Woodbury Park Road is leafy even by Tunbridge Wells's herbaceous standards. Its houses are mostly Edwardian and Victorian, spacious and solidly respectable. These are the kind of homes that have names, not numbers, they have gardens heavy with climbing roses, overhanging elderflower and buddleia.
Maggie Walker is scrubbing down a wall outside Thornleigh Court, an Edwardian building with white relief masks above its windows and doors. "Isn't it beautiful?" she beams. "I've lived here nine years. It used to be a school. Its claim to fame is that Laurence Olivier's daughter went to school here."
Thornleigh Court now has a new and very unrespectable claim to fame: its neighbour, flat number one at number 33 Woodbury Park Road, was until very recently a brothel.
Sex for sale in the suburbs seems a world away from the streets of King's Cross and Streatham, Bristol or Birmingham. In fact the Tunbridge Wells police cannot remember another case of its kind. And yet perhaps this case - which entailed countless hours of police time, several magistrates court sessions and two convictions - provides the clearest example of how arbitrary the prostitution laws are.
Police came to the door of the creamy Victorian house last February with a warrant to search for drugs. What they found instead was a tastefully decorated two-bedroom flat with the odd whip and cane, adult literature, rope, KY-jelly and price lists. Police had stumbled on a bordello, with one "masseur" in the bedroom and an older woman watching television in the sitting-room.
Condoms are hardly in the same crime category as crack, however, and at this point many police forces might have looked the other way. "In London they probably wouldn't bother with that kind of operation," says Penny Cotton, a lawyer for Release who advises prostitutes. They tell her that if police come looking for drugs and don't find any they often don't pursue any other charges. "It's arbitrary - there is the law and there is the extent to which it is enforced. It varies round the country."
In Tunbridge Wells they did not look the other way: Natalie Davies, 26 and heavily pregnant, and her mother Annie were arrested. Natalie was accused of running the brothel, her mother of assisting her. Natalie says she only did it because she herself could not work as a prostitute while pregnant and needed to pay rent on the flat. She pleaded guilty; her mother pleaded not guilty.
Jean-Claude Pinhas lives underneath the "brothel", surrounded by the vibrant colours of his beautiful town garden. A sculpted bay tree stands in a terracotta pot next to his door; a hanging basket of deep purple petunias adorns the wall. He, for one, was sorry to see his neighbours go. "At least they made no noise," he says. "The people before were techno- freaks. That made your life hell. With this, there was no noise." The women were, he says, "pretty, not tarty", and worked one at a time. Clients were generally middle-aged, although there was one older man. "He always left with a big smile on his face."
Maggie Walker says she didn't know about the enterprise until after the arrest, and another neighbour told the local newspaper that it didn't upset her too much. "I had 'customers' asking for Susie and Cindy, and was happy to point them in the right direction."
However, true to Tunbridge Wells stereotype, most neighbours believe that "the law is the law" and feel that the police had little choice.
Tunbridge Wells does not have a red light district. Instead, local prostitutes say, there are about a dozen "girls" working out of eight flats. They advertise in a local free-sheet, using such euphemisms as "mature lady" and "strict lady". Clients are entertained by appointment only. Prices at Woodbury Park Road ranged from pounds 30 to pounds 75 for a "full service massage".
Red light districts are infamous. Residents' passions are inflamed when they walk their children to school along pavements strewn with condoms and syringes. Vigilante groups have been formed in several cities to drive prostitutes and kerb-crawlers off the streets.
Many prostitutes go to flats, where they are often left to their own devices. A survey of vice squads by Middlesex University's Centre for Criminology last year found that at least half ignore off-street prostitution unless there are complaints. Officers often said their priority was to "clean up the streets - not to police sex", and they consider that off- street prostitution poses no law-and-order problems. Among those squads that in effect ignored off-street prostitution were Bristol, Bradford, Cambridge, Coventry, Essex, Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Northampton, North Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent, Plymouth and Wolverhampton.
Since Chief Constable Keith Hellawell's call last week for the legalisation of brothels, several other prominent police figures have come out in favour of reviewing the law. Prostitutes' groups favour this because they believe unregulated off-street prostitution is more dangerous for women.
In the middle of this legal mess, Edinburgh has taken action by in effect decriminalising prostitution. There, massage parlours are licensed as entertainment centres. The logic is that it keeps it off the streets, tops up tax coffers and is safer for everyone. Bradford, Birmingham and Bristol are believed to be thinking of following Edinburgh's lead.
Tunbridge Wells is not. The police do not consider there is a problem and neither does the town's most famous resident, "Disgusted". The only street scene anyone has complained about was the couple having sex outside Marks & Spencer in the middle of the shopping precinct last month. "It was in full view of everyone," says Jez Clark, who works nearby. "About a hundred people gathered round protesting 'You can't do that here, this is Tunbridge Wells.'" Letters were fired off to the local paper, suggesting that buckets of water be placed "at strategic points" to be thrown over amorous couples who forget where they are. For the couple the outcome was grave. While the man was released, the woman was sectioned and detained under the Mental Health Act.
For Natalie Davies the punishment meted out late last month was less severe - a conditional discharge and pounds 65 in costs - although the look on her mother's face as magistrates sentenced her could not have been easy to bear. Natalie was the only onlooker at her mother's trial. At 26, she is beautiful, with large green eyes, black, curly hair and magenta fingernails that could challenge Flo-Jo's to a dual. Her mother looked exactly what her lawyer said she was: a 56-year-old housewife who had never been in trouble with the law. She said she was frightened and her voice, with its light Irish accent, was almost a whisper.
"My daughter asked me if I would come and answer phones for her. I said I would because she was pregnant and sick a lot," she told the bench at Tunbridge Wells Magistrates Court No 1 last month. Her daughter had done massage herself before she got pregnant, she explained, and she had helped then, too.
She denied that she knew what was going on behind the closed bedroom door. "I had an idea, but I didn't want to know about it," she said. "I didn't want to know because it's none of my business." When pressed, she added: "I just wanted to be with her to keep her company. I didn't want her to be on her own with all those men in there".
Her "job" - for which she received only petrol money - had been to answer the telephone, to make the odd cup of tea, to greet the "massage" clients, and to take a pounds 30 commission from the "masseur" for each client and enter it in a book. Her lawyer described her as an "ostrich with its head in the sand". She was found guilty, given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay pounds l25 in costs.
Natalie Davies says she believed what she was doing was legal (it is not against the law for one person to charge for sex while working from a flat). "When I was arrested, I refused a lawyer. I didn't think I had done anything wrong." She scoffs at the idea of illegal substances - "I don't drink, much less do drugs" - and says the police had been tipped off by someone who was out to get her. She claims she worked as a prostitute purely for the money: "I've tried everything, from burger vans to cleaning but I was exhausted and never saw my son."
She believes the law needs to be changed. "It should be legalised. It's an essential service. We deal with all these frustrated types. We're there to see that sort." Natalie is now a "sex therapist". "I'm on my own now and on the right side of the law," she says. Her mum is staying away.
So what has the Tunbridge Wells brothel case wrought? Annie Davies is a housewife with a criminal record. Natalie is still selling services, but now that she is "legal" and has no one to watch out for her, she is more vulnerable to attack than Edinburgh's working women, in their "entertainment centres" with their street-wise minders.
Disgusted? You don't have to live in Tunbridge Wells to be that.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies