Visitors to Tunbridge Wells can listen in to the past on audiotape, says Chris Fautley.
The good burghers of Tunbridge Wells will not be pleased to learn that Daniel Defoe apparently thought their town a "wicked place". To discover whether he was being unfair or not, you can now go back in time to 1740, (nine years after his death), and A Day at the Wells, a delightful walk-through recreation of Georgian life in the town's Pantiles - a place to promenade and take the waters from the Chalybeate Spring.
In keeping with the town's genteel ambience, A Day at the Wells is a leisurely affair. Each visitor is issued a personal stereo and headphones with a taped commentary.
An exhibition at the start deals with Georgian life in the town and has a selection of exhibits such as the now obsolete pantile, (a clay tile fired in a pan), and sedan chair. Then our aural guide - Jack the coffee house boy - heralds the start of our journey: "I'll show you my world," says Jack. "You're in for a shock!" There are various scenes featuring life-size models. Although none of these is animated, the tableux still manage to be lively and engaging: from the inn keeper's wife beating a mattress to the guests who are grumbling, about their accommodation.
Other scenes depict a gentlemen's coffee house, where there is much smoking of pipes and reading of papers. This is where Jack works, and the set is complete in every detail - right down to the smell of coffee.
Next stop is the Chalybeate Spring, which is why visitors once flocked here in the first place. And a few steps further on are the Pantiles themselves.
Here we learn about the people who lived and worked there. The buildings and shops are immaculately recreated and when you step outside to the real Pantiles, you can see how little the scene has changed.
A Day at the Wells is a strikingly clever, three-dimensional experience. One moment you are at ground level in the Pantiles, the next on the balcony of the Assembly Room peering down at a society ball below.
Nick Gold, deputy head at Claremont Primary School, Tunbridge Wells is visiting with a group of Year 5 pupils. He is using it for the Local Studies element of the curriculum and finds that Jack's commentary is pitched at just the right level for his group.
Jack's commentary is recommended for children up to the age of 12. Thereafter a second commentary is available by resident dandy and Tunbridge Wells's own 18th-century Master of Ceremonies, Richard "Beau" Nash.
Both are tapes are very good. Beau Nash is a marvellously sniffy character who gives the distinct impression of looking down on us Johnny-come-lately 20th-century folk.
Whichever audio guide is used, the visit concludes with an animatronic head of Nash bidding farewell: "As you depart these innocent scenes of delight," he intones, "I sincerely hope they have entertained you and instructed you". On that score he need not worry.
To conclude the Georgian experience, today's promenaders can still "take the water" from the Chalybeate Spring. During the summer months, a "dipper" in period costume, (on this occasion a Mrs Humphreys) will, for a small fee, dispense a glass for you. Traditionally, it is for her services you pay, not the water.
It's an acquired taste, and having tried it long ago I know it is not to mine, as I explained to the cheery Mrs Humphreys. "Ah! But," she countered. "Have you had the vapours since?" I can't say I have.
A Day at the Wells, The Corn Exchange, The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells, Kent. TN2 5QJ. Tel: 01892 546545. http:demon.co.ukpasttimetraveltunbridgeOpen daily, advance booking essential. Admission: Up to 12 years of age pound;2.00. Over 12 years pound;3.50