Tuesday, 26 November 2019

The Previous Lives of Pubs: The Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Most British pubs were originally designed to be pubs. But many, especially in recent years, began their lives as something else: banks, churches, houses, and in this case, an opera house.

The Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Tunbridge Wells, or Royal Tunbridge Wells, has been a popular place to visit since the 17th century. Its original attraction was its chalybeate springs, which were reputed to provide health benefits. By the 18th century it had grown into a town with lots of other attractions: inns, dancing, and gambling. Many among the leisured classes came to be entertained and enjoy the nearby countryside. In the 19th century, the visits of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and other royals helped boost the town's image. 

View of the famous Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells

On a short holiday to Tunbridge Wells not long ago, I paid a visit to the Opera House. Almost immediately, I found myself up on the stage. A true story. If you go to the Opera House, you too can be up on the stage, or down in the stalls if you prefer. That's because this spectacular venue is a pub. But it began its life as a real opera house in 1902, seven years before the town was awarded its "Royal" prefix. The structure designed by John Briggs is a combination of Neo-Georgian and Edwardian Baroque. It had a seating capacity of 1100 for opera.

The later history of the building encapsulates much of 20th century British social history. In the 1930s, it became a cinema. It was hit by a bomb in World War II. The bomb didn't explode but did considerable damage. The building was renovated and reopened as a cinema after the war. In the 1960s, it was threatened with demolition but was saved by being transformed into a bingo hall. In 1966, it gained the protected status as a Grade II listed building.

The bingo craze subsided, and in 1996 Wetherspoons acquired the Opera House, adding it to its large chain of pubs. It still hosts occasional opera performances. The stalls (ground floor) and the stage are the main seating areas,. The balconies and boxes are seldom used, although they were packed in 2018 for England's games in the World Cup. If you are in Tunbridge Wells, the Opera House is definitely worth a visit.

A view of the stage.

The stalls and balconies (and bar).

Some of the boxes.

Stalls and balconies.

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