From tomorrow (Thursday) until Sunday September 11 there will be a series of free Heritage Open Days taking place in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding area. One of the event’s organisers, Pat Wilson, tells the Times about some of the unique and fascinating historical finds visitors can discover on their doorstep courtesy of this annual event
Heritage Open Days have been happening for almost a quarter of a century. They are organised nationally every year by English Heritage to celebrate England’s architecture and culture by offering free access to properties and gardens that are either not usually open to the public, or would normally charge an entrance fee.
This year there’s more than ever to see and do in West Kent, and particularly in Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge.
In essence, Heritage Days are your chance to look inside the surviving great houses of your area, visit the historic churches and castles – and discover more quirky things, such as the former opera house and a working windmill.
The big coup for this year in Tunbridge Wells is Mabledon, the childhood home of Decimus Burton. Lying on Southborough and Tonbridge border, it was designed and built by his father, James.
Other grand houses opening up their doors include Salomons, Southborough, which boasts a fascinating museum and interesting 19th-century laboratories.
Another new venue is The Skinners’ School, which is welcoming people to browse around. One thing to look out
for is its selection of 19th-century punishment books!
As usual there will be a number of conducted tours taking place over the four-day period, and one that has proved to be very popular over the years is backstage at the Opera House in Mount Pleasant Road. Although it’s now a pub it was the predecessor to Glyndebourne and still provides a full opera once a year.
There are also churches galore to explore. For stained glass enthusiasts there are the nationally-celebrated High Victorian Burne Jones windows at Speldhurst, and Chagall’s modernist memorials to a drowned girl at All Saints’ Church in Tudelely.
Just down the road at Capel there are some rare 13th-century wall paintings to enjoy at the normally closed St Thomas a Becket parish church.
Memorials and mementoes are everywhere, including Princess Victoria’s ‘personal’ seat at King Charles the Martyr Church by The Pantiles (timely with Young Victoria dominating our TV screens) and archives of Edith Cavell at St Thomas’s Church in Southborough.
In addition, there are a number of tours and outings on offer. At the Woodbury Park Cemetery visitors can see ornate tombs of heroes of the Empire or Victorian dignitaries – which include Jane Austen’s brother. You can also take a steam train ride on the Spa Valley Railway along to High Rocks, which boasts eight acres of sandstone rock – free to explore.
Or you can get right down into the sandstone and mud courtesy of the Southborough Archaeological Society, who will take you to their dig site just off Vauxhall Lane to find out what our Neolithic ancestors were up to.
There’s also the working windmill in Cranbrook to look around, and not far away you can watch prize-winning blacksmith Michael Hart demonstrating his skills at his Horsmonden forge.
OTHER HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING
Friends of Tunbridge Wells Cemetery – a historical presentation of Tunbridge Wells Cemetery. Kent & Sussex Crematorium and Cemetery, Benhall Mill Road, Tunbridge Wells TN2 5JJ
Guided Jane Austen-themed walking tours – these will take place at 11am on Saturday and Sunday and start at the Castle Gateway in Tonbridge. Tonbridge Castle, Castle Street, TN9 1BG
Past and Present Tunbridge Wells – a drop-in event where visitors can see photographs and artefacts
Tunbridge Wells Library, Mount Pleasant Road, Tunbridge Wells TN1 1NS
Rusthall and World War Two (1939-1945) – a display by Rusthall Local History Group titled ‘From Workhouse to Farm, and Much More’. St Paul’s Parish Church, Langton Road, Rusthall, Tunbridge Wells TN4 8XD
Willicombe House – the elegant home of the major Victorian Tunbridge Wells developer William Willicombe, with an attractive garden. Tunbridge Wells TN2 3UU
Somerhill House/The Schools at Somerhill – a chance to view this Grade I listed Jacobean Mansion (1611), which is the second largest Jacobean house in Kent. Somerhill, Tudeley Road, Tonbridge
St Stephens Church, Tonbridge – St Stephens Church dates back to 1842, when the railway arrived in the south of Tonbridge. St Stephens Church, Waterloo Road, Tonbridge TN9 2SW
The Oast Theatre – see what happens at this local theatre. It’s not just acting! This year the art group will be holding an open-air exhibition. London Road, Tonbridge TN10 3AN
Bellringing at St Margaret’s, Horsmonden – an opportunity to ascend the church tower, tour the belfry, and watch the bell-ringers in action, with the possibility of taking part. St Margaret’s Church, Horsmonden, Near Tunbridge Wells TN12 8EJN
Dunk’s Green Free Church – the Church, built in 1837, is the last surviving rural chapel in the Kent Downs – an area of outstanding beauty. Long Mill Lane, Dunk’s Green, Near Tonbridge, TN11 9SF