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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK


Tunbridge Wells: The spiritual home of Middle England



A quick game of word association - Tunbridge Wells.

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What comes to mind? Doilies, Women's Institute, semi-detached, cricket on the green, retired colonels, bone china, bridge evenings, perhaps?

Despite its southerly location, Tunbridge Wells' spiritual home lies at the very epicentre of middle England.

Royal Tunbridge Wells, to give it its full title, has become a by-word for traditional, conservative England.


[ image: Archie Norman MP: Comfortably held the seat for the Conservatives]
Archie Norman MP: Comfortably held the seat for the Conservatives
In the public consciousness it stands for everything that made Britain great, before the ghastly dawn of unemployment, drug abuse, foul mouthed, disrespectful youth and teenage single mothers.

Which maybe helps explain why William Hague has chosen the spa town in Kent as the venue for rolling out his new image, while launching his party's local election campaign.

With his new spin doctor, Amanda Platell, looking on, the Conservative leader who has led his party to a record all-time low rating for a major party is attempting to start afresh.

Talk has been of focusing on the "real" William Hague by stressing his family appeal, emphasising his down-to-earth homeliness, and making greater play of his wife, Ffion.

And while some people might feel the need to narrow their eyes with suspicion, in Tunbridge Wells, Mr Hague is almost certainly preaching to the converted.

Amid the Tory bloodbath of the last general election, the voters of Tunbridge Wells barely blinked. Retiring MP Sir Patrick Mayhew made way for Archie Norman, then chairman of the Asda supermarket chain, albeit with a narrowed majority.


[ image: Robin Cook and his new wife tied the knot in the town's register office]
Robin Cook and his new wife tied the knot in the town's register office
Labour might have won the biggest House of Commons majority this century, but in Tunbridge Wells the party is very much resigned to third-place. (Last year, however, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, picked the town's register office to marry Gaynor Regan.)

In a turbulent and changing world, Tunbridge Wells is viewed as an island of certitude.

Situated in the heart of Kent, a county that calls itself the Garden of England and resolutely clings to its grammar schools, the town's genteel history encompasses nearly four centuries of Royal patronage. Its spacious parks and graceful civic centre have long been a draw to the wealthy.


[ image: David Gower: Fits the Tunbridge Wells template]
David Gower: Fits the Tunbridge Wells template
More recently it has prospered as a commuter belt town - just one-hour's train ride from London - and a service economy, with both PPP (healthcare) and NPI (pensions) large local employers.

Its image as a bastion of conservative values, has become immortalised in the fictional character of a morally outraged resident: "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells".

But this is not a recent construct. The celebrated author E M Forster seized on its stuffy, reactionary image in his 1908 novel A Room With a View.


[ image: Jo Brand: Educated in Tunbridge Wells]
Jo Brand: Educated in Tunbridge Wells
"I am used to Tunbridge Wells, where we are all hopelessly behind the times," says the character Miss Bartlett. "Yes," replies Lucy, who becomes captivated with the romance and excitement of Italy.

Of course stereotypes are nothing more than a convenient distortion of the truth, and Tunbridge Wells inevitably has its alter ego.

Its 45,000 population is not immune to the pitfalls of urban life, and although crime figures and unemployment are low, there will always be exceptions. Last year a 41-year-old housewife was jailed for 15 years having been convicted of conspiracy to supply drugs from her four-bedroom house in the Royal town.

So while it comes as no surprise that cricketer David Gower and former Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade have both lived there, it's also true that brash comedienne Jo Brand went to school there and Roger Daltry, ex-front man of rock's wildmen The Who, runs a trout farm nearby.


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Tunbridge Wells Borough Council

Welcome to Tunbridge Wells

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