Dipper at The Chalybeate Spring, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Dipper at The Chalybeate Spring, Royal Tunbridge Wells

by Chris Parker

The Chalybeate Spring

Without the Chalybeate Spring, Royal Tunbridge Wells would not exist.  The natural Spring was discovered by a well-travelled English nobleman, a visitor on his way back up to the capital of England.

For more than 400 years visitors from afar have revelled in the accessibility and beauty of the area and stayed in the Tunbridge Wells region.

Since 1606, in fact tourists have come to see and be seen in fashionable Tunbridge Wells (it was not Royal until over 300 years later), but above all to 'take the waters'.

The word chalybeate (pronounced ka-lee-bee-at) means iron-rich, and the iron taste is evident in the water.  It dyes everything orange too, notice the staining round the walls of the bowls at the Spring.

At the height of its popularity in the eighteenth century, the Spring water was reputed to cure all sorts of ills from infertility and hangovers to obesity and 'a moist brain'.

History of the Spring

The Chalybeate Spring was a fortuitous find by the young nobleman, Dudley Lord North - 3rd Baron North, who noticed the reddish brown waters of the Spring foaming slightly from the ground.

Lord North had spent several days at the Abergavenny Estate at nearby Eridge recuperating and was returning on horseback to London.

Feeling a bit the worse for wear from heavy drinking and merrymaking, Lord North drank the water to quench his thirst.

Feeling much rejuvenated from drinking the cool iron-rich spring water, he declared it to be health-giving to all his friends and acquaintances.

The news of the Spring and its exceptional properties circulated and noble visitors from London and elsewhere flocked to the resulting hamlet springing up alongside the natural spa.

Since it wasn’t far from Tonbridge (originally spelled Tunbridge), already a town, it later became known as Tunbridge Wells.

The Wells

In the eighteenth century, the Chalybeate Spring became a vital daily custom for any honourable lady or gentleman visiting 'The Wells'.

Each day began with a tumbler of the spring water, followed by a “promenade” on The Walks, now known as The Pantiles, or a sojourn to the coffee house to hear the most up-to-date gossip, then off to church at the nearby Chapel of Ease, King Charles the Martyr.

After luncheon, time was whiled away with more “promenading”, wagering or a friendly game of bowls on one of the nearby greens. The evening finished with further betting, dancing, a musical soiree or ostentatious ball.

Drinking the Natural Spring Water

The Chalybeate spring water was served by someone called a 'Dipper' for a small fee - not for the water, which has always been designated as belonging to the people, but for being served the medicinal solution in a genteel fashion.

This tradition carries on today when circumstances allow. Usually in the summer it can be possible to sample the cool Chalybeate Spring water served by a costumed dipper, provided the water is flowing, it is a natural phenomenon after all!

The Chalybeate Spring is situated in The Pantiles and is open to admire 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please check about whether water is being served before making a special trip with the Tourist Information Centre.

You can read more about the Day in the Life of The Dipper.

After taking the water, you too can adjourn to a local café or inn and partake of further refreshment then perhaps some shopping in the delightfully historic alleyways of The Pantiles.

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