A Guide to
Brighton & Hove: "London-By-The-Sea"
by Paul Allen
For those in the know, Brighton has long-been the place to go outside London. A mere 50-minute train ride south from the capital and 30 minutes from Gatwick Airport, Brighton is one of the country's most vibrant cities, as befits its sobriquet 'London-By-The-Sea.' The mixture of historic architecture, elegant esplanade, narrow passageways (or 'twittens' in the local vernacular), leafy parks and multifarious nightlife ensure the city will cater to any visitor's palate.
It was not until the eighteenth century that Brighton assumed the mantle of popularity though. Prior to that, Brighthelmston, as it was then known, was a fishing village of Saxon origin, subject to sorties by French marauders and the vagaries of violent storms that swept the English Channel. It was also a hotbed of smuggling, which had flourished since the fourteenth century following the government's imposition of taxes on imports and exports.
Then, after 1750, the town experienced a boom, in large part the work of Dr. Richard Russell, a resident of nearby Lewes. He promoted Brighthelmston as a health resort, encouraging wealthy Londoners to sample the healing properties of its seawater and bracing sea air. The town's repute as a fashionable resort was sealed in 1783, when the then Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and ultimately King George IV, became a regular visitor. The palace he built, a stunning Indian-style edifice called the Royal Pavilion, remains Brighton's most distinctive spectacle.
More than two centuries later the city has lost none of its allure, continuing to attract a host of famous residents, including dance-music guru Fatboy Slim, actor/comedian Mark Williams (of Shakespeare In Love and 101 Dalmatians fame) and former world super-middleweight boxing champion Chris Eubank. Laurence Olivier was also a long-time resident. Sir Paul McCartney and The Who frontman Roger Daltrey live close by.
So what is it that makes Brighton so unique? In part it is a certain intangible ambience of relaxed, easy-going enjoyment that pervades the sea air. For the rest, let Britannia show you around ...
After discovering the delights of sea-bathing at Brighton, the Prince of Wales bought a farmhouse in the town, subsequently engaging architect Henry Holland to upgrade the building into a residence more fitting for the heir to the throne. The result was the 'Marine Pavilion.' Further changes were made in 1801, not the least of which was the creation by Frederick Crace of the sumptuous Chinese-style interior.
At about the same time, William Porden was designing the new stables. The resulting Indian-influenced building had a huge dome, measuring 24 meters in diameter, covering the main hall. Unfortunately, the stables now outshone the palace. So, in 1813, the Prince commissioned architect John Nash to design improvements to the Pavilion, creating the fantastical structure of domes and minarets we see today. The whole project was completed in 1823.
On succeeding to the throne, George IV's niece, Queen Victoria, inherited the Pavilion. Uncomfortable with her proximity to the 'common tourist', Victoria sold the Royal Pavilion to the town in 1850, taking all its furnishings, even the wallpaper, with her. The building subsequently fell into disrepair. However, restoration work was begun in 1982, a program which lasted ten years and cost more than £10 million. Now, thanks to the return of most of the original fittings by Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Pavilion has recaptured its former elegance.
Another legacy of the city's blue-blooded history is the Theatre Royal, built in 1807 on land sold by the Prince from his Pavilion estate. In 1866, Henry Nye Chart, one of the premier managers of the day, bought the three-story theatre. Under his stewardship the enlarged and redesigned theatre flourished, attracting the country's top performers. Today, the Theatre Royal continues to draw packed houses, who come to enjoy an array of stage entertainment ranging from Broadway shows to opera, symphonies to modern jazz.
Brighton is the only town in Britain that can boast a Grade I listed pier (listed buildings are officially recognized as having an historical or architectural interest and are legally protected from alteration or demolition; Grade I buildings are of "exceptional interest" and account for less than 2% of those listed, while Grade II buildings are of "special interest".) Opened in 1866, the West Pier originally started life as a promenade for well-to-do Victorians, with an open deck and a handful of small buildings. A central bandstand was erected in 1875 and in the next decade a pier head theater was added. By World War I it had evolved into a pleasure pier, with paddle steamer rides and the replacement of the bandstand with a concert hall.
Unfortunately, the West Pier has long-been derelict. Innumerable schemes have been proposed to stop it falling into the sea, in reflection of its historical and architectural importance as a prime example of Victorian engineering skill, but the renovation work remains far from complete.
Brighton has no shortage of pier entertainment though. One mile east along the beach is the Grade II listed Brighton Pier (in background of photo of the Lower Promenade). Built in 1899, it is today a curious hybrid of Victorian design and modern installations, a pleasure park of funfair rides, slot machines, fish and chip restaurants, and bars.
Opposite the entrance to Brighton Pier is the underwater world of the Sealife Centre. Dating from 1872, it is the world's oldest aquarium. Amble past the huge tanks of local and tropical marine life, where you can watch feeding displays and listen to information talks on the more than 100 species kept there. You can also take a walk through England's longest underwater observation tunnel to admire the stingrays and sharks swimming overhead.
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Situated on what was once Queen Adelaide's stables, the museum includes extensive collections of Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture, glass and ceramics, and a range of art from Africa, Asia and the Americas. It also has a local history gallery, providing a fascinating insight into Brighton's past. To recuperate, enjoy the quiet contemplation afforded by the balcony cafe.
Booth Museum of Natural History
Established by Victorian ornithologist Edward Booth, the museum's collection features more than half a million insects and animals, 30,000 plants and 11,000 books and maps. Among the highlights are an extensive array of birds, butterflies and beetles, as well as dinosaur bones and the skeleton of a killer whale.
For a taste of upper-class country life, sample the charms of Preston Manor. Parts of the manor house date from 1250, but most of the present day structure was rebuilt in 1783 by Thomas Western. In 1794 the house changed owners, passing to William Stanford, in whose family it remained for the next 150 years.
The manor was refurbished in 1905 by William Stanford's granddaughter and heiress, Ellen, and her second husband Charles Thomas, who was mayor of Brighton from 1910-13. The house was left to the municipal authority, Brighton Corporation, after the couple's deaths in 1932.
Today Preston Manor can be seen in all its Edwardian glory. More than 20 rooms are open to the public, including the library, drawing room, bedrooms, nursery, servants' quarters, kitchen and butler's pantry. On display are the family's collection of antique furniture, paintings, silver, porcelain and toys. Behind the house are a terrace and croquet lawn, which overlook the thirteenth century church and the municipal Preston Park, which once formed part of Preston Manor estate.
Preston Manor is situated on the A23 London Road, two miles north of the seafront.
Brighton has its complement of high-street chains and boutiques, many of which can be found in the recently modernized Churchill Square shopping mall. Totally enclosed, its light, airy design means you can enjoy shopping's pleasures whatever the weather, while for the foot-weary the third floor restaurant area has a wide selection of food establishments at which to take your ease.
For household objets d'art, gifts, jewelry and more esoteric clothes shopping it is hard to beat The Lanes and North Laine areas, a pedestrianized labyrinth of family-run boutiques and businesses.
The Lanes is a dense network of narrow alleys, twittens and squares, an open-air bazaar of shopping, eating and entertainment. Here you can check out the designer clothes boutiques down Duke's Arcade and the plethora of antique jewelry shops around Brighton Square, stop for a light lunch of Spanish tapas at Casa Don Carlos, listen to the musicians 'busking' in East Street, or escape the hubbub with a drink in the walled beer garden of The Cricketers, Brighton's oldest pub.
The North Laine area, a few minutes' walk away, offers a more bohemian feel. Here the shops lining Bond Street, Gardner Street and Kensington Gardens are bursting with an eclectic array of merchandise, from antique furniture to the latest teen fashions. It's also an excellent place to enjoy a coffee or something stronger at a street-side table, while watching the innumerable jugglers, painters and buskers that ply their trade in this part of town.
Sightseeing & Recreation
Brighton's parish church is St. Peter's, which was built between 1824 and 1828 and is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic revival architecture; it was designed by Sir Charles Barry, who was later responsible for the Houses of Parliament. St. Peter's became parish church in 1873, replacing St. Nicholas's, which dates from the fourteenth century.
St. Bartholomew's Church, built in 1872, is Britain's tallest parish church, standing an incredible 140 feet. It was supposedly built to the same dimensions as Noah's Ark, hence the height. The best time to visit is during a music recital, when you can appreciate the wonderful acoustics of this barn-like church.
One of the city's oldest churches is All Saints' at Patcham, a village on the outskirts of Brighton on the A23 London Road, which dates in large part from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. However, a church was recorded on the site in the Doomsday Book of 1086. Patcham was an oft-used haunt of smugglers, who built tunnels and hiding places in several of the village's old houses. The association is graphically demonstrated by an inscription on the gravestone in All Saints' churchyard of Daniel Scales, a local smuggler shot in the back by a customs official.
The Brighton Marina
The Brighton Marina is the UK's largest yacht harbor, covering 126 acres and offering berthing for up to 1300 boats. It also has more than 700 exclusive flats and houses, many with a private yacht berth.
You can take your pick from a range of adventurous options, including sailing lessons, yacht charter hire, sea fishing and diving. Landlubbers may prefer the marina village, where the eight-screen cinema, 26-lane bowling alley complex, health club, shops, restaurants, cafes and bars present a drier alternative.
On a hill, with a fantastic view overlooking the city and sea, is Brighton racecourse. Brighton Races were made famous, or perhaps infamous, as part of the setting for Grahame Greene's novel, Brighton Rock. Fortunately some things do change and today the horseracing meets, which take place between April and October, offer a great day out for the family.
If having a little flutter on the track appeals, why not also try a night out at the greyhound stadium, where you can cheer on the dogs while enjoying a meal in the restaurant or soak up the atmosphere with the punters down on the trackside.
Parks and Gardens
Brighton is above all a city that breathes space and freedom. With the woods and farmland of the South Downs to its north and the sea to the south, Brighton lacks the urban claustrophobia that afflicts so many other towns and cities. Even within the city, there are many parks and gardens in which to sit back and, literally, smell the roses.
First up are Hove Lawns, a mile-long strip of grass bordering the sea, running from the West Pier into Hove, where people gather to share a picnic, fly kites, play soccer and volleyball, or just enjoy the sea breeze and sun.
Facing the Lawns are Adelaide Gardens, around either side of which curve the beautiful Victorian townhouses of Adelaide Crescent. A short walk north brings you to St. Ann's Well Gardens, which can be traced to Anglo-Saxon times. It was later used by Dr. Richard Russell later used it as a spa for his patients and, from 1897-1903, as a film studio. Today it is a park for everyone, an oasis of green where the energetic come to play tennis and the more sedate can amble among its shady trees and rosebeds.
Further west is Hove Park, a huge expanse of grass, trees and winding paths, where carnivals and funfairs can be found on many weekends through the summer. Or head east of Brighton Pier into Kemp Town to enjoy the similar delights of Queen's Park.
Just outside the city, easily reached on the local train to Falmer, is the beautiful 500-acre Stanmer Park, once the home of the Earls of Chichester. Or why not head along the coast to the picturesque village of Rottingdean to enjoy the Kipling Gardens, named after the author and poet Rudyard Kipling, who lived there from 1897 until 1902.
Where to Eat, Party & Stay
With some 400 restaurants and cafes, ranging across the international spectrum from traditional English fare to exotic Thai dishes, you are never far from excellent cuisine in Brighton. Being a seaside town, fish naturally features prominently. Excellent places to try are the Regency and Melrose restaurants, next door neighbors on the seafront opposite the West Pier, where you can wash down one of the local catches with a bottle of chilled French wine for around £20 a couple.
Two more chic seafood establishments are English's Oyster Bar & Seafood and Darcy's Seafood Restaurant, both of which can be found in The Lanes district. Though more expensive - expect to pay about £30 per head for a three-course meal with wine - their cozy charm and first-class dishes will be sure to satiate.
Or why not take a stroll up Preston Street and pick from the more than 20 restaurants that pack bumper-to-bumper into a road less than 200 yards long. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Italian, English - it is a gourmet's delight.
If you are looking for a taste of traditional British pub life, you need only step outside your hotel. Brighton boasts a pub for every day of the year, many of them serviced by local breweries. The oldest, harking back to the sixteenth century, is The Cricketers in Black Lion Street in The Lanes. More modern examples include the King and Queen at Marlborough Place, which can only claim a history dating back to 1779!
For the real ale aficionado, take your pick from the selection of weird and wonderfully named beers at the Quadrant at the top of North Street, or alternatively test your mettle on the assortment of flavored vodkas at the Squid & Starfish in Middle Street. Cocktail fans looking for Sex On The Beach can head to the Blue Parrot on New Road.
Brighton is also renowned for its nightclubs. The seafront has a host of trendy dance clubs, running from Concord 2 on the beach east of Brighton Pier along to The Escape, The Honey Club, The Beach, Funky Buddha Lounge and the legendary Zap Club, at the bottom of West Street. Larger venues in the clubland around West Street include Oriana's, The Event, Paradox and Club Barcelona. Samba nights can be found at Casablanca, while for a more laid-back feel try the Jazz Rooms or Catfish Club.
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Being one of the country's premier seaside resorts, hotels are in plentiful supply. Some of the finest are to be found on the promenade running between the two piers. The most famous is the five star Grand Hotel, which was bombed by the IRA in 1984 while Margaret Thatcher's government were staying there en masse. Needless to say, it has since been restored to its former glory. Among the numerous four star hotels are the Metropole, Thistle and Old Ship Hotel. There are also a multitude of cheaper hotels and bed & breakfasts, many of which can be found on the seaside strip running from Kemptown in the east to Regency Square in the west.
Paul Allen is a freelance photojournalist, based in Brighton. He writes on a wide range of subjects, including travel, the environment, business and finance. Prior to taking up freelance journalism, Paul was based in New York, where he was editor of a well-respected financial newsletter. Paul is an honours graduate of Sheffield University.
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