T is for (Royal) Tunbridge Wells

Saturday 15th October 2022

Tunbridge Wells is situated on the south western fringes of Kent just over the border from East Sussex. The town has a population of around 56,000 which is roughly half the number living in the wider Tunbridge Wells Borough Council area including Paddock Wood, Goudhurst, Cranbrook and Benenden.

Like Leamington Spa, I visited in June, it’s one of the few towns with the rather meaningless Royal prefix to its name, in this case bestowed in 1909, but you don’t see it used much these days. You can find it on maps but not on any road signs or bus and train timetables.

It’s nearest neighbour, Tonbridge (in the Borough of Tonbridge and Malling), lies five miles to the north with other major towns nearby being Sevenoaks nine miles further north and Maidstone 17 miles north east with Ashford 30 miles east, Hastings, 30 miles south east, Eastbourne 31 miles south, Brighton 31 miles south west and East Grinstead 15 miles west and Crawley nine miles further west than that.

There was a time when Kent County Council was in the vanguard of excellent information provision for the county’s bus network with both a printed and online network bus map and excellent information at bus stops with route numbers on flags and full timetables in cases below. This meant although the bus network serving Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding area was in the hands of many different bus operators passengers could easily find what they needed.

Sadly this all stopped some years ago to save costs and like so many towns it’s now impossible to find a map showing where the bus routes go within the town or further afield, made all the more difficult by the town still having eight different bus operators on its patch. No wonder Kent County Council seem to be perennially proposing bus cuts – yet the politicians and officers just don’t seem to make the link between a dearth of information provision and a lack of passengers.

However I was pleased to see a poster displayed at some town centre bus shelters showing ‘where to board your bus’ at the main stops ….

….. which are denoted by a letter which is prominently displayed on the flags…

… and seems to have replaced the previous practice of showing bus route numbers, which latterly weren’t being kept up to date.

For example, route 77, operated by Nu-Venture from West Malling now only runs as far as Tonbridge, meaning that operator can no longer be found in Tunbridge Wells.

Nu-Venture in the town in 2020

Despite the plethora of bus operators and the lack of co-ordinated information provision from the county council, bus stop timetable case displays are all very readable, if to different formats.

My visit to Tunbridge Wells last Saturday coincided with a rail strike so I was unable to sample Southeastern’s half hourly service between Hastings, Tunbridge Wells and London Bridge, Waterloo East and Charing Cross supplemented by an hourly starter from Tunbridge Wells up to Charing Cross. Journey time to London is around 55-58 minutes.

One train an hour is an all stations stopper between Tunbridge Wells and Hastings taking 48 minutes with the other stopping at just St Leonard’s, Battle and Wadhurst saving 11 minutes.

However, just down the road at Tunbridge Wells West station the lovely heritage Spa Valley Railway far from being impacted by strike action was in the middle of a three day Real Ale and Cider event ….

…. in association with West Kent CAMRA with no end of barrels of alcohol for visitors to try as well as two train formations running 11 return journeys between Tunbridge Wells West, Groombridge and Eridge where trains terminate alongside Southern trains passing through on Network Rail tracks at the Southern run station.

The former Tunbridge Wells West station building is a very grand affair (above) now used as a restaurant and the large site also has a large Sainsbury’s (and Homebase and Lidl) on former railway land together with a bus turnaround for some of the town’s bus routes with others calling by.

One of those calling by is the 15 minute frequency town route 281 operated by Arriva between the nearby residential area of Rusthall via the town centre and High Brooms in the north of the town. I took a ride on this route during my visit and it was certainly very busy with a full load on board albeit the bus was running almost 15 minutes late so was picking up a double load.

Arriva also run half hourly town route 277 between the West Station, town centre and the big Tunbridge Wells Hospital at Pembury via the Sherwood and Knights Wood residential areas of the town. I had a ride on this and although not as busy as the 281 was being well used.

Go Coach Hire runs a couple of cross town routes albeit they’re much less frequent than the 277/281. Routes 280 and 283 both run approximately every 90 minutes/two hourly from the West station to the residential areas of Molyneux Park (280) …

… and Ravenswood Avenue (283) and as you can see are inter-worked by the same bus.

Hams Travel also operate a town service – the 285 which cross town roughly hourly between Speldhurst and Hawkenbury.

There’s a good range of inter urban routes connecting Tunbridge Wells to surrounding towns.

Brighton & Hove’s route 29 has continued its reduced hourly frequency introduced during Covid (from half hourly) to Crowborough, Uckfield, Lewes and Brighton. This route was famously once part of a very long route jointly operated by Southdown and Maidstone & District between Gravesend and Brighton.

Crowborough traditionally had its own route serving more of the town including Jarvis Brook. This is now in the hands of Compass Bus operated routes 228/229 but now to a much reduced frequency (every 90 minutes/two hourly) operated with one bus.

Crowborough has seen quite a reduction in the number of buses to Tunbridge Wells over the last few years.

Moving round eastwards we have Stagecoach operated routes 251 and 252 half hourly to Rotherfield, Mayfield and Heathfield and from there changing number to become a 51 to Eastbourne.…

… as well as route 254 hourly to Wadhurst, Ticehurst and Hawkhurst and from there as a 304/305 to Battle and Hastings.

Also in this neck of the woods is Autocar operated routes 255 and 256. The former a WFS one return journey from Benenden via Fimwell and Lamberhurst and the latter four return journeys on Mondays to Fridays to Wadhurst via Lamberhurst.

Arriva operate three inter urban routes north east and northwards – the hourly 6 (via Paddock Wood) …

…. and half hourly 7 (via Tonbridge) to Maidstone ….

… and half hourly 402 via Tonbridge to Sevenoaks which at one time continued to Bromley and is all that’s left of the famous Green Line route 704 to London and Windsor. All three routes had some good loads on board as they arrived into the town.

Metrobus operates hourly route 291 westwards to East Grinstead and Crawley ….

… as well as a couple of rural routes 231 and 233 (four journeys each) to Edenbridge.

Hams Travel operate route 297 every 90 minutes/two hourly to Tenterden via Goudhurst, Cranbrook, Benenden and Rolvenden…..

… with Autocar running a Thursday only route 293 shoppers journey also to Tenterden but via Lamberhurst and Hawkurst which is under threat of withdrawal as part of KCC’s proposed cut backs to save funding. Similarly under threat is Autocar operated route 296 on MThS providing two shoppers journeys from Paddock Wood via Horsmonden, Brenchley and Hebwood Green.

Finally as well as various school bus routes there’s a Monday to Friday only route: Go Coach Hire’s 289 which runs cross town between Southborough and Ramslye with a few journeys during the off peak (five northbound and three southbound)…

As you can see from the photographs, there’s a lot of bus operator variety to be found in Tunbridge Wells, and also the Council have been busy enhancing the ‘public realm’ in the town centre with fancy paving which gives a nice feel to the area, especially in the section of bus only road in front of the War Memorial and Opera House (now a Wetherspoons) but it’s nice to see a historic piece of paving has been retained and incorporated into the updated paving…

…. although nowadays you’d never get 10 omnibuses standing in front of the Town Hall.

Roger French

Previous AtoZ blogs: Andover; Bracknell; Carlisle; Durham, Evesham, Folkestone, Grantham, Harrogate, Inverness, Jarrow, King’s Lynn, Leamington Spa, Maidenhead, Neath, Oswestry, Potters Bar, Queensferry, Runcorn, Salisbury.

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS with occasional Su specials, but not tomorrow.

30 thoughts on “T is for (Royal) Tunbridge Wells

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  1. Loong at KCC’s BSIP it appears to be frozen in time with no update since August 21, It i all very vague as well. There seems to be no link between that and Kents LTP which covers 2016 to 2025, this also appears to be frozen in time so What Kents plans are for public transport remain a mystery. There certainly appears to be no engagement with bus users which I thought was a key part of the BSIP’s Kent though is probably no better or worse than other LTA’s

    There appear to be no real plan for public transport in England and no budget neither, so it appears to be a case of continuing bus cuts. The West Midlands being the latest area to propose significant cut to service
    Still no real news neither on what is happening with The Cambridge cuts, Stagecoach has announced all the cuts on their Web site so it is a case of whether any alternatives operators will come forward. The cuts though come into effect at the end of this month

    More cuts could follow when the government funding runs out. There are rumours though of a further but reduced level of funding

    So far the only area to see any benefit from BSIP seems to be Cornwall which has had fares reduced

    Surely there must be somewhere that has seen bus services improve as a result of BSIP after all about a 30% of LTS’s got funding

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  2. The lack of information and a confusing number of bus operators does deter many people from using buses. This problem applies to many areas, not just Kent, and eventually results in bus services being withdrawn because of lack of passengers. Both the bus operators and local authorities need to make much more effort to deal with this problem.

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  3. The 254 continues south of Hawkhurst to Battle and Hastings as a 304/305 not as a 349. The 254 is unusual whilst not operating on Sunday’s it runs on Bank Holidays. Threatened with withdrawal at the end of this month East Sussex have stepped in with funding for it to continue.

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  4. The LTAs which were successful in their BSIPs have only received indicative funding announcements and have had to jump through many more hoops to actually get any money released.
    Consequently, most Enhanced Partnerships have been unable to deliver anything on the ground yet.

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  5. I’m slightly confused. You note that the 77 no longer runs to Tunbridge Wells, yet immediately below, show a picture of a 77 going to Tunbridge Wells. Was it an old photo?

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  6. Good morning roger, At some point in the future can I suggest a ride on the Lancs CC service operated by Blackpool Transport route 74 that goes from Fleetwood to Preston via Thornton Cleveleys,Poulton Le Fylde and through masses of tight roads and hamlets before reaching Preston bus station. End to end journeys take about 2 hours and always carries good loads. Regards rod

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  7. It’s been many years since I was in Tunbridge Wells. But many of the route numbers in this town have remained unchanged, even though the operators are mostly different. You report good loads on many of the buses you observed.
    Can it be a coincidence that a town with memorable route numbers manages to retain customers over the years ?
    In many other parts of the country, route numbers are changed and bear little or no relation to their predecessors. Can it be any wonder that passengers are confused, uncertain and give up because ‘it’s all too difficult’.

    Elementary lesson – Constant route numbers retain local passengers.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Roger: If you travelled into the town on any of the main bus routes, you would see that the boundary is marked by “Welcome to Royal Tunbridge Wells” signs.

    Alsa, the KCC bus stop maps are not kept up to date: you show the current map and the 285 (Hawkenbury) as worked by Nu-Venture/Hams but recently Hams took over the entire route and the 282 (Speldhurst) has now been merged back into it. The maps are also usefully on display at the railway station (when open), and occasionally – shock, horror! – you can even obtain bus timetables there.

    Minor pedantic point: the Opera House, at one time occupied by Autocar (the original company, not the present one), is now a WEtherspoon’s.

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  9. Many thanks Roger for such a useful report on the town I was born in. .Good to know the famous 7 is still the 7 after 100 years or so. What you would not see on a midday visit is the number of school buses which carry pupils to grammar schools in T Wells and also to Tonbridge. Very many go from the Sevenoaks area to both towns

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  10. Many of the places with Regis in the name could be seen as Royal and there are a good few of those.Bognor Regis comes,as I recall, from Edward the 7th’s times but most like Rowley Regis will be much older and probably Norman French?London has a Royal Borough, Chelsea, and Berkshire is a Royal County but pretty meaningless as the proper pre 1974 county is carved up now.

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      1. Berkshire was carved up long before 97 as Abingdon it’s county town was moved into the new Oxfordshire in 74.What is left is just a collection of unitary authorities.We tend to think of it as a sort of London centric county but the far west is rather rural more akin to Wiltshire.

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      2. Indeed, but as a resident of Abingdon I’m quite happy to be in Oxfordshire…

        Splitting what was left up in 1997 was the real mistake, in my view.

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  11. You say you were pleased to see “Where To Board Your Bus” maps at stops but the one you focus on must be two-and-a-half years old at least if the inclusion of National Express 023 is anything to go by.

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  12. LTA’s that have reasonable bus information on a Web Site
    (Usually, the LTA is the County Council or the Unitary Authority)

    Most LTA’s appear to have very limited information on public transport on their Web site. Some have separate Web sites for public transport. Very few have really good and comprehensive information

    A few below for starters

    Reasonable Information

    Hertfordshire County Council
    Suffolk County Council
    Cornwall County Council
    Devon County Council
    Thurrock

    Basic bus information

    Essex County Council
    Southend
    Norfolk County Council
    Cambridge and Peterborough

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      1. The Local authorty structures are now horribly complex. I though Kent was still intact but at least a part of it has now been split off as Medway Unitary Authority

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  13. Hurrah! – a mention for my old regular route, the 256. When I lived at the edge of Wadhurst, I regularly used it; Autocar was in charge then, and the drivers were all friendly and helpful. I believe ‘256’ dates from the late 1970s/early 80s, when Maidstone & District ‘tidied up’ their route numbers – so we had the 252 (TW to Heathfield), 254 (TW to Hawkhurst), 255 (TW to Hawkhurst via the A21), and 256 (TW to Lamberhurst & Wadhurst) – all still running, after a fashion! From my memory of using the Kent CC Rail+Bus Rover in the mid 1970s, the route numbers were a bit of a mess at that time; probably each new route got the next consecutive number. Still, as Peter Murnaghan has observed above, I’m sure the changes did little but confuse the existing users; the trouble is that most passengers just use the one route that passes their door. It’s been a very long time since you could use a local bus network as – for instance – London people use the tube, to get to most places, only needing the map.

    One 256 journey was my only (thank heaven) experience of being in a bus damaged by a car. Some idiot driving a Chelsea tractor went right into the side of the (mini) bus, pushing it right off the road. The car could be driven away, but the bus driver was very shaken and rightly wouldn’t try to drive; luckily we were not far from a phone box (none of us on the bus had mobile phones at that time) and I was able to call a friend in Wadhurst to take us four passengers on into Tunbridge Wells. I never found out what happened to the rest of the 256 service that day. Wouldn’t it be great, if the only thing a driver in that position had to do was to call a central number, and the nearest bus garage would send out a relief service immediately – ‘for the good of the industry’s reputation’! After all, when the Chatham Railway (back in Victorian times) had an accident on their Dover line, the SER (their arch-rival) immediately offered the use of their own line for the mail trains.

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      1. Most of the LTA’s even those that received funding still have no real project plan in place in fact the reality is most are doing nothing other than generate hot air

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