THE HISTORY OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS AND RUSTHALL COMMONS
At the same time, the natural vegetation of the Commons began to be appreciated by the public in general as well as by the dedicated botanist. Pelton's guide, constantly reprinted from 1871 to the beginning of the new century, contains a characteristic description: "To our modern taste its natural and wild condition renders it far more attractive than the artificial parks which it is the fashion to provide for the healthful recreation of the dwellers in large cities. The furze bushes and the brake are the most noticeable ornaments; but the whole expanse abounds with other plants and blossoms — ling and heath, chamomile and thyme, milkwort and wild violets, being among the most abundant. In April and May the golden bloom of the furze, which is unusually profuse in this spot, delights the eye, and its rich perfume scents the breeze".
The practise of large scale tree planting, begun under the management of the Freeholders, was continued by the Conservators. The general view was that additional trees served to enhance the natural beauties of the Commons. In 1895 the Tradesmen's Association, who with their interest in promoting tourism maintained a keen interest in the Commons, organised a scheme whereby individuals and organisations could contribute one or more trees, and about 150 were planted over the course of a week in November. The new and outgoing mayors, Major Fletcher Lutwidge and Sir David Salomons, ceremonially performed the first plantings beside Major York's Road. What was not anticipated was that as these trees matured and grazing declined they would begin to seed themselves all over the Commons, beginning a process of uncontrolled transformation of heathland to woodland.
In 1931, C H Strange gave a lecture to the Tunbridge Wells Natural History Society, in which he related the history of commemorative tree planting on the Commons, including the most recent examples (near Highbury and leading up to Rusthall Church) to mark the accession and coronation of George V. But he concluded by warning that the number of trees was becoming excessive. "If there is to be any further tree-planting on the Common", he said, "it is hoped that it will be done with circumspection and foresight. I am inclined to think we have almost enough forest trees. It is a fact that the view from Mount Ephraim, an ever lovely panorama of moorland, field and forest, is becoming more and more intercepted by growing trees. Above all, we ought to aim at a better care and cultivation of the trees we already possess; that they may be protected from injury, cut down and replaced where decayed, and those that are neither useful for shade nor ornamental to look at should be removed". However, further commemorative planting did take place in 1935, to celebrate George V's Silver Jubilee, and on a larger scale for the coronation of George VI in 1937. In the latter year, the ‘King's Avenue’ of flowering cherries was created along the Donkey Drive (Mount Edgcumbe Road), along with the ‘King's Grove’ south of Mount Edgcumbe (later swamped by invading scrub).
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Trade (incorporating the old Tradesmen’s Association) had also noticed that all was not well on the Commons. In a report presented to the Conservators in the same year as Strange's lecture, they pointed out that an excessive number of young trees, in particular birches, were springing up, that ponds were silting up, and that the traditional heathland vegetation was diminishing. n subsequent years several prominent local residents complained about problems such as the invasion of bracken and the fact that heather was "rapidly disappearing". No one seems to have realised that the immediate cause of these changes was the decline in grazing, which had ceased altogether by the outbreak of World War II. Wartime conditions then disrupted the management of the Commons, causing unavoidable neglect. Any effective action that the Conservators might otherwise have taken was prevented, not only by a shortage of manpower but also by various military and civil defence activities on the Commons themselves.
As early as 1938, some of the town's first air raid shelters appeared in the form of open trenches on Tunbridge Wells Common, while in October 1939 the Borough Council was authorised to convert the caves under St Helena Cottage into more permanent shelters. By December 1940 there were already four bomb craters on the two Commons, including one in the middle of the Higher Cricket Ground. In 1941 large scale clearance of gorse bushes and other vegetation was undertaken in order to avoid the risk of fires caused by incendiary bombs. Such fires, it was thought, would not only endanger houses on and around the Commons, but would also "serve as a beacon lighting up the town for a further enemy attack".
Page last updated: 13/02/2007