Before man inhabited the earth the High Rocks were already many millions of years old. Their history dates from the time when Belgium, the Straits of Dover and the South East of England all formed one huge area of freshwater which is known to historians as “The Wealden Lake”. For millions of years this was fed by countless rivers and streams which brought with them deposits of sand and silt. In time these increased in depth and eventually grew to a thickness of some two thousand feet. Layers of loose sand and silt became tightly packed down and gradually hardened into sandstone. It is of this that the High Rocks are formed.
From around 6000,000BC to around 8,000B.C the area known as the “Weald of Kent”, of which High Rocks is a part, was covered in a huge sheet of ice, and although not permanently in the ice zone, conditions and climate were most certainly Arctic in the extreme. This was superseded by warmer weather causing the snow and ice to melt and flow down the valleys such as the one below High Rocks; the waters round the Rocks gradually receded and left them as they stand today.
The first men to know the Rocks were wandering, hunting tribes of the Middle Stone Age, who settled in the dry sandy alcoves in front of the Rocks. Here they built crude shelters beneath the overhang of the Rocks with timber, brushwood and the skins animals which they killed and hunted in the forest. Early man’s staple diet consisted of nuts, berries, deer and wild pig. Wood was used for bows or handles of primitive weapons and axe heads, knives, harpoon barbs and the scrapers used for cleaning animal skins) were made of flint or stone. Tests have shown that the pottery made by these primitive people is amongst the earliest found in this country. To heat water they would heat stones in their fires and then drop them into the water as the container could not withstand direct heat.
During the second century B.C people of the second Iron Age, or the Wealden people as they are called, built a fort in the area of the Rocks. This fortress could not have been a very strong one. During the first century A.D early Britons once again used the Rocks as a fortification against the invasion of the Romans and a rampart was added with riveted masonry. However, it was never a great obstacle to the invader and finally all habitation and agriculture in the area came to an end and the forest returned.
The natural processes of evolution have produced some beautiful flora and fauna in the High Rocks, not least of which are the great variety of mosses.
HIGH ROCKS THROUGH THE CENTURIES
The story of High Rocks is closely tied to the development of Tunbridge Wells, first as a health resort where people came to drink the Chalybeate waters and then as a fashionable spa and holiday centre and later as a fashionable town.
The first printed reference to High Rocks was in 1645 when Edmund Waller, a poet attracted to Lady Dorothy Sidney, 18 year old daughter of his hosts, the Sydney family of Penshurst Place, wrote a poem chiding her for her proud inaccessibility. He called the Rocks “The rendezvous of fools, buffoons and praters, cuckolds, whores, citizens, their wives and daughters”
The Rocks became established as one of the main attractions for visitors to Tunbridge Wells after James II and his friends stayed in the town in the 1670’s (when he was the Duke of York) and they chose the woodland scenery as a resort. Royal patronage led to the creation of a maze and a bowling green and gambling rooms were added later.
The opening of the Cold Baths close by in 1708 provided another fillip for High Rocks and during the reign of James II the iron and other mineral deposits found in the water in the area were recognised as beneficial to health.
High Rocks maintained its popularity in the 19th century and the overgrown bowling green was pressed into service as a tea lawn, the maze was rescued and a series of bridges linking the highest ridges was named the Aerial Walk The old dignity of romantic walks and clever versifying was augmented by the provision of swings and seesaws. In the Victorian era the mania for railways brought a branch line to High Rocks and from 1907(when the fare was one old penny) until 1952 trains stopped at the “halt”. This stop has now been reinstated in the gardens of the High Rocks Inn.
This “popular” period continued for the next half century. Turnstiles and a pay box marked the entrance to a fabulous playground, a place of simple wonder and recreation and a centre of climbing in south-east England. An early Eversest expedition trained on the Rocks for the tortured sandstone offers challenges equal to many to be found at 10,000 feet. Slippery traverses and alarming overhangs are among more than a hundred routes listed by the Climbers Club.