This is an article I wrote back in 2004, for a monthly travel newsletter that used to be produced by some folks from the Women Travellers board on the Thorn Tree forum. Sadly the newletter is no more, but I thought I'd take the opportunity to republish it here.
'Here, on the border between land and sea, in the sea frets and the
summer haze, reality hovered slightly off the ground'
Nigel Richardson, 'Breakfast In Brighton'
One of my first memories of Brighton was coming to visit a friend before I moved here. On the way back from a party, we turned a corner to come across the startling and unexpected sight of what appeared to be an Indian palace laid out before us, its' minarets and cupolas illuminated against the night sky. Bemused by this sudden apparition, the friend revealed that this was the Royal Pavilion, built for the Prince Regent by Henry Holland and John Nash and completed in 1822. George IV, dilettante, bon viveur and general all round eccentric sparked a Brighton tradition of daring to be different that still lights up the town today.
Brighton's origins lay in the fishing village of Brighthelmstone. Fishermen used to dry their nets on the Steine every afternoon, until the unmistakable smell started to offend the delicate sensibilities of the visitors from London who began to appear in the 19th century.
The Lanes best reflect the heritage of this time, with their narrow mazy streets, now home to antique stores, jewellers and even an armoury shop. The area is decidedly more upscale than the neighbouring North Laine, but in a distinctly Brighton way.
The fishing boats have long since been moved out to the Marina on the edge of town, but you can visit the small Fishing Museum on the seafront, where you can buy fresh fish, seafood and hot spicy fish soup with a chunk of bread, perfect for a winter's day. You may even chance across an upturned boat outside the Sailing Club, if you happen to visit on one of those windswept wintry days when the wind whips along the seafront (and renders umbrellas completely useless).
The transformation of Brighton from simple fishing village into fashionable seaside resort was bought about by two factors: the apparent 'cure-all' properties of seawater and the desire for a warmer winter retreat for the aristocrats of the Regency era. The vision of architect Charles Busby can be observed in several places along the seafront of Brighton and Hove.
Brunswick Square and the neighbouring Palmeira Square were designed to echo the Regency architecture of well-to-do London whilst offering what today's real estate agents describe as 'stunning sea views'. Stroll along the seafront from Brighton and, as you pass into Hove, you will be rewarded with a view of one of the most impressive Regency estates in the country. Looking at the sun reflecting off the windows of the buttermilk facades, it's hard to believe that the local council were seriously considering pulling the whole square down in the 1940s.
Brighton is a good place for simply wandering around aimlessly, stopping occasionally for a coffee. One of my favourite places to do this is the Clifton Hill/Seven Dials area. Walking up the hill from the bland commercialism of Western Road, streets filled with ice-cream coloured houses lead up past antique stores, where seemingly business thrives despite the evident lack of customers. Walk further and you will find yourself in the heart of the Clifton Hill Conservation Area, a warren of white stuccoed houses, verandas and unexpected garden squares. Seven Dials is also home to a number of good bars and restaurants, but being slightly removed from the town centre, it retains a real neighbourhood feel.
Brighton for free
Brighton is one of those places where there are limitless possibilities for free entertainment if you open your eyes a little. These are only a few suggestions, but the pleasure is always in chancing across your own entertainment.
Undoubtedly the best time to be entertained for free, or at least very little, is during the Brighton Festival. Second only to the Edinburgh Festival, this month long event in May kicks off with the Children's Parade, encompasses an excellent street theatre weekend, 'Streets of Brighton', and gives access to over a hundred artists' work for free in the Open House weekends. The Festival, Festival Fringe and separate Brighton Fringe Festival are packed with music, theatre and spoken word events, bringing many world-renowned names to our small city for one exhilarating month. A lot of it is free, especially in the Fringe, which appeals to students and locals alike!
Nestled between the South Downs and the sea, a short ride on an open-topped bus in summer will take you away from the crowds which engulf the town in high season to Devil's Dyke. Legend has it that the Devil, angered by the number of churches in the surrounding countryside, vowed to hack his way through the downland to the sea and so flood the villages in one night. However, he failed to complete his task before dawn, and so was banished from the area forever.
In Victorian times it was home to a small amusement fair and even a cable car. Catch the bus up there early on a Sunday morning and, if the wind is right, you can watch as the paragliders prepare to launch themselves onto the thermals. The surrounding countryside is under National Trust management and, whilst on the weekend you won't be alone, it's a great place to wander and appreciate the gentle beauty of the English countryside. (For those of you who appreciate some food or drink after a leisurely stroll, there is a pub there, or you can walk down the hill to one of the surrounding villages ;)
Dusky summer's evenings spent on the beach, watching the sun set over the decaying yet still oddly beautiful West Pier.
Illegal bonfires burning brightly through the night as people gather outside the bars on the beach, drinking, socialising, passing on news of the weekend's free party at Ditchling Beacon or venues as yet unnamed.
An unspoken frisson in the air that hides the feeling that this town, for all its' faults and failings has something special. This is not 'London By The Sea', strictly a summer playground for day trippers and pleasure seekers. This is Brighton; eccentric, unpredictable yet rarely dull. I wasn't born here, but for me, this is home.
Interesting (random) facts about Brighton
- In 1900 a film studio was built for G A Smith in St Ann's Well Gardens, now a local park. Smith patented a number of film devices including double exposure. It is claimed that the first example of film editing appeared in Smith's 1900 short, 'Attack On A China Mission'.
- Brighton features in a number of feature films, including 'Brighton Rock', 'Quadrophenia' and 'Oh! What A Lovely War'. Sir Richard Attenborough has a long-standing association with the town and is Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex. (He also handed me my degree certificate!)
- The Reverend Charles Dodgson was a resident of Sussex Square in the 1880s. He is perhaps better known as the author of 'Alice In Wonderland', Lewis Carroll. Local legend has it that the inspiration for the rabbit hole down which Alice fell was a secret tunnel which linked the gardens with the sea.
-At one point in the 19th century, Brighton had three piers; the Chain Pier, the Palace Pier and the West Pier. Of these only the Palace Pier (now Brighton Pier) still exists for public use. The West Pier has been ravaged by two recent fires which mean that only its' metal framework remains.
www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk -extremely well put together local history site, stacked with photos and interesting facts.
www.brighton.co.uk -listings galore