“Come back, Mummy!”
My daughter is a small figure beneath an oak’s far reaching branches, the scene of our earlier picnic. Between me and her is an expanse of sandstone rock crossed by chasms which wouldn’t be discernible from the undulations in the rock until their brink was reached. It’s potentially treacherous unless you know they’re there, which Flora does; she has unwillingly traversed the territory with me earlier, and knows she doesn’t like it; she’s concerned for my safety, she doesn’t like being alone, but there’s no way she’s coming to get me.
I return to her side a little reluctantly. If Flora is cautious, the appeal of clambering on rocks hasn’t left her mother. There is something pleasing in being in physical contact with an ancient landscape, and the element of precariousness adds the right amount of challenge. Flora will grow bolder with age and custom, but her older brother has already enjoyed happy hours climbing the rocks with friends.
It’s one of the first properly sunny and warm days of the year, and we have time to meander outdoors. Flora and I catch the bus from Rusthall and get off by the Spa Hotel, where we can enter a shady path into the Common. If my daughter’s three year old legs were longer we could have walked the whole way from Rusthall, diverting via Toad Rock for further sandstone adventures. However, adjustments must be made for age, and we keep our foray a simple one. The object of the walk (and a walk should always have one) is Wellington Rocks, for picnic and play.
Our pace slows. Flora stops to examine the ground beneath her feet. If a walk on pavement produces pauses to watch a stray ant how much more scope for Flora’s stop/start/scream style of walking is there in a woodland floor? There are small insects moving on the ground beneath her feet all the time and on balance her response to this is tipping closer to fascination than to horror.
I’m keen on the idea of the Commons as a natural playground and classroom combined; with the scope to draw in science, natural history, geology, art, literature and to foster a sense of responsibility. There are certainly a few history lessons to be had.
‘But why are they called Wellington Rocks?’ My eight year old son is a big fan of the hero of Waterloo. ‘Did the Duke of Wellington visit them?’
Apparently the first Duke never did visit Tunbridge Wells, but his wife did. In David Peacock’s Tunbridge Wells Sketch Book with Frank Chapman (1978) Frank Chapman describes the Duchess as disliking the ‘unbearable social pressures of her husband’s fame.’ Wellington met Kitty Pakenham in 1792, but it was only in 1806 that they were married, at which time he is said to have remarked to his brother, ‘She has grown ugly, by Jove.’ If the first Duchess of Wellington felt uncomfortable in her husband’s London milieu, Tunbridge Wells can feel honoured to have often offered her a place of soothing refuge.
The naming of the popular rocks has a more prosaic explanation than visiting celebrity. They are named because of their proximity to the Wellington Hotel, which opened in 1875, and is now a Travel Lodge. Before that they were called Castle Rocks. The first owner of the hotel was certainly a fan of the Duke, and the hotel was decorated with lots of Wellington memorabilia, while the rooms were all named after his battles or generals.
One things is certain: my children are not the first to find pleasure playing on the rocks. In the 1960s Harold Betteridge took the picture ‘Saturday Afternoon at the Rocks’, which is reproduced in Tunbridge Wells in Old Photographs by MLJ Rowlands and IC Beavis. It is both evocative and timeless; it shows dozens of children climbing the rocks or playing in the surrounding sand, and it is not difficult to imagine that similar scenes could have been seen in previous centuries.
I don’t mind that Flora isn’t unconditionally delighted with her Common experience. I see appreciation and exploration of the Commons as a work in progress; one that might take a life time. Every visit will be different, and offer up a different perspective, lesson or flight of the imagination. The natural landscape changes with the seasons. A playground can offer instant gratification, but it will always be the same and its challenges will be limited; in time boredom sets in. Soft play can almost guarantee a lack of scraped knees or other injury, but it doesn’t offer the same stimulation or variety of learning that nature can. We’re so lucky in Rusthall and Tunbridge Wells to have this fantastic natural landscape on our doorstep; it’s all our common playground.