I'm slightly embarrassed to say that, despite living in Tunbridge Wells for years, I had only been to Dunorlan Park a handful of times before lockdown and having a baby. I'd visited a couple of times for its fantastic fireworks displays and perhaps once more during a weekend walk, but never really taken the time to appreciate it properly.
However, since last year, I've been almost weekly - initially for lockdown walks (these were the exciting days when we went a little further afield than our road and surrounding area!) and then later for those first few nerve-wracking outings when our daughter was born. Now it's one of my favourite places nearby to visit for a stroll, to meet other mums (when this has been allowed under the current restrictions) and often enjoy a little treat from the terraced cafe.
With so many different areas to explore and masses of history, here are some of the many reasons I love this gorgeous Victorian park...
1. It has tons of quirky areas
The first thing you're to see when you arrive at Dunorlan Park is its impressive ornamental lake which acts as the focal point of the park. Spanning across 6 acres, the expansive lake looks very dramatic when frozen over in the winter months, but really comes alive in the summer as a destination for boats, pedalos and kayaks. It's the perfect backdrop for sunny picnics and days out with friends and family!
Whilst this is undoubtedly the heart of the park, there are also numerous other areas to explore. The park is filled with interesting monuments and unexpected spots, including the historic water fountain (originally named the "Hebe Fountain" due to it's depiction of the daughter of Zeus), a beautiful Grecian Temple, the Victoria Cross Grove and a small rockery, as well as water garden. Along with beds bursting with unusual shrubs and plants, there's much more to the site than just the paths lapping around the central lake.
2. It has a very unique history - and is the scene of an unsolved mystery
Dunorlan park was originally the private grounds of a mansion built in the 1850s by Henry Reed, and designed by renowned Victorian landscaper, Robert Marnock. Reed was reportedly never satisfied with the design of the house itself and moved away after its construction, putting Dunorlan House up for sale in 1870. The only part of the lavish private manor house that remains today is the Italian-style terrace overlooking the park and lake as the house was damaged in a fire in the 1940s and sadly demolished in 1958.
However, during World War II, Dunorlan House and its grounds were used to house troops in support of the war effort, and service men were accused of using the iconic fountain and statues along the avenue from the Grecian Temple for target practice! The fountain was later restored and is now a Grade II listed building.
Speaking of the Grecian Temple, this is also shrouded in controversy and mystery. Until the 2000s, it famously housed a marble statue named "The Dancing Girl" which was a gift to the town in 1951 and sculpted by Victorian artist William Theed. However, the statue was mysteriously stolen in October 2006 and has - to this day - yet to be recovered and its whereabouts remains unknown.
3. It's the perfect spot for all the family
As mentioned, I have really found my love for Dunorlan since becoming a mum - and it is an ideal place to go with little ones and/or meet other parents. With a paved, mostly even path around the lake, it's very pram and wheelchair-friendly, as well as featuring a fantastic natural play area which even includes it's very own "Dunorlan Dragon". Plus, it has the added bonus of being absolutely free!
The open green spaces are ideal for family picnics in the summer, whilst the park's natural slopes lend themselves well to some great sledging in the winter! There's also a lovely cafe serving ice creams, sandwiches, coffees and milkshakes, with a small seating area outside, as well as two free car parks with easy access to the park entrance - one on Pembury Road and another on Halls Hole Road. If visiting with a pram though, I'd recommend parking at the car park on Halls Hole Road as the other involves walking up and down a very steep hill to get to the main part of the park. I say this from experience and an intense unintentional workout pushing a pram!
4. It is cared for by local 'Friends'
Though officially owned by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, all 78 acres of Dunorlan Park is cared for and protected by passionate volunteer group, "Friends of Dunorlan Park" who were instrumental in the restoration of the park in the mid 1990s, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It feels very special that the park is looked after by the people of Tunbridge Wells, for the people of Tunbridge Wells.
Today, they raise money to promote and encourage the maintenance of the park for the "enjoyment of all", emphasising and preserving the conversation and biodiversity of its meadows, lakes, ponds and wetlands. Their main objective is ensuring free access for families and events, offering a healthy recreational space for people to gather for picnics, nature activities and exercise, as well as the more formally-organised events such as the Bonfire Night displays, park runs and festivals.
5. It's a great place for spotting wildlife
Finally, with a vast array of habitats including marshes, meadows and hedgerows, Dunorlan boasts a diverse range of wildlife - from heron and kingfishers to woodpeckers and geese, as well as 30 types of flowering plants and shrubs. There is an abundance of life to explore, and throughout the park are information signs detailing the local insects, birds and plants that can be observed.
In the past, the park has also hosted a "Mini Beast Safari", offering children the chance to take part in guided bug-hunting walks to look at Dunorlan's inhabitants in their natural environment, as well as pond-dipping sessions for all.