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Brighton and Hove

by Kay Sexton

"Brighton looks like a town that is helping the police with their enquiries," so said Keith Waterhouse and it's true. Whether you love or loath Brighton, it has the raffish yet furtive air of a spiv with dirty postcards for the lads in one cashmere pocket, and silk stockings for the ladies in the other. She is a mass of contractions: kiss me quick hats and Victorian architecture, elegant Regency terraces inhabited by tattooed, dreadlocked art students and the two piers facing each other over the stoniest beach in the United Kingdom. It's not even one town, but two. Bustling Brighton has been inextricably joined to staid Hove in a marriage of convenience that matches the marriage that caused Brighton to come to prominence in the first place.

Brighton Pavilion

The old fishing village of Brighthelmstone became Brighton because of the Pavilion -- that louche but exhilarating oriental palace built by John Nash for his patron the Prince Regent, George IV. Born Prince of Wales in 1762, George IV was the oldest son of George III. He rebelled against his strict upbringing, embarking on a life of drinking, womanising and gambling that scandalised the country and got him sent out of his father's sight -- Brighton, and the Pavilion, are the result of that removal.

George IV -- known familiarly to the country as 'Prinny' -- enjoyed a succession of passionate love affairs and two marriages. In 1785 he secretly wed Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert and in 1795 entered into a disastrous official union with Caroline of Brunswick. George's complicated personal life is defined by the fact that an underground passage leads from the Pavilion to the nearby house occupied by Mrs Fitzherbert. George became Prince Regent in 1811 when his father was thought to be mad, and was crowned in 1820.

The Royal Pavilion's lavish interiors combine Chinese-style decorations with magnificent furniture and furnishings. Gilded dragons, carved palm trees and imitation bamboo staircases contribute to the buildings unique style which mixes Asian exoticism with English eccentricity. Daring and inventive colours feature throughout, and there are many original items on loan from Her Majesty the Queen. The restoration of the Royal Pavilion was begun when the Palace was purchased from Queen Victoria by the town of Brighton in 1850. After many decades of neglect, somewhat as a result of Victoria's own disapproval of Prinny's madcap lifestyle, a programme of restoring the stonework and structure of the Pavilion began in 1982, which took over a decade and cost £10 million. The programme to reinstate the interior decorative schemes approved by George IV in the early 1820s still continues today.

Brighton Pavilion

Architect John Nash conceived the Royal Pavilion and gardens as a whole. The gardens reflect the great revolution in landscape gardening that began in the 1730s, formal layouts, straight lines and symmetrical shapes were replaced with curving paths, natural groups of trees and shrubs, and picturesque views. Nash's scheme was utterly destroyed in the 19th century by a tarmac road but recent restoration has brought the grounds as closely as possible back to Nash's 1820s vision. Plant species and varieties have been selected using the original lists of plants supplied to George IV.

The Old Steine was the social centre of the town in Prinny's day. Originally an open grassy area with a stream running through it, fishermen traditionally laid out and dried their nets there. When fashionable visitors began to travel down to Brighton in the late 18th century, either to keep themselves in the Prince Regent's favour, or because London had become too hot with gambling or dressmakers debts for the 'fast set' Old Steine became the fashionable centre. The very first building built on the eastern side of the Steine in 1760 was a circulating library and this was the social hub of Regency society. When a fashionable Regency visitor, came to the town towards the end of the 18th century, the first thing he or she did was visit one of the circulating libraries Upon payment of an agreed sum the visitor would be allowed to sign on in the Master of Ceremonies' book. The Master of Ceremonies made sure that the balls that were being held in the Castle Inn didn't clash with balls that were being held in rival establishments, like the Old Ship. He made sure that each new visitor's name was known to other visitors in the town and this meant the fashionable set would know to call upon new arrivals or invite them to the various social activities.

Brighton Lanes SignWhile modern Brighton may not be so socially organised, it is still a radical social centre: the city has a large gay community, mainly based in the Kemptown area of the city, and is home to two universities, the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton. This thriving and diverse gay scene ranges from leather bars, to country and western line dancing, pink parlours to techno clubs, and has long been known as the British number one gay seaside resort -- so much so that Kemptown is affectionately locally re-titled Camptown. Pride Brighton takes place every August and is one of the biggest, brashest and best natured Gay Pride events in Europe.

Along the seafront, the area occupied by the original fishing village has become The Lanes -- a collection of narrow alleyways now filled with a mixture of antique shops, restaurants and pubs. The name derives from 'Laine', which was apparently a unit of Anglo-Saxon field measurement. Highlights for any visitor to Brighton should include The Black Lion pub, which looks ancient, but is in fact a reconstruction of part of one of the oldest brewery buildings in the world. Tradition claims the Black Lion brewery was established in 1546 by Deryk Carver, a Flemish immigrant. Carver went on to become the first Protestant to be martyred under Mary I. He was burned in a barrel outside the Star Inn at Lewes in 1555, apparently flinging his Bible into the crowd in defiance. The brewery, complete with a 54-foot well that delivered sweet water for use in beer-making, was owned and run by various brewers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but fell into disuse in 1968 and was demolished. The current pub was built in 1974 as a replica of part of the brewery. The reconstruction is faithful to Carver's own plans and even uses many original flints and slates.

Visitors who prefer social history to that of royalty might like to visit Frederick Gardens, a row of typical Sussex houses. At first these plots were allotments but as the city grew outward, the owners of the allotments built homes progressively from No 1 onwards. If you examine the cottages you can see they are all a little different. At one time Frederick Gardens housed a foundry and many of the workers lived in these small homes -- about halfway down the street is one cottage with a basement and it is claimed that is where the foreman lived. This part of the Lanes was considered a very dubious area and many now sought-after properties were once brothels. Frederick Gardens cottages may look quaint but local residents can be a little cynical about their charms; many have battled for decades with rising damp coming through the "bungaroush" -- a construction method based on cementing found objects from the beach together to form a wall.

Queens Park

Queen's Park Fountain BrightonIn the early part of the 19th century there were spas all over Europe. There was just one problem - Brighton lacked the natural water necessary for a spa. There was a good sweet-water spring and spa in St.Ann's Well Crescent Gardens in Hove but this was too far away for the 'fashionable folk' in Brighton. With typical bravado, Brighton found a solution no other town would dream of -- it made artificial natural water. Frederick Struve, a research chemist from Saxony, had invented a machine that reproduced the characteristics of natural mineral water using chemicals and in 1825 he opened the pump room of his 'German Spa' in Queens Park. The Brighton Gazette provided an eyewitness description of the site, "The building consists of a large handsome room fifty or sixty feet in length, and of proportionate breadth and height. A fine flight of steps lead to the noble saloon, on which are placed Ionic columns, supporting a portico in the purest Grecian taste. On the side of the Saloon opposite the entrance runs a counter, behind which are ranged cocks that supply different kinds of waters."

Customers could obtain the waters of Karlsbad, Kessellbrunnen on Ems, Maienbad, Pyrmont and other continental Spas. These curative waters received considerable patronage from the upper classes. In the first season there were over three hundred subscribers to the Spa and in 1835, ten years after opening, Struve obtained the patronage of King William IV and immediately renamed his property the 'Royal German Spa'. Perhaps wary of overselling his product, Struve maintained that most of his cures would have no immediate effect but would take about a month before his customers would duly be restored to their full heath -- by which time he could reasonably expect them to have left Brighton. There were contemporary complaints that the pump room was not big enough for the number of people using it and that the carriages waiting in the road down to the sea ran into three figures.

Also in Queen's Park is the Pepper-pot -- this odd little folly was built to house the now demolished Attree Villa's villa's pump and water tank. It supplied water by force from the pressure of water contained in the large tank in the top of the tower. In a long and typically Brightonian fashion, the building was subsequently used for printing and publishing the Brighton Daily Mail, then as an observation tower in the Second World War, as a scout headquarters, an artist's studio, and finally as a public convenience. Today it is not used at all.

Brighton has two Clock towers, one in central Brighton and the other in Queen's Park, the former, though recently restored, is not quite back to its full Victorian glory because the ball at the top of the Tower once used to rise to the top of the pole and then come crashing down on stroke of the hour. The mechanism was disabled because the vibrations were destroying the structure. The rather fine bas reliefs of Victoria, The Prince Consort, the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra are worth a visit, and you can imagine how impressive the edifice must have been when it was in full working order.

In a typical fashion, the city has begun to invent its own traditions, and along with Pride and the Beach Party, Brighton has 'Burning the Clocks'. This contemporary community festival is a "new tradition" first organised in 1993. It celebrates the shortest day of the year and therefore usually takes place on the winter solstice. The centrepieces of the celebration are huge lantern costumes made from withies (willow canes) and tissue paper and brilliantly lit from within. The main costumes are made by artists from Same Sky, a local community arts organisation, but thousands of people make their own lanterns and join the procession. The parade is accompanied by live music from local bands. It ends on the seafront. Here the 'burning of the clocks' takes place when the lanterns are burnt on a bonfire and a spectacular fireworks show takes place. With ceremonial splendour the old year is burnt along with the costumes and lanterns and fireworks make way for the New Year and the coming of spring. Although the theme for these lanterns changes every year, all of the costumes are supposed to include a clock-face to represent the passing of time.

In 1872 Brighton possessed one of the wonders of the modern world -- the Aquarium. In fact there were only two such constructions in Europe and the other was built in Rome in 1874. The typical chequered history of Brighton's buildings has given the Aquarium a range of peculiar tourist attractions over the centuries, including a chimpanzees tea party, but now it is restored to its original splendour and purpose and is well worth a visit, and not just for the fish. The Sea Life Centre as it is now called, displays a range of fish in the original tanks in the main hall -- while you're examining the Giant Japanese Crabs and Piranha cast your eyes up to the top of each pillar in the central aisle, every one has a different and anatomically accurate (in 1872) marine creature decorating it. There is rumoured to be a tunnel connecting the Aquarium with the Pavilion too, although nobody is quite sure what Prinny used it for!

On the Water

It is a tragedy that no boats can land on Brighton's beach, except the one beautifully restored Brighton-rigged fishing vessel maintained by Brighton Fishing Museum. This unique tribute brings the history of Brighton's oldest industry alive. The centre-piece of the museum is a full-size clinker-built fishing boat, built in Sussex following traditional methods used for many generations. As well as the 27ft beach boat, there are prints, photographs and memorabilia of Brighton seafront life from the Regency days to the post-war boom in pleasure boat operations. A computer archive is also available which can be consulted for more information about the local fishing and boating fraternity. Above all the museum operates a 12 seater passenger boat, Skylark, off the beach in fair weather during the summer months. This is a trip not to be missed -- Brighton boats had a unique feature, each huge iron keel had a large hole in it, through which metal cable was threaded at low tide to haul the boats up the shingle. As a result the boats were familiarly known as bum-first launchers! There are also two shellfish stalls, a smokehouse and a smoked fish shop within yards and any conversation you strike up is likely to be with one of Brighton's few remaining fishermen, a living resource of fact and legend about the city's original industry.

Brighton Beach

However, a mile or so along the beach is the largest Marina in the UK. Brighton Marina is a hive of activity offering extensive marine services, a lively yacht club, restaurants, a cinema, bowling alley, casino and a health and fitness club. The new Waterfront development includes a hotel and numerous shops, bars and restaurants. Several French Marinas are within easy reach -- the closest, Fecamp, just sixty five miles away, is an attractive town with a busy fishing port. Other destinations to choose from include the picturesque Honfleur (ninety miles away) or Dieppe (70 miles). Alternatively, cruise west along the South Coast to Chichester, Southsea and Port Solent.

The somewhat schizophrenic Brighton is sometimes known as 'London by the Sea' because of its lively atmosphere and cosmopolitan nature and also because of the large number of visitors from London. Note that many Brighton residents, being not short on nerve, refer to London as 'Brighton by-the-land'! Brighton is renowned for its lively music scene, having spawned a number of successful bands in recent years, not least Fatboy Slim and The Levellers. It supports a number of record labels, including Skint Records and LOCA Records and a range of celebrated clubs. Brighton is equally well known for its large number of bars -- you can drink in a different bar on each day of the year. The city has also over fifty churches, so you can repent your drunken sins in a different one every week of the year too.

For those with a literary or celebrity hunting preference, Brighton offers the chance to see the McCartneys and the Fat Boy Slims, the Eubanks and Julie Burchill eating out in the city or shopping in The Lanes. Literary uses of Brighton abound: Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (Jack Worthing was abandoned in a handbag in a cloakroom at Victoria Station on 'the Brighton line') and Patrick Hamilton's West Pier are just a few. In addition, every Brighton bus has a famous Brighton resident's name in the front, so you can spend the day travelling through the city from Aubrey Beardsley to Dusty Springfield, taking in King Charles II and Lord Olivier on the way.

Brighton Pier

The Booth Museum of Natural History offers over half a million specimens. Natural history literature and data extending back over three centuries are housed in this fascinating museum. Exhibits include hundreds of British birds displayed in recreated natural settings, plus butterflies, skeletons, a whale and dinosaur bones. The new Discovery Laboratory offers interactive displays exploring the Booth's collections.

The Brighton Museum & Art Gallery is part of a regeneration scheme aiming to reinvigorate the cultural centre around the Royal Pavilion estate. The Museum houses nationally and locally important design collections. The entrance in the Royal Pavilion gardens has a spacious foyer and shop and a very good tea room upstairs. Hove Museum, on the other hand, is set just outside the heart of the city and has one of the most magical exhibitions for the young or young at heart -- an interactive childhood toy display with trains running under the glass floor. The rooms that detail the development of the motion picture industry are superb, and the rolling display of the earliest ever films allows Brighton and Hove to lay claim to being the birthplace of cinema.

East Sussex has more to offer than its seaside towns, however. Almost two thirds of the county is contained within Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are five country parks, and the South Downs Way long-distance path provides superb walking through ancient woodlands and across the rolling hills of the South Downs. Small villages are dotted along the river valleys, and the area is rich in prehistoric remains, the best known of which is the enigmatic Long Man of Wilmington hill figure.

More Information:

The Royal Pavilion

Brighton Sea Life Centre

Brighton Fishing Museum

Brighton and Hove Bus Company

Booth Museum of Natural History

Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

Hove Museum

The Long Man of Wilmington

Kay Sexton spent more than a decade as a house writer for charitable/environmental organisations worldwide. Her publication credits range from H&E International to France Today to the World Water Forum Annual Report. She is also a Jerry Jazz Fiction Award winner with columns at http://www.moondance.org and http://www.facsimilation.com. Her short story "Domestic Violence" was runner-up in the Guardian fiction contest and her work appeared in seven anthologies in 2004. She teaches writing and business communications, and her website (http://www.charybdis.freeserve.co.uk) gives details of forthcoming classes and publications.
Article © 2006 Kay Sexton
Photo credits: Pavilion (top), Lanes, Fountain, Beach courtesy of Britainonview.com; Pavilion (center) courtesy of Wikipedia.org; Palace Pier courtesy of Brighton Tourism Board.


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