It’s Thursday night at the Mount Edgcumbe – a restaurant and bar, now with rooms – in Tunbridge Wells, and the place is abuzz. This affluent commuter town may have a rather staid reputation but here a sense of character and eccentricity strikes as soon as you walk in the door. For starters, there’s a cave just off the bar. Chiselled into sandstone in the sixth century (the house was built over it), it’s now a cosy snug with leather sofas, tonight busy with young drinkers.More modern touches include forest-pattern wallpaper from Cole & Son, hung with a collection of wooden bird boxes. I take it all in sipping a local 1606 gin. Named after the year the mineral spring that put the Kent spa town on the map was discovered, it is apparently made with the very same water (though it tastes not of sulphur, but deliciously citrussy).
The hotel’s ‘cave’, just off the bar
The house itself, a 10-minute walk from the station, dates from 1738 and was once used as lodgings for people coming to take the waters – donkeys and mules would wait outside to carry them down to the spring. A hotel from 1921-2011, it’s surrounded by greenery and overlooks the common and Mount Edgcumbe rocks, a sandstone outcrop popular with climbers. Its pretty garden has an outside bar in the summer too.
The current owners, Robert and Sally Hogben, reopened the Mount Edgcumbe as a restaurant in 2012, keeping many of the original Georgian features. And last month they opened six rooms on the top floor after a lengthy restoration project.
Our room (five) is a spacious twin with deep blue walls, shuttered windows, a yellow velvet armchair and bronze mirrors. The bathroom is equally tasteful, with pretty tiles, rain shower and Bramley toiletries. Fresh milk, homemade biscuits and a coffee machine are welcome extras.
Sally obviously had lots of fun decorating the place (with an interior designer friend, Fiona) and Rob, who is also a builder, did much of the work himself with help from his son. The second-floor hall has bold harlequin-print wallpaper and playful touches, such as dummy doors floating in the wall above the stairwell.
Room one has a romantic feel, with its bay window and freestanding bath, and number four has yellow-painted walls, a yellow bath and a giraffe sculpture above it. There’s also a suite with sofa bed, and two smaller rooms, still with a mishmash of antiques and eye-catching features.
The restaurant is all wood floors, exposed brick, interesting art and mismatched furniture – and it extends to the first floor on busy nights. The menu offers meze-style sharing platters and upmarket pub grub. We follow starters of prawn and crayfish cocktail, and chilli salted squid (both £7.25) with mains of salmon with beetroot slaw (£16.75), and tuna steak with cucumber salsa (£16.50). Flavours are fresh, the fish perfectly cooked and portions generous. We fall into bed satisfied and sleep well in super-comfy Hypnos beds, despite rumours that the (friendly) ghost of a lady called Mary roams the building.
Breakfast, included in the rate, is endless: fruit salad and yoghurt, local breads and pastries, eggs royale, and big plates of lovely, chive-laden scrambled egg and smoked salmon (there is also a full English option).
We mosey across the common to the Pantiles – a colonnaded lane of clapboard shops and restaurants, and site of the chalybeate (iron salts) spring. It is closed at the moment, because water levels are low, but they hope it will return to normal soon. For the sake of that tasty 1606 gin, I do too.
• Accommodation was provided by Mount Edgcumbe (doubles from £120 B&B, 01892 618854, themountedgcumbe.com)
Ask a local
Steven Wood, director, Tunbridge Wells Food and Drink Festival
Woods Restaurant, in The Pantiles. Photograph: David C Tomlinson/Getty Images
You have to have a cup of tea or a bite to eat in The Pantiles, the historic part of the city designed for promenading. Woods Restaurant has outside tables and good food.
There are great examples of Tunbridge ware, a type of wooden artwork made here in Victorian times, at Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery.
There are lovely parks in town but Calverley Grounds is particularly nice and has had a lot of work done recently. It’s where the food festival is held, too (23-24 September).
Try beers from microbreweries across the UK and Europe at Fuggles Beer Cafe.