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Stan Delaplane

Old Tiles, Title Stories of England

June 02, 1985|STAN DELAPLANE | Delaplane is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist

TUNBRIDGE WELLS, England — In the year 1600 and something, when English lords were nobler than now and gout was the fashionable disease, an ailing baron was advised to get out of swinging London.

"The social ramble is cutting you down, m'lord," said his doctor.

His lordship thereupon got onto his horse and went southward to visit a friend. So the other day we followed in his hoof tracks.

Tunbridge Wells is a pleasant town an hour or so's drive from London. It is famous for the Pantiles, a wide and shady mall--silver shops, souvenir stores, restaurants, coffee shops and tearooms.

"I'm afraid coffee's gone," said the waitress. "It's lunch time."

England's shops are very strict about what can be served at "proper" times.

"For instance," said the guide, "you can't get tea at morning coffee time and you can't order coffee at afternoon teatime. And you can't get either at lunch time unless you order the full lunch.

As usual, it was cold as Saturday in a pawnshop. English weather is more unpredictable than Russian roulette.

The thing to do on the Pantiles is to walk to the end. There, beneath glass, is the chalybeate spring discovered by the sickly lord.

After two weeks with his country friend he yearned for the gambling tables and the London ladies, the high life that had laid him low.

He rode off toward the Big Apple. On his way he saw a pool of water of an ocher color. It reminded him of a health spa at Chalybeate in Germany.

He borrowed a cup from a nearby cottage, drank a few cupfuls and by the time he reached London was as good as new.

An elderly man came out of a small Pantiles house where he was sheltering against the icy weather and dipped up a glass for each of us.

It's a rusty-looking water. Tastes rusty, too. I sat back and waited for the recoil. I figured it would be something like a jolt of cooking sherry--instant youth.

Nothing happened. So we went over to the Swan and had a large Scotch.

After the chalybeate spring was discovered, his lordship came back. Spent three months pouring in the water. I assume he brought his popsy with him--everybody hates to drink alone.

Beau Nash, who made the town of Bath famous, came. He organized a couple of gambling clubs. Fashionable London came flocking down, theaters opened, elegant people gave elegant balls.

Queen Anne twisted her ankle on the walkway, then gave 100 pounds (a great sum then) to the town council to pave it. Sad to say, some greedy councilman copped the money.

The grieved council paved it with inexpensive tiles, hence "the Pantiles." But the queen, miffed at being ripped off, never came back.

The keeper of the spring couldn't say how many gallons people drink each day. "But nearly everyone has a go at it the first time they're here."

He didn't wash out the glasses, just dipped up the water for the next customer.

The original lord discoverer went back to London where he lived to be nearly 100, carousing and helling around until one day he died. Much to his surprise.

This is an old-fashioned inland health resort in the hilly moorland district where Kent and Sussex meet, population 45,000. The village was officially designated "Royal" by Edward VII.

The qualities of the waters were reported in the pages of Macaulay, Thackeray and Meredith. All good reporters.

The Pantiles were first laid out in 1638. One side is a colonnade, and some fine houses were added in the 18th and 19th centuries, along with a curve of shops. You take the mineral waters at the northeast end.

Visitors drop by the Church of King Charles the Martyr at the entrance.

The Spa Hotel and restaurant sits in several acres of gardens with a country mansion feeling. The kitchen is flavored French with steak Diane, filet mignon Messina or coquilles St. Jacques with saffron and garlic..

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