173-177 High Street, The Royal Bell – Heritage Building Profile

Royal Bell
The Royal Bell frontage at the millennium, with arches in the shopfronts

The Royal Bell is a beautiful Queen Anne style Arts and Crafts style building just north of market square. The architect was the renowned Ernest Newton and it is Grade II listed. The Royal Bell was so named after the Royal coach service that passed through Bromley. The Inn was more upmarket than the nearby Swan & Mitre, providing rooms, stabling, a tap room and more refined dining areas.

This range of buildings was rebuilt in 1898 on the site of an earlier hostelry of 1666; as part of the front required propping up by the 1890s. It was this older building that  was made famous in Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when Lady Catherine de Burgh says to Elizabeth Bennet “Where shall you change horses? – Oh! Bromley, of course. – If you mention my name at the Bell, you will be attended to.” Jane Austen frequently travelled to Kent to visit her brother and would certainly have changed horses at the Bell.

Planning permission has been granted to restore this iconic building, as a niche market hotel, commissioned by Gary Hillman who has a personal project to restore it, as he has childhood memories of family functions there.  The website describing the history and restoration is at: http://www.theroyalbell.co.uk/

The Bell Inn before it was rebuilt as The Royal Bell in 1898, parts of it dated from 1660s. This is how the author Jane Austin would’ve known it, as she passed through to relatives near Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

The architect is Benedict O’Looney who has also restored the train station at Peckham Rye.  Under his supervision, they have made the roof water-tight, and sensitively restored the pargetting at the front and removed the staircase in the ballroom floor.

three chaps standing on the steps of a door
The project architect Benedict O’Looney, Peter from the Civic Society, and the owner Gary Hillman
Bell motif picked out in pargetting
Bell motif in restored pargetting
bell shape in white plaster on panel on building
Bell motif on a bay window pargetting before restoration
The pargetting on the front bay windows before restoration to the original three-tones.

A distinctive feature is the pargetted strapwork under the bow windows, with its Arts and Crafts lettering and depictions of bells, gremlins and nymphs. The white paint has probably preserved the pargetting in good condition – originally it would have been bare plaster, dark brown in colour (see photo). Newton clearly hoped that this would be the beginning of a grander High Street but it was not to be; to the north past no.181, the older Kentish cottages still remain.

The 1920s photo shows a glass covered canopy over the front door adorned with signs. It is no longer there, but the remains were discovered on the floor of the stables at the rear – it is a possible project in the future to restore/rebuild this. 1920s photo also shows shopfronts inserted in the frontage, and though the arches have been knocked out, the ground floor rooms have been installed as drinking/eating units.

The ballroom with the Bernie Inn staircase inserted in the middle – this has been restored to an uninterrupted dance floor.

Inside, Newton provided a grand ballroom on the first floor with a gallery and characteristic chimney-piece. The first floor rooms in the front overlooking the High Street have original chimneypieces and decorative ceiling still intact.

These are some photographs from August 2018, before work was started:

slightly distorted view of church tower through window panes
Views: South to Churchill Theatre; East to the Parish Church; and north, from the first floor of the Royal Bell
Fireplace and another through a doorway
Fireplaces on the first floor of the Royal Bell
broken circle and diamond patterned ceiling
Ornate plaster ceiling of first floor rooms
wooden stairs with patterned plaster undersides
Staircase to the first floor showing the plasterwork patterns.

This blog entry dates from 2015 when the building had been empty for 5 years: A Look Inside the Royal Bell

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