The Forgotten Secret: Paving the way for The Pantiles
6th December 2018
Tunbridge Wells enjoys the prestige of a royal prefix these days, but we were not always in favour with the monarchy. This month our trawl through the archives reveals how a royal spat led to the paving of our most famous attraction...
During the 1600s, the fortunes of Tunbridge Wells – formerly part of the parish of Speldhurst – were transformed when a certain royal courtier came across the Chalybeate Spring that seemed to work wonders for his health. Although the discovery turned the town into a high class destination for the great and the good, one prominent visitor was not amused... Princess Anne.
There was much building activity in the town in the 1680’s, including the construction of shops on the long promenade – then known as The Walks – leading to the Chalybeate Spring. However, Princess Anne (later to become Queen Anne) was unimpressed by the place when her nine-year-old son, the Duke of Gloucester, fell over and was injured while playing on the unpaved Walks.
The young Prince William was particularly precious to his parents because the princess had already lost six children, either to miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death. Indeed, the prince would die of illness just days after his 11th birthday and his mother was destined to lose at least 18 children during her lifetime.
After the boy’s accident, Princess Anne donated £100 to the people of Tunbridge Wells – the equivalent of about £10,500 in today’s money – to pave ‘Upper Walk’ and make it safer for pedestrians. When she returned the following year in the confident hope of seeing the new and improved promenade, the future queen was outraged to discover that the refurbishment had not been carried out, despite her generous gift. Deciding that the money must have been squandered at the gaming tables (Beau Nash was later to turn the town into a haven for gamblers) she left Tunbridge Wells and never returned.
In 1700 the work was finally carried out – the Walks were laid with small clay tiles baked in a pan, which led to the promenade becoming known as ‘The Pantiles’. Now a more civilised place to stroll, it soon became the social centre of the town, although not a place that would ever again appeal to the princess. Two years later, in an attempt to appease the new monarch, a cluster of birch trees were planted on the nearby Common and named the Queen’s Grove, but the gesture did not win her forgiveness.
Although the original pantiles were replaced with flagstones in 1793 (the money being raised by local citizens), some tiles were retained and can be seen today at the bottom of the steps in Bath Square and at the Tunbridge Wells Museum.