With the extraordinarily wet weather we have had this winter we have had to turn our attention to town and city walks to avoid the sea of mud and floodwater that appears to be enveloping our countryside. After our successful little tours of Lewes and Horsham it seemed to make sense to have a closer look at Brighton. The biggest population centre in Sussex seems to be missing a trick, for there does not seem to be a definitive City Trail for tourists to see the main sites. I did find one that concerned itself with architecture and so as time was short I decided that we would give that one a go.
We started the trail at Brighton Station. This is surely the finest railway building in the whole of Sussex but is very maintenance hungry and seems to be constantly being painted and tidied up. However its 2013/14 presentation seems to be far less cluttered than previously. The concourse is now largely free of shopping facilities, although a large Christmas tree did stand in the way on the day we arrived. The station with its marvellous trainshed was built into the side of the hill in 1841 high above what is now the city centre.
Our route took us down underneath the frontage of the station along the curious Trafalgar Street, which once presumably looked less incongruous without a large station plonked over the top of it? The scene in Trafalgar Street is now rather different from that which would have greeted us 40 years ago when the land adjacent to Brighton Station was occupied by a large locomotive works, where the London Brighton and South Coast Railway (and subsequent operators) built most of their locomotives from Victorian times until the 1960s. Now this is only a distant memory as the loco works has long since been demolished and replaced by shiny new apartments, shops and hotels. The whole area has a new modern lease of life that is completely at odds with its former use.
Our onward route took us along some twittens to North Road. A ‘twitten’ is a Sussex word for an alley and the two that we walked along were the survivors of a long since disappeared environment in this part of Brighton. Apparently the frontage of the houses would once have looked out over an extensive area of market gardens that are now long disappeared under more housing and commercial development. The houses themselves look like very desirable places to live, although the lack of parking may well be a problem for many.
|St Nicholas Church|
At the end of the twittens we came out opposite the Brighthelm Centre, a community and church building that I remember being built in the late 1980s. I cannot claim to be a fan but the carving on the front of the five loaves and two fishes parable is a nice touch, something rather different to see in a modern building. The back of the church is still occupied by a graveyard of sorts, although most of the headstones have been moved to the side of the green space that should act as a bit of a green lung for the city. Sadly it is a bit of a honey pot for street drinkers and even on this cold and frosty day there were a couple in evidence so we didn’t hang around long.
Our route took us up the hill through an old part of Brighton that I have always loved. The buildings here are quite grand looking and the streets were all laid out at a similar time after the arrival of the railway. It has an air of class about the area and I am sure that house prices reflect it now. At the top of the hill we passed the parish church of St Nicholas that gleamed in the low winter sun. The voices from the congregation singing hymns inside, which added a lovely atmosphere to the still winter’s day. The church itself is perhaps unsurprisingly the oldest in Brighton but what is surprising is that it was not built in the heart of what was the original fishing village that was to become the city. One school of thought is that the church also acted as a lookout in case of enemy attack from the sea.
|Brighton Clock Tower|
Further down the hill we passed by a very eye catching building known as Wykeham Terrace. This was originally built by an order of Nuns to take care of ‘fallen women’. One story has it that one of the residents was taken in after being acquitted of putting her baby down the toilet. On her death bed she admitted her guilt.
By now lunchtime was upon us and we dived into Churchill Square for a bite to eat. This mecca of shopping is very different from the one I remember growing up. That incarnation was an outdoor affair borne of 1960s town planning. It was intended to look rather continental with wide open spaces and public art, but by the 1990s it looks like an ageing concrete monstrosity and was given a complete overhaul, turning it into a more up to date looking indoor shopping mall. I can’t help thinking that it is starting to look its age once again – how long until the next refurbishment?
|Herbie In The Lanes|
Feeling refreshed we headed down through the Lanes towards the seafront. It is amazing to think that this iconic part of the Brighton landscape was almost bulldozed in the 1960s and only survived due to a public outcry. The first lane that we headed down was Duke’s Lane. This is actually a more modern addition as although it is set up to look and feel like the main part of the Lanes it was actually laid out in the 1980s from an earlier development. The atmosphere and types of shop that occupy Duke’s Lane make it almost indistinguishable from the remaining area now – a testament to how the developers envisaged the future.
|Brighton Town Hall|
During the latter half of the 1980s I worked in this area of Brighton and The Lanes were my lunchtime entertainment. Although many of the businesses have changed since then, the nature of the businesses have not really changed and it is still the same mix of jewellery shops, fashion boutiques, knickknack parlours and little cafes. It may be a bit twee but there are few better places to browse even for non-shoppers like me!
At the other end of the Lanes we passed by the very grand looking Brighton Town Hall. As a child I thought the place was a royal palace and as a civic building it is quite the statement. It was built in 1832 and was supposed to be in the shape of a Greek Cross. However, the developers couldn’t buy the land to the south of the building and so it ended up as a T shape instead!
Just along from the Town Hall is probably the dingiest and smelliest tourist draw in Brighton, the alley that is often known as Mod Alley, after its appearance in the film Quadrophenia where two lovers end up after running away from the police. Its appearance hasn’t improved since the shooting of the film.
Our route took us down East Street and past the old cinema where I spent a lot of my youth. Sadly it no longer functions as a cinema but the building is still intact, operating now as an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurant. Ho hum. The rest of East Street has definitely gone upmarket in recent years with many of the grungier looking shops now turned into fashionable eateries to cater for just about every taste. The bus station around the corner at Pool Valley has also improved somewhat in recent years although it is far from the best welcome to a city if you arrive by coach. Service buses have long since ceased using it, although when I was a boy all the busies terminated here and the place was alive with activity.
Across the road from the bus station is one of the main draws in the south, Brighton Pier (or more properly Palace Pier). Allegedly it is the most visited free attraction in the whole of the UK, which is some boast! It was buzzing with people as we passed, with many more taking a ride on the adjacent big wheel that was installed in recent years. By now time was running low for us, which was a shame. I think I would have liked to linger a little longer but on we went, past the historic aquarium and back around Steine Gardens across to the Royal Pavilion.
Sadly views of the Pavilion were obscured by the ice rink that was installed in front of it for the winter season. However, it is still an astonishing building and so unexpected in the heart of a seaside resort. It’s George IV’s idea of what an Indian Palace should look like and all the turrets and minarets were added to what was essentially a grand house that already existed and forms part of the structure. The rather fat playboy King has his own statue next door. He didn’t do Brighton’s long term prospects any harm though – people have flocked here ever since he popularised the place in the 1820s. His Royal successors snubbed Brighton though and the Royal Pavilion was soon offloaded.
Our journey back to the Railway Station took us via what is called the North Laine area of Brighton, a vibrant shopping area full of interesting shops selling second hand goods, unusual clothing and the sort of trendy things that bring so many people to the area. The walk was a rather whistle stop affair but it did remind me what a great place Brighton is to wander around. I think I might like to do a variation on this trip on a summer’s evening but maybe with a slightly different route so as to look at different stuff.