THE HISTORY OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS AND RUSTHALL COMMONS
By the 1970s, the originally open character of the Commons had been almost entirely transformed. Increasing numbers of self-sown trees, along with a spread of bracken and bramble, had produced a landscape that for the most part appeared to be woodland traversed by narrow footpaths. The Race Course had become a forest ride. Heathland had been virtually extinguished, surviving only in a few dwindling patches which were being steadily encroached upon by taller undergrowth. The once ubiquitous gorse bushes flourished only in a few open spots, while elsewhere they were being shaded out by the tree canopy. Acid grassland still survived on the northern and southern fringes of Tunbridge Wells Common, but it was clearly threatened by advancing woodland. Victorian seats hemmed in by vegetation hinted at lost viewpoints. Some rock formations, notably at Mount Edgcumbe and Happy Valley, had been so densely engulfed by foliage that their existence was generally unknown. And the last of the little informal ponds had been reduced to boggy hollows, well on their way to complete disappearance.
This process, so dramatic when set out in print, or when Victorian views of the Commons are compared with their modern equivalents, was rendered less noticeable by its gradual nature. Older residents remembered what the Commons had looked like in earlier times, but over the years became accustomed to its new appearance. On the other hand, younger folk, and those recently moved into the area, naturally imagined that this was how the Commons were meant to be. Almost all shared a general perception that "nature looks after itself", failing to realise that in England at least no landscape is entirely natural but must inevitably be the product of a conscious or unconscious collaboration between human activity and natural processes.
The vital stimulus that encouraged many to look at the Commons in a fresh way was the famous Great Storm on the night of 15/16 October 1987. Local people awoke to discover that enormous numbers of trees which had appeared to be permanent features of the landscape had met a premature end. Although not as devastated as some areas, the trees on the Commons had suffered considerable losses. The Commons Conservators now had to consider how the damage could be repaired, and in doing so they were prompted to investigate the original appearance of the Commons, using the Museumís collection of historic views. The Conservators decided to commission the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation to do further research on the history of the Commons, to conduct an environmental survey, and on the basis of these to prepare a detailed management plan. With the help of various experts, both local and from farther afield, an extensive report was prepared for consideration by the Conservators and for public consultation, and its recommendations were formally adopted by the Conservators in 1992. At the same time, public interest in the Commons had considerably increased, resulting in the establishment of the Friends of Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons in 1991.
Since 1992, considerable progress has been made in implementing the new management plan, which does not aim to put the clock back to 1900, but to achieve a mosaic of diverse habitats, of which woodland will still form a part. A number of areas of scrub have been cleared, of which the north west corner of Tunbridge Wells Common is now a particularly attractive example. The surviving patches of heather are being encouraged to spread, the most striking progress being seen in an area beside the Race Course where the plants had almost been shaded out of existence. Grassland areas too are being expanded, and their characteristic butterflies are already increasing and spreading to new areas, assisted by the wider fringes of the footpaths where grasses and flowers have space to flourish. Fir Tree Pond, Bracken Cottage Pond, and the Marl Pits are coming back to life, providing homes for dragonflies, amphibians and other creatures. And lost rock formations at Mount Edgcumbe, Denny Bottom and Happy Valley have been once more exposed to view. Much more remains to be done, but a fine start has been made towards making the Commons as attractive to locals and visitors, and to their native plants and animals, as they were a century ago.
Ian C Beavis
From "Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons - A History and Natural History" published by Tunbridge Wells Museum in 1999 which is still available from the museum at £14.95
Page last updated: 22/01/07