The High Street has weathered its share of ups and downs, but it remains well-placed to thrive. Victoria Roberts takes a walk to check out the latest offerings…
TUNBRIDGE Wells’ High Street comprises less than half a mile’s worth of retail and hospitality business, but its impact stretches far beyond its geographical location and into the wider local economy, tourism and online.
“The High Street is one of the cornerstones of the town,” said Alex Green, the new Chief Executive of the Business Improvement District (BID), which represents all businesses in the centre of town.
“It has a unique identity with a distinctive ambience and spirit.”
Some of the oldest landmarks of the High Street, such as Hall’s Bookshop in Chapel Place, founded in 1898, next to the King Charles the Martyr church, are still there.
Still, there are always changes, and others have closed their doors – most recently lighting shop Lumière, but also Hudson’s Kitchen & Coffee.
There are familiar chains, including Mint Velvet, The White Company, Space NK and Caffè Nero.
There are also cafés, bars and restaurants, from Pizza Express near the southern end of the High Street, to The Bedford and The Warren at the very top, overlooking Tunbridge Wells Station.
This variety is one of the High Street’s strengths, said Mr Green, explaining: “A mixed ‘ecosystem’ helps the street presence across [different] times of day, and one business activity will pollinate others.”
This is the strategy behind the BID’s promotional activities over the upcoming Coronation weekend, which are designed to move people around the town rather than to keep people in one particular area, he explained.
Later this year, the Tunbridge Wells Fringe Festival will also use a range of High Street venues to host live performances. Fringe Festival committee member Aimee Cooper told the Times:
“The High Street is a really great part of the Fringe – it’s convenient for those audience and acts travelling here on the train, and full of brilliant independent shops.”
The location is a real benefit, agreed Sophie Bland, Owner and Co-founder of independent womenswear shop, bod & ted.
“We’re in a kind of sweet spot,” she said.
“When tourists come off the train, they turn this way. They do us; they do The Pantiles.”
Her shop has been there for 12 years, and over that time she has seen other shops come and go, but she also sees the mixture of business as essential to the success of the area.
“We get a lot of customers who have eaten on The Pantiles and come up, and we’ve sent a lot of people down to The Pantiles for eating.
“There’s café culture, and for swankier meals The Ivy, Coco Retro (round the corner in Vale Road), The Warren… We’ve also got chain shops mixed in.
“Size of units is a factor. At the ‘top’ of town, units are quite large. Here, the buildings are quirky in their own way.
“We’ve had a good amount of footfall. It is a very beautiful High Street.”
A newer High Street business, The Cove, opened during the pandemic period in August 2020, which co-founder Amy Lethbridge acknowledged had been difficult.
“Footfall is huge for us,” she said.
The company sells a mixture of fresh and dried flowers, alongside wines, spirits and scents, while running workshops on the first floor.
“It’s an experience. We want to draw people in,” she explained.
Looking out of The Cove’s windows at the bottom end of the High Street, she added: “All the businesses down here are independent. They all need support.”
At the top of the High Street, Childrensalon has been in place since 1985, and has no intention of leaving, Chief Corporate Affairs and Communications officer Denise Hamilton told the Times.
“We were in the London Road before that, but this really is the best location in Tunbridge Wells.”
Although Childrensalon is firmly established on the ‘virtual high street’, the physical shop is an important outlet. Ms Hamilton stressed: “We do get footfall from the High Street as people pass by, peeking in to see what’s in this ‘Aladdin’s Cave’.
“Our shop is our heritage and it’s very important to be a part of Tunbridge Wells,” she said.