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Brighton: the original seaside resort

Brighton: the original seaside resort

Eric Boucher - 2009-02-11

The Regency and Victorian surroundings are still there, of course, but the trend is no longer really towards snobbery and old ladies in pink hats on the pier. Brighton is a relaxed, modern town where you will come across the most unlikely looks. Just one hour from London St Pancras, it would be a mistake to deprive yourself.

With all due respect to those who love Old England, Brighton does not really fulfil the criteria of an upmarket family seaside resort; but at the risk of offending the nostalgic amongst us, it would appear that this was inscribed in its genes from its creation. Here’s what an American wrote about it in 1881: “Brighton is London repeated on a small scale […],with a purer atmosphere, though with scarcely less of a crowd. The shops are London shops, the actors at the theatre belong to London companies, the faces and dresses have become familiar in the Strand or Piccadilly, and the Cockney dialect, with its soft drawl and misused aspirates, is heard oftener than any other. Like London, too, its social life is sustained by many classes circulating collectively, but not associating with one another.”
 
An avant-garde town
 
With nigh on 250,000 inhabitants and 60,000 students, the Brighton-Hove conurbation is much more than a simple seaside resort – it’s a real metropolis on the shores of the Channel. Although Hove, which merged with Brighton in 1997, is more residential and conservative, Brighton has always been an avant-garde – indeed nonconformist – town.
 
The “seaside resort” concept was born in Brighton: as early as the 1740s-1750s, a certain doctor Richard Russell recommended sea bathing and even the taking of salt water to his patients. Another symbolic Brighton figure is King George IV. From his first visit in 1783 as Prince of Wales until his death in 1830, George IV remained loyal to the small fishing port where he had an extravagant pavilion built in the style of a maharajah’s palace on the outside, and Chinese style inside. The ceremonial room, with its lavish decor, 14m-high dome and 1-tonne chandelier is quite simply sublime and worth the trip alone. George IV, a sort of English Ludwig II of Bavaria? His eccentricity readily speaks in favour of this hypothesis, even though his morals were not questionable. Brighton’s gay community (20% of the population), the second largest in the country after London’s, readily claims him as a precursor, to whom the town is indebted for his tolerance and bohemian spirit.
 
In the 1970s, Brighton was roused from its torpor by the riffs of Pete Townshend. In Quadrophenia – cult film of the seventies with a soundtrack by The Who – Brighton serves as the backdrop for the Mods’ soul-searching. In one outstanding scene, the hero commits suicide on a scooter from the top of a cliff in Brighton. Since then the seaside resort has continued to attract all the stars of the English music scene. Here you might cross paths with Noel Gallagher, lead singer with Oasis, Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds, Gaz Coombes of Supergrass or Marti Pellow (Wet, Wet, Wet) and Norman Cook (the famous DJ Fatboy Slim). 
 
Going by the accounts of some natives, you would be tempted to believe that the town is the centre of an exceptional artistic buzz and populated only by creative people. Brighton can, moreover, pride itself on an Artists’ Quarter where 30 artists live year round in old fishermen’s huts converted into studios. The town council cultivates its arty atmosphere with an Artist Open Houses event every year in May, where real and would-be artists open their houses to the public. It is good-natured, convivial and a unique opportunity to discover the privacy of a bohemian interior.
 
The seafront
 
The seaside promenade is not terribly charming and could do with a bit of a facelift, but the oldest seaside resort in the world has the advantage of age and arouses a hint of nostalgia with its old kiosks, its wrought-iron railings from another age… and above all its famous piers.
 
Of the oldest one, the West Pier built in 1866, there remain only burnt and buckled iron girders following various fires and storms. Several rumours circulate regarding the origin of the disaster – criminal, of course, and crazy (a seagull allegedly dropping a burning cigarette butt there).
 
The more recent Palace Pier is occupied by fairground attractions, making it a rather surrealistic place, combining public bustle and romanticism, the smell of chips and sea breeze.
 
Although the seafront can seem very urban with its unbroken line of buildings, it has a few beautiful green spaces and magnificent architectural complexes. To the west, in Hove, are the very aristocratic Adelaide Crescent and Brunswick Square (1825–1827) with their attractive cream-coloured façades and rows of bow windows, columns and pilasters that are all identical… At the eastern end, Lewes Crescent and Sussex Square (1823) are masterpieces of Georgian architecture.
 
The Lanes versus North Laine
 
The Lanes, on the site of the old fishing village, is Brighton’s historic district. A tangle of streets and alleys, some of them no more than 2 metres wide, it is small, cosy, charming… and where you will find most of the town’s chic pubs and restaurants as well as the trendy shops.
 
There is a whole other ambience a few streets further on, once you have crossed North Street. North Laine is more a kind of Camden Town, a concentration of alternative culture with its second-hand dealers and other highly specialised shops selling skateboards and street performer paraphernalia… North Laine reveals the very soul of contemporary Brighton: a population very much concerned with well-being, alternative medicine and ecology, as witnessed by the number of organic restaurants and cafés, dispensaries devoted to natural, vegetarian and organic productsYou will even find a vegetarian shoe shop here. Brighton is indeed a miniature London by the sea.
 
 
Practical information
 

The Regency and Victorian surroundings are still there, of course, but the trend is no longer really towards snobbery and old ladies in pink hats on the pier. Brighton is a relaxed, modern town where you will come across the most unlikely looks. Just one hour from London St Pancras, it would be a mistake to deprive yourself.

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