Let's move to Tunbridge Wells
A hangover cure first put Tunbridge Wells on the map. Young buck Lord North had been living it up at the Abergavenny Estate, and was a little worse for wear. He supped the iron rich water from the Chalybeate Spring and found himself miraculously rejuvenated. Word went around that the water would cure ills ranging from infertility and hangovers to obesity and 'a moist brain', leading even Queen Victoria to ‘take the waters’ some 300 years later, giving the town its royal moniker.
Today’s emigres are seeking a cure for a different type of headache – schooling their children. The combined effect of rising school fees and huge price tags for tiny homes in London has seen something of a stampede to the town, which remains in commuting reach of the city, with the added lure of free education in the area’s prestigious grammar schools.
For those commuting to the West End there’s a direct line to Charing Cross. They are joined by City workers, funnelled out from Cannon Street and London Bridge, who enjoy attractive period properties and highly rated independent schools which their bonuses sustain despite some of the highest fees in the land (Tonbridge, at just under £40,000 for a boarding place is more expensive than Eton, and there’s little change from £30,000 for a day place).
Schools aside, the other attraction for families is houses which come with gardens big enough to accommodate play equipment and an outdoor dining space; and, for those with children at the romping stage, plenty of the great outdoors.
On a blazing day you can get to a beach in an hour: Hastings with rides, amusements and fish fresh from its own fleet to go with your chips; quieter Bexhill on Sea; cosmopolitan Brighton or Eastbourne with its long coastline offering everything from first rate rock pooling to adventure playgrounds.
There’s a surfeit of National Trust and English Heritage properties. Fifteen minutes in the car will take you to a top notch hide-and-seek spot among the atmospheric ruins at Bayham Abbey or the fairytale gardens of Scotney Castle. Knole Park offers trees to climb and den making equipment to forage, and is where those in the know go at the first sign of snowfall – its hills are something of a sledging black run. There are superb family cycling trails at Bedgebury Pinetum, and both cycling and sailing at Bewl Water.
Loads of attractions then for the children, but for adults, the cultural pickings are a little slim. The restaurant scene doesn’t reflect the considerable disposable income swilling around the town. There’s an outpost of The Ivy, decent enough fare at the Hotel du Vin and Thackerays – but for a special night out people still tend to head up to London, and thence to the nightmare that is getting back to the station in time for the last train home, not to mention trying to conjure up a taxi when you get off.
There’s art house cinema and some quirky acts at the Trinity Theatre, in a converted church. The boards of the larger Assembly Hall tend to be trodden by tribute acts or big name comedians trying out new material before an arena tour – all guaranteed to rib the audience about their Waitrose-shopping, lemon drizzle cake and olive oil guzzling stereotype.
Shopping offers a modern mall with the usual outlets, and there are independent clothes and antique/furniture shops in the High Street and the Pantiles. Department stores Fenwicks and Hoopers provide concessions for most big name designers, but a special outfit shop might require a trip to Bluewater, around 40 minutes away.
You’ll need half a million for an average priced house. In the town centre terraced houses fetch around £375,000, a detached property needs an £850,000 budget. In the streets of Victorian terraces without drives, expect parking problems to rival those of London. The architecture is predominantly Georgian or Victorian, with the highpoint being original Regency villas designed by Decimus Burton in Calverley Park.
Some people opt instead for the outlying villages for a greater range of houses including pretty tile hung cottages with walk-in fireplaces, Kentish oast houses, barn conversions, and properties with lots of land. Popular villages include Speldhurst, Groombridge, Penshurst, Matfield and Brenchley. You’ll lose the parking and traffic problems, and competition for primary places is less fierce, but average house prices hover around £750,000 – £850,000. It’s important to remember too that the little children you arrive with grow up and often these villages have only a couple of buses a day, so be prepared for a lot of taxiing from teenage parties, after school events, and missed school buses.
If you are planning on state schools you must pay forensic attention to catchment areas and entrance criteria before making an offer on a house.
As independent school fees climb ever higher, Tunbridge Wells has seen a huge growth in families seeking its grammar schools and highly rated faith schools. The grammar school system results in much parental angst – reckon on your child spending year 5 in weekly tuition as you succumb to FOMO even if school says your child doesn’t need extra tuition (and seeing other families starting it earlier and earlier), and enormous tension when 11+ results are announced at the end of October and secondary places awarded on 1 March. If you don’t like dinner parties dominated by talk of school places, step away now.
For the grammar schools, it’s not enough just to pass the 11+. For some schools you will also need to be within a tight catchment area, for others your child will need to be among the top scorers to gain a super-selective place. The faith schools have extremely strict criteria around church attendance. Do not be fooled into thinking you can be spotted in church a couple of times before you put the application forms in.
State secondary schools
There are six grammars in the Tunbridge Wells/Tonbridge bubble. For boys, Skinners in Tunbridge Wells, and Judd, an easy jaunt away in Tonbridge, are super-selectives which vie for the top 11+ scorers. Tunbridge Wells Boys takes those with a straight pass, but has a peculiar lozenge shaped catchment area; to be safe, reckon on living close by. For girls, Tunbridge Wells Girls again takes those with an 11+ pass from within catchment, plus offers a handful of governors’ places for high scorers living outside of this tiny patch. School buses ply a path to Tonbridge, where Weald of Kent takes straight passes, while Tonbridge Grammar School is a super-selective taking higher scorers. The pressure on grammar places results in some children travelling further to the Maidstone grammars, which tend to be less oversubscribed.
From the Good Schools Guide on Tonbridge Grammar School: Has received the British Council’s award for internationalism each year since the introduction of the IB in 2004 and has been top IB state school in the UK for five consecutive years. Strong sense of community with compulsory service activity once a week. They are involved in a community project in Africa – recently a group of about 20 raised money and built a library for a school in Swaziland – ‘they lived in fairly basic conditions and it was a life changing experience for my daughter,’ said one mother.
There’s also a scramble for places at the faith schools, from a somewhat outdated hysteria when, if your child didn’t make the grammars, the alternative High School was dire. Now known as Skinners Kent Academy and with an Ofsted outstanding, this has been transformed under a new head and a partnership with Skinners Grammar School, and this year it turned away nearly 90 first choices. High performing comprehensive Bennett Memorial (86 per cent achieving at least five GCSEs at A* to C or equivalent last year) requires you to be in the (C of E) pews for three weeks of every month for at least two years prior to an application. Catholic St Gregory’s gives priority to baptised Catholics, and then other Christians, further ranked by attendance at partner primary schools and regular church attendance. But the squeeze on comprehensive places means that hundreds of the town’s children are transported out to schools up to 15 miles away.
Private secondary schools
In the town itself, there's only the Catholic Beechwood Sacred Heart. Otherwise it means bussing it to Sevenoaks School for co-ed, also the destination for brainboxes en route for top IB results (average score 40 points last year). Excellent academics are garnished with lavish sports and arts facilities.
From the Good Schools Guide on Sevenoaks School: “These very bright children have only to be shown the way to strings of A*-A/9-7 grades at GCSE and it happens (94 per cent in 2017).
IB is natural extension of school’s way of thinking, most pupils revelling in mind-stretching approach that’s been their lot so far. It’s about ‘developing brain muscle so can frame an argument,’ said upper sixth English teacher leading typically lively, interactive lesson.”
Boys head to Tonbridge School where academic stringency (68 per cent A*/A at A level in 2017) meets sports facilities so fine they were used as a training ground for the London 2012 Olympics.
Plenty of stretch – three boys presented their scientific research to an international conference in China and another has published a GCSE French text book. Everyone takes digital creativity (ICT) in three fab digital creativity labs.
State primary schools
You need to mug up on catchments and entry requirements and apply judiciously. Only three out of 32 primary schools in the Tunbridge Wells district were not oversubscribed this year, according to Kent County Council figures. Toughest to get into are the Ofsted outstanding Speldhurst C of E and St Peter’s C of E (5.8 and 5.3 applications per place respectively).
In the town centre there’s The Mead, a dinky sized school housed in a Victorian villa, known for its family atmosphere; Rose Hill, on a modern site with its own theatre and Astro pitch; Catholic Beechwood Sacred Heart (an all through); and Holmewood House, the snazziest of the bunch with fees to match (sports facilities include its own 20 metre rifle range). School says the higher fees fund a large number of bursaries.
Kent College also has a prep department, and many Tunbridge Wells families beat a path to Tonbridge for The Schools at Somerhill where Derwent Lodge (girls) and Yardley Court (boys) share the same picturesque, rolling campus with every facility you can imagine.
From the Good Schools Guide on Somerhill: “All three parts of the school are housed in a large Jacobean stone mansion, once a family home, set in 150 acres: part manicured lawns, part playing fields and extensive woodland. The school perches at the highest point, giving it great views over the Kent countryside. A dipping pond, den-building and sledging on snowy days and not one but two proper adventure playgrounds (which will sell the school in an instant to children), there is a definite whiff of Swallows and Amazons.”