Living in the Village

I live in the strange area of Tunbridge Wells which local people now call the 'village'. It is a bit like a village and even has a sort of village hall in the shape of the TOC H hall in Little Mount Sion. There is a WI Market on Thursday mornings and activities such a Yoga, Pilates and Flamenco dancing. The Village Residents Association has its meeting there. These are really parties to which all comers are invited. Little time is given to protest, complaint or expressions of disgust. There is a children’s party at Christmas, and a picnic in the Grove for children and their parents in summer. The 'village church' is Christchurch in the High Street, though many feel King Charles the Martyr belongs equally to them. Technically, most of the village is in the parish of Christchurch.

The village is probably the oldest part of the town and sprang up in the wake of the growing popularity of Tunbridge Wells as a spa and resort in the 18th Century. Many of the houses in Mount Sion, now respectable and sometimes elegant dwellings, were once boarding houses and brothels built for the growing number of visitors to the town. The village surrounds the little park called The Grove and incorporates the narrow streets on either side, which connect the park to The High Street and Grove Hill Road. The area is more properly known as Mount Sion, from which the steep road leading up from the Chapel Place end of The High Street gets its name. Mount Sion, the entire hillside above the High Street, is the subject of a hefty 480 page book* by Roger Farthing. Roger was a local historian who spent 10 years writing it, and died shortly after its publication. Never, it seems, has so much been written about so little. But, as so often happens, the closer you look the more you seem to discover.

Mount Sion also gets a mention in Still Life, Sketches from a Tunbridge Wells Childhood by Richard Cobb. The author was a distinguished Oxford historian, whose affectionate, but a little jaundiced account of the town is a good read, whether or not you have a special interest in it. He manages to capture the quirky, oddness of the place, which still persists. He recalls, for example, that at the top of Little Mount Sion, 'there was a tiny shop-window painted a deep green, and marked, in white letters: Engineer. In the window was some sort of engine: cog-wheels, ball-bearings, a thickly greased piston, a mysterious object the presence of which suggested that of even more mysterious objects inside.'

The shop window is there no more, at least not painted green. Once the 'Village' consisted of a group of shops­ - dairy, butchers, bakery, grocer, greengrocer etc, which made it unnecessary for inhabitants to go even as far as The High Street for their shopping. Most of the shops are now private houses. Their origins are betrayed mostly by their former shop windows now displaying nothing more than blinds or curtains, with an occasional cat looking back at passers-by. Commerce still persists, however, in the shape of a fish-and-chip shop, Miles Garage (which has been servicing cars since they first came into common use), the offices of Index Magazine, a specialist car dealer called Compass Cars and two pubs – The Compasses and The Grove Tavern.

What will future generations have to be nostalgic about? Perhaps the chip-shop smell which hangs over the streets on still evenings. Or the scarcity of parking places, which accounts for the number of times you see the same drivers on their second or third turn round the block. Or the foxes which come out at night trying to solve the problem of how to get into wheely bins.

*A History of Mount Sion. Roger Farthing. Philimore & Co Ltd. £50.00. Probably available, as new, from Hall’s Bookshop in Chapel Place.

Joe Hyam,
Tunbridge Wells

Best of Now is Joe's weblog.