The Pantiles is the picturesque centre of the historic spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells.
The Pantiles and the town owe their beginnings to the discovery of the Chalybeate Spring in 1606 by Dudley Lord North, a distinguished courtier during the reign of King James I. After a fashionably excessive lifestyle, Lord North retired to Eridge to restore his health. On stumbling across the waters one day he decided to try them: he found his health was completely restored and lived to the age of 80.
News of Lord North’s recovery fuelled public interest. Lord Abergavenny, ancestor of the current Marquess of Abergavenny, cleared the area around the spring, sank wells and surrounded them with stone paving and railings. Taking the spa water became fashionable among the gentry and royalty of the period. As the spring’s popularity spread, its reputation grew with visitors including Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, who visited six weeks after the birth of her son, later King Charles II.
This influx of visitors led to the further development of the area with a collonaded walkway being built in the eighteenth century. In its heyday in Georgian times, this collonaded walkway was known as The Walks. It was the place to be seen for visitors to Tunbridge Wells. A strict protocol had to be followed: only the gentry were allowed to promenade on the Upper Walks – everyone else was restricted to the Lower Walks. This protocol was enforced by dandy Richard Beau Nash, a self-appointed Master of Ceremonies during ‘the season’ in Tunbridge Wells.
The Walks were subsequently renamed The Pantiles after pantiles were laid in 1700. These one-inch thick square tiles were made from heavy Wealden clay and got their name as they were shaped in a wooden pan before being fired.
Today The Pantiles is still the top tourist attraction in Tunbridge Wells. For visitors and locals alike it continues to offer the chance to sample the waters. It is also a thriving shopping centre with a tempting range of independent stores, plus it provides delicious opportunities for eating out at the diverse restaurants, cafes and bars, many with al fresco dining.
The Pantiles is also key to the cultural life of Tunbridge Wells, with regular open-air events such as farmers’ markets, art exhibitions, an annual Food Festival and the hugely popular Jazz On The Pantiles from June to September.
The Nevill Estate is currently investing in The Pantiles with the redevelopment of the Corn Exchange on the Lower Pantiles. This has encouraged celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager to relocate her cookery school to the Corn Exchange – an indication of the national and international standing of this historic corner of Kent.