I’ve been feeling a little bit Groundhog Day claustrophobic in Tunbridge Wells lately. Having spent more than three-quarters of my life moving around multicultural capital cities, I sometimes grate against the relentless middle England, middle class conservativeness (and Conservativeness) of it, the very thing that makes it such an easy place to live.
But two things have helped me recently to remember what is special about Tunbridge Wells, and why living in a smaller community can give you much more of a sense of belonging than going about your business anonymously in a big city.
Learning about business
Last night there was a knock on the door. Not expecting anyone, I answered it thinking it would be a neighbour or perhaps a charity collector. But no, once I’d adjusted my gaze downwards slightly, I saw it was two teenage girls, one carrying a picnic cooler box, the other proffering a tray of cellophane wrapped, beribboned packages at me. “Would you like to buy some homemade chocolate brownies?”, she asked. I didn’t even think twice. Homemade chocolate brownies to my door without needing to call Deliveroo? Of course I would! Deal done, without me even having asked where they were from and what they were doing it for. They weren’t in school uniform, but they had reassuring Grammar School diction plus, this is Tunbridge Wells. It’s full of well-meaning, industrious and enterprising people. And sure enough, when I asked, it turned out it was part of their work experience, setting up a cottage industry.
Independent businesses in Tunbridge Wells
I’m all for how to run a business being taught in schools, because self-employment is on the rise, and it’s not always easy out there, making it work on your own if you’ve not done it before or don’t have endless resources. That’s why I’m helping out my local shopping street, Camden Road, a road full of hard-working independent restaurant, café, salon and shop owners, all trying to attract more custom from the good people of Tunbridge Wells, pitted against the more established chains in a more central location, or the outdoor allure of the Pantiles in summer.
Shopping local in Camden Road
One of the shops at the very bottom of the road is Firkins, a quirky, slightly niche business offering real ale and cider from local breweries to take away by the pint or two pint (in reusable plastic milk bottles).
For a business like that to succeed, it’s all about volume and footfall, but the shop’s location at the very end of Camden Road, along with the owner’s self-confessed lack of marketing savvy, has meant he was struggling to make it work. We held one of our monthly West Kent Networking meetings there to help raise its profile, but that still wasn’t enough, and Marc the owner put out a heartfelt plea on Facebook one day. As he didn’t have many followers, I shared the post on the West Kent Networking page and my various other social media accounts, and it was picked up from there by some other kindly Tunbridge Wells folk who also do their best to support local businesses (thank you Tunbridge Wells High Street and Wylde and Shrub among others).
Community spirit in Tunbridge Wells
It’s been heartwarming to see how different people have rallied around to help. Someone came and bought his stock of wine so that he could pay the rent; others have made it their mission to keep posting about Firkins on social media; Gianluca from Pasta Madre has been helping him with some marketing advice; and Alex from Fuggles Beer Café - technically a competitor - came and installed a fitted a cask cooling system and two keg lines for him, which has meant he can offer more choice to his customers. Last week, Marc posted that he’d been so busy he might have to think about taking on some staff!
And that, my friends, is what it’s like living in middle England, middle class, community spirited Tunbridge Wells. Maybe not so rubbish after all?
Support local - use them or lose them
P.S. Another phenomenon that is typical to Tunbridge Wells is the “ooh shiny new thing” factor. After the initial buzz, the business in question often gets discarded in favour of The Next New Thing, so please don’t let that happen on Camden Road! As with any small business, if you don’t use them, you lose them. A local independent business relies on its community to survive.