Sunday, 16 December 2007

Decimus Burton & Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells, one of the largest and most fashionable towns in Kent, grew from humble beginnings. In 1606 springs rich in iron were discovered in the rural village of Tunbridge Wells and the tourist trade in taking the waters began. First Henrietta Maria and later her son, Charles II, were enamoured of the health enhancing properties of the waters: later still other Royals visited including Queen Anne in the 1700's when she left money to pave the village around the wells with pantiles. The area became known as The Pantiles and Tunbridge Wells was truly on the map as a fashionable resort.

So popular was it, that Beau Nash came from Bath is 1735 to be Master of Ceremonies for visitors. Unfortunately for the town, in the 1800's there was a new craze: sea bathing. Society spurned Tunbridge Wells for the beaches of Brighton. A bath house was built to try and lure them back but bathing in iron water proved unpopular – bathers got brown bottoms! Something had to be done: the town needed a renaissance, something to restore its fortune.

That 'something' turned out to be somebody: Decimus Burton. The young Burton (1800-1881) trained at the Royal Academy Schools and worked as an understudy to John Nash on Regents Park. Nash allowed him to do some of the designing of Cornwall and Clarence Terrace and Grove House.

By his early twenties he had his own office in Regent Street. He designed Regents Park, the Triumphal Arch at Hyde Park, the Athenaeum Club and the buildings at London Zoo. He was commissioned to build Holwood Park, Keston by John Ward who went on to buy the Calverley Estate of about 1000 acres in Tunbridge Wells.

Burton knew the area because his Scottish father had bought Mabledon, a gothic style house on an estate near Tunbridge Wells, in 1804: Ward commissioned Burton junior to develop his new estate. Tunbridge Wells had grown in size without any plan but Burton set out to change this: he started to design a layout and buildings to the north and east of the village and The Pantiles.

A crescent of 24 villas with their own gardens were designed at the centre of Calverley Park between 1829 and 1837. The houses were all built in different styles from the local sandstone quarried from the estate, which also had its own brick and water works. As with most estates there were lodges at each entrance: first to be built was Victoria Gate – named after the Princess - in a classical style. Next was Keston Lodge in the same style, then Farnborough Lodge in a gothic style. The lodge keepers only allowed in residents, their servants or respectable visitors - the first gated community!

Burton enlarged and rebuilt Mount Pleasant House – now the Hotel du Vin – where Princess Victoria had holidayed with her mother, The Duchess of Kent. Close by he built the new parish church of Holy Trinity in the gothic style – now an arts centre – and, next door to it, The Priory. The Regency style Calverley Crescent or Promenade followed – designed with shops underneath residential apartments – Calverley Terrace, Calverley Parade and Mews, the more modest Calverley Cottages and gothic school house on Camden Road in 1834.

His style was eclectic – classical and gothic: the Regency canopy was just one of the features he embraced on his houses. His indubitable talent led to many local private commissions in and around the area. Then in London he designed the New Charing Cross Hospital (now Charing Cross Station) and later the entrance gates at Kew, The Palm House and Temperate House.

Eventually, however, Burton settled (and built) in Hastings as his father had developed land at St Leonards nearby. Decimus Burton was of the same mould as Pugin and William Morris: a man of immense talent and vision, so obsessed with his work that he had little time for alternative pursuits or his family. But Decimus Burton did reverse the fortunes of Tunbridge Wells, which to this day remains the epitome of a respectable country town.


georginapink16 said...

Hi there,
Thank you very much for posting this blog, it was very helpful. I am creating a project on Burtons Calverley estate and why the villas don't seem to have been that popluar when they were built, and I was wondering whether you have any further information, or would be happy to answer some questions.
Thank you for your time

Lucy said...

Hi Georgie,
I am no expert on Decimus Burton or the Calverley Estate but I'd be delighted to share what I do know about it: email me directly on and we'll go from there.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lucy, I have just seen this excellent summary of the Calverley developments. They are something that I am very interested in. Would you like to contact me to discuss them, and perhaps to update me on what Georgina has discovered. Chris Jones (