Traditionally the story of Tunbridge Wells starts in 1606 with the discovery of the chalybeate spring by Dudley, Lord North. It’s a great story, and it’s captured the imagination of local historians since at least the Georgian period. But at the same time it has distracted people from looking at the earlier history of our area, and the continuity between local history, archaeology and geology.
Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding rural area lie within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The High Weald is characterised as ‘a unique and ancient landscape of rolling hills, small irregular fields, abundant woods and hedges, scattered farmsteads and sunken lanes’. The name ‘Weald’ derives from a Saxon word meaning ‘wilderness’: its wild character and sense of remoteness became a big part of the appeal of the Wells when it eventually became a fashionable tourist resort.
Going back into deep prehistory, the sandstones and clays of the High Weald built up on the floor of a lowland area of flood-plains and rivers around 136 million years ago. Those local rocks contain fossils of freshwater fish and molluscs; and from the surrounding high ground, tree ferns, giant horsetails, insects and dinosaurs – including our famous local dinosaur Iguanodon, remains of which were found in the 1930s at the brick quarry at High Brooms.
Later on, around 110 million years ago, the area was overtaken by the sea, and other layers of rock were laid on top. 70-75 million years ago, the land began to rise once again. Then on the highest ground, those latest layers got eroded away, leaving the ancient freshwater rocks back on the surface. Those remarkable sandstone outcrops that we see around Tunbridge Wells – such as on Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons, and at High Rocks – were eroded by wind or water during the Ice Age period from around 2 million years ago.
People of the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age cultures were living in the High Weald during warmer periods of the overall Ice Age period from around 700,000 years ago. But they were repeatedly driven south by increasingly harsh conditions. As the climate finally warmed again around 9500 years ago, Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age people started coming across the dry English Channel, and they began the story of continuous human presence in our area down to the present day. These Mesolithic people were hunter-gatherers, and they exploited the resources of the heavily forested area. They used the local rock outcrops as seasonal camp sites: they offered protection and shelter, and they were focal points within the landscape.
When farming was introduced from the Continent around 4300 BC, hunter-gatherers began adopting the new ways and settling down. This was the beginning of Neolithic or New Stone Age culture. As the soil of the High Weald was pretty poor, people often preferred to settle elsewhere and to use the forest land for hunting and cutting timber. And the droving of domestic animals to autumn pasture in the forest may well have begun as early as this New Stone Age period.
Life continued in a similar fashion during what we call the Bronze Age from around 4000 years ago.
The growth of the local iron industry from around 750 BC encouraged more people to live in the Tunbridge Wells area. In the 1st century BC, local people started to make their mark on the landscape by building hill forts such as the one you can see at High Rocks. These forts were strongholds to which people could retreat in times of danger, but local leaders may also have seen them as status symbols.
The Romans invaded England in AD 43 and made it part of their empire. The Romans saw the value of the High Weald’s flourishing iron industry, and they began to manage and develop some sites on a larger scale to service the Roman fleet. The Romans were masters at winning over the hearts and minds of subject people, and persuading them of the value of belonging to a wider world. And it appears that local people were quite happy to put their technical skills at the service of Rome. In the remote High Weald, life would not have changed greatly, but there are signs that people now felt part of a wider world. So alongside homemade pottery of Iron Age style, we find at local sites products from other parts of England and mass-produced Samian ware from the factories in what we call France.
Roman rule came to an end in the early 5th century, and at this point the use of the High Weald forest tended to revert back to an earlier pattern of hunting, timber cutting and seasonal pasture. In the Saxon period, farmers living on the more fertile lands of the Downs and the coastal plain used to drive their pigs into the Wealden forest each autumn to fatten them up on acorns and beechmast.
Those areas that they used as seasonal pastures were known as ‘dens’, and you find many local place names around Tunbridge Wells – think about Benenden or Horsmonden or Marden – still reflect that history. One of the closest den names to present day Tunbridge Wells is Rusthall, which occurs in a charter of AD 765. Other dens in the Tunbridge Wells area include Bishop’s Down (originally Bishopsden), Ramslye, Calverley and Culverden.
Over time, as competition for land grew and people began to settle in the forest all year round, these dens developed into small isolated farmsteads dotted across the countryside. The first villages like Rusthall, Speldhurst, Southborough and Hawkenbury did not start to appear until the Middle Ages.
Also in the Middle Ages, we have the emergence of great estates, including Bayhall between Hawkenbury and Pembury, the monastic site at Bayham, and the Manor of Rusthall which is attested from as early as the 12th century.
Greatest of the great estates was the Lowy of Tonbridge, which was originally carved out by William the Conqueror in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest to provide an estate to support the occupants of Tonbridge Castle which commanded the strategic crossing of the River Medway. The Clare family, who held the castle, established two large chases or hunting forests within the Lowy, one either side of the Medway. The southernmost, known as South Frith, came right down into what is now the Tunbridge Wells area.
However, all that land within the Lowy had originally belonged to someone, and when the dust had settled after the Norman Conquest some of those claimants started to push back – most notably the Archbishops of Canterbury. The result was that the Clare family who held the castle got embroiled in persistent litigation. In 1279 a Perambulation of the Lowy was held in order to try to resolve the issue once and for all. Twelve local worthies appointed by each of the contending parties rode around the edge of the Lowy debating what places were inside and what places were outside. The 1279 route as described provides a fascinating insight into what was happening at Tunbridge Wells at that period. We learn that Hawkenbury was there, there is Culverden, and on top of Mount Pleasant hill there is a little settlement known as Bromleyridge.
The iron industry had been at a low ebb during the Saxon period, but it revived again during the later Middle Ages. And when the blast furnace was introduced into England at the end of the 1400s, the High Weald became for a time the industrial centre of England. Wealden iron-making flourished in Tudor times, producing military equipment like cannons as well as domestic items such as fire-backs. However, that industry declined again in the eighteenth century with the advent of coke-fired blast furnaces when iron-making shifted northwards.
From the Tudor period we have a fascinating estate plan of what is now the centre of Tunbridge Wells, showing a lot of the present day road system was there in the 1500s. It also shows a substantial house on the site of the later Calverley Hotel (the Hotel du Vin), and that little settlement of Bromleyridge on top of Mount Pleasant hill consisting of four cottages.
The wild landscape of the High Weald around Tunbridge Wells made an impression on travellers like Elizabeth I, who it could be argued is our very first royal visitor. When she stayed with the Abergavenny family at Eridge in 1573, one of her courtiers wrote that ‘The Queen’s Majesty had a hard beginning of a progress in the Weald, where surely are more wondrous rocks and valleys and much worse ground than in the Peak’.
Eridge was where Lord North was staying 33 years later when he discovered the chalybeate spring and began the story of Tunbridge Wells that we know and love.