a scheme instigated by William Law Pope, minister of King Charles’ church, to provide work for the town’s unemployed, wages being paid by public subscription. It was nicknamed Pope’s Puddle or Pope’s Folly. The official name relates to the fact that it stands on the road to Brighton. Today the pond is an important habitat for wildlife, including frogs, toads, newts, grass snakes, and dragonflies.
TERRACE WALK — Revd Pope’s unemployed workers also created a ‘greensward terrace walk’ above the pond.
ROAD TO HIGH ROCKS — The path just to the north of the terrace walk is the eighteenth century road to High Rocks, whose continuation past the Cottage is known as Cabbage Stalk Lane. There are traces of old excavations for sand or gravel on its northern side.
THE BROOK — The small stream which once marked the county boundary flowed beside what is now Cumberland Walk, behind the Lower Walk of the Pantiles, and along Eridge Road before crossing the corner of the Common below the Cottage, the footpath to which once crossed a small bridge. In 1853, following years of complaints that it had become an open sewer and was a hazard to public health, it was finally enclosed in a barrel drain at the expense of the Local Board, assisted by a contribution from the Earl of Abergavenny. It now emerges in the garden centre beyond the western boundary of the Common. Although local residents never dignified it with a name, it is in fact the beginning of the River Grom.
THE COTTAGE – An enlargement of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century Kentish Cottage, named from the long vanished farmhouse known as Kentish Villa a little to the north. It was the summer retreat from c.1850 of the Scottish preacher Dr John Cumming. In front of the Cottage are oaks probably planted around 1700 to mark the boundary of the Common: others of similar age can be seen further along the path to the north.
GORSE AND BRACKEN COTTAGES — Built about 1912 on the site of the early Victorian Spring Bottom Cottage, also known as Shoebridge’s Cottage after a laundress who lived there in the 1860s.
BRACKEN COTTAGE POND — A modern name for a survivor of several informal ponds scattered over the Commons up to the mid-nineteenth century and maintained as watering places for cattle and sheep. Most were filled in at various dates between 1850 and 1900. This pond was restored in 1992. It is fed by a spring via a small watercourse to the east.
BISHOPS DOWN – Triangular portion of the Common with adjacent houses which preserves the ancient name of the entire Common. There was formerly a pond here, but in 1865 it was filled in.
MANOR HOUSE – Not a true manor house, but a late seventeenth century lodging house acquired along with other property at Bishops Down by George Kelley at the time when he purchased the Manor of Rusthall. In lodging house lists of around 1800 it appears as Mrs Shorey’s Great House, after the then Lady of the Manor. The present name dates from c.1822.
SPA HOTEL — Built in 1765 by Sir George Kelley, Lord of the Manor, as Bishops Down Grove. It was purchased from his heirs by Major Martin Yorke of the East India Company (after whom the road is named) in 1772. Its life as a hotel dates from 1878, when, following enlargement, it was opened as the Bishops Down Grove Spa and Hydropathic Sanatorium. On the strip of the Common in front of the hotel is a drinking fountain erected in 1887 in memory of the Hon. Francis and Lady Georgina Molyneux. Francis Molyneux moved to Tunbridge Wells in 1853, living first at Gibraltar Cottage and subsequently building Earls Court (now Reliance House) on Mount Ephraim. He was a leading member of the Freeholders, as well as the Local Board. Nearby, a plaque indicates an oak planted in July 1954 to commemorate a summer school held by the Men of the Trees, an early environmental group, at the Hotel.
DENNY BOTTOM – The settlement of Denny Bottom was described in 1832 as consisting of ‘broken ground, pig-sties, rude cottages and small enclosures’. Apart from the Hobblies (built in 1569), no buildings survive from that period, but the present layout of the area, with small dwellings clustering close to the rocks, preserves something of its early character. Small scale quarrying and sand digging continued here much later than elsewhere on the Commons, a quarry along Apsley Street being in use as recently as 1914. The Toad Rock Retreat, established around 1880 and subsequently enlarged, was destroyed by fire in 1998 and rebuilt in similar style.
TOAD ROCK – First popularized in a local guide in 1810, it is not named until the 1823 edition of Clifford’s Tunbridge Wells guide. It was fenced and the base strengthened with masonry in 1881-2. The original railings were renovated during the winter of 1993-4. Before geologists were able to explain its origin, it aroused much speculation, including the idea that it was possibly man-made. Some nineteenth century observers believed that it was ‘the remains of an ancient sphinx’, and as late as 1933 H G Wells referred to this idea in his novel Christina Alberta’s Father. The Toad and other outcrops were in fact eroded into their present forms by wind action during the last Ice Age. As a result of this geological history, the surrounding area was designated a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1992.
DENNY BOTTOM ROCKS — In Victorian and Edwardian times visitors to the Toad were liable to be accosted by self-appointed guides who would offer to point out the names of many other rocks in the vicinity. The oldest names appear to be those of the Loaf, the Lion (mentioned in the 1850s) and the Parson’s Nose (painted under this name by Charles Tattershall Dodd in the 1840s, but named the Old Man’s Head on a sketch of 1824 and the Pulpit on Edwardian postcards). Martin and Row’s guide Tunbridge Wells of Today ( c.1895) provides the only substantial published list (said to be far from complete) but gives no clue to precise locations. As well as the three mentioned in earlier sources, they name the Little Toad, Elephant, Fox’s Hole and Footsteps, located through oral tradition for the present map, as well as the still unlocated Bloodstain, Cradle and Pig’s Head. The Bloodstain, known to other sources as the Bleeding Rock, is generally understood as a spot where dripping water left an iron stain, but no site fitting this description can be pointed out today. Another named rock, the Dog’s Head, is illustrated in a late Victorian print. Edwardian sources mention, as well as some of the above, the Table, Camel, and Double Rock, of which only the former can be identified today. Other names on the present map have been preserved only by oral tradition.
BULL’S HOLLOW — An early twentieth century beauty spot frequently illustrated in town guides, first popularised when in 1905 the Conservators cleared it of undergrowth and provided seats. At the time it was noted that the rock surface there ‘presents different col ours of a rich and varied character’, although this is not evident today. Bull’s Hollow is the site of a quarry (disused by 1890), named after Robert Bull, a quarryman who worked there and built a cottage in the early nineteenth century. The original cottage, occupied by several generations of the Bull family, was enlarged into its present form in the 1950s. There was a military rifle range here in 1918-19. The rocks of the quarry were first publicized as a site for climbers in 1936.
STILL GREEN — A detached portion of Rusthall Common which today resembles an appendage to Hurst Wood. It is named Steel Green on Bowra’s map of 1738.
LOWER GREEN — Another early settlement like Denny Bottom, clustered around a small detached portion of the Common. The Green proper is now much reduced in size through road widening but originally boasted a spring and a pond. The pond was filled in in 1899.
TWO YEWS COTTAGE — One of the oldest surviving houses in Tunbridge Wells, dating from the mid to late fifteenth century. The main part of the house would have been an open hall prior to alterations around 1600. There is a nineteenth century addition to the original building.
MARL PITS – The most notable relics of several excavations for marl on Rusthall Common are two depressions which by the 1870s had developed into ponds. A bowling green was established to the south in 1913, but in time the site proved unsatisfactory and no trace remains today. Today the ponds are notable habitats for amphibians. The larger of the two was restored early in 1993, with further work in 1996. In the latter year, efforts were made to restore the second pond, but owing to its small size this is likely to remain a seasonal pool. Marl was a generic term for various kinds of clay which, it was believed, could be employed as fertiliser to make poor local soils more suitable for agriculture. This practise was popularized locally by Gervase Markham in his Inrichment of the Weald of Kent (1683). The two ponds seen today are simply the lowest points of a much more extensive, although relatively shallow, excavation whose boundaries can be seen on older maps. Other marl pit sites, some of which are much deeper, can be found north of St Paul’s Church, north and north-east of the Cricket Ground, and in the triangle between Tea Garden Lane and Langton Road.
COACH ROAD — A surviving section of a road which in the mid-nineteenth century continued beyond Langton Road to the corner of the Common where the road now known as the Midway begins, after which it continued south to meet High Rocks Lane. At the junction with Rusthall Road is a drinking fountain erected in 1887 in memory of Margaret Cunliffe of Nevill Park.
ASSEMBLY ROOM SITE — A bramble filled pit marks the site of the first Assembly Room for the entertainment of the visitors to the Wells, built in 1655 when most still lodged at Rusthall. In 1665 this facility was transferred to Mount Ephraim House. A contemporary bowling green extended to the west.
RUSTHALL CRICKET GROUND — Levelled in 1885-6, replacing an earlier unsatisfactory site established in 1865 at the north-western corner of the Common. It was enlarged in 1906. The informal playing field to the east, known as ‘the Bumps’ was cleared in the 1950s and levelled in 1961.
ST PAUL’S CHURCH — Built 1849-50, with a north aisle added in 1864. Edwardian views show on the western side of the footpath between the church and Langton Road a now vanished pond within the bounds of the enormous marl pit marked on Bowra’s 1738 map. The avenue leading up to the church was planted to commemorate the accession of George V in 1910.
BEACON HOTEL — Built in 1895 as Rusthall Beacon by Sir Walter Harris (later Lord Mayor of London) on the site of two cottages attached to the original Tea Gardens, opened c.1818, after which the road is named. Together with the Tea gardens site, he bought part of Cold Bath Farm, the area known as Happy Valley. The estate was bought in 1907 by Colonel Edward Sydney Sladen (mayor of Royal Tunbridge Wells 1910-12), who erected in the grounds the Burmese Bell brought back by his father Sir Edward Sladen which was later placed in Calverley Grounds. From 1938 and through World War II, the house was used as a residential home for Jewish refugee children. The building became a hotel in 1950.
HAPPY VALLEY — One of the town’s chief beauty spots in Victorian and Edwardian times. There are many pictures of that period showing what was said to be ‘as beautiful a view as England affords’ from the traditional viewpoint marked today by a clearing to the east of the Hundred and One Steps. Nowadays, due to obscuring trees, the best view can be obtained from the footpath between the Steps and the Beacon Hotel. The name was invented around 1870 (after the earthly paradise in Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, 1759) for what are now the grounds of the Beacon Hotel, but were originally the pleasure grounds surrounding the Cold Bath of 1708.
HUNDRED AND ONE STEPS – Constructed to provide the main access to the Cold Bath of 1708 and therefore presumed to be contemporary with it. They appear on Bowra’s map of 1738. By 1840 they had become covered by turf, and were apparently not revealed to view again until early in the twentieth century. Some postcards following their rediscovery erroneously describe them as ‘the Roman Steps’, creating a local legend that has endured to the present day. Missing and damaged steps were replaced by old kerbstones in 1959.
HAPPY VALLEY CAVES – Sometimes described as Sweeps’ Caves because they were once used as a dump for soot. Colbran’s town guide of 1839 describes them as ‘dormitories for gipsies etc.’. They were probably intended originally to shelter wooden seats and excavated at the time of development of the Cold Bath to provide viewpoints over the valley.
HAPPY VALLEY ROCKS — Mesolithic flint implements found here suggest these were used as camp sites by nomadic hunters of the period, as the cliffs at High Rocks are known to have been; they would have used the overhangs (much higher above ground level than we see them today) as shelters. Early local botanists knew them as the Cold Bath Rocks. The rock nearest to the path is known as the Cheesewring (i.e. cheese-press) Rock, on account of the narrow gap separating the isolated stack from the cliff behind. The stack was underpinned with masonry in 1932. In the post-war period, the rocks above the path became obscured by undergrowth, but they were cleared in the mid-1990s.