Monday 7th February 2011, Brighton
The title for this account came to me as I crouched, paintbrush in hand, working my way along the lounge skirting board of the flat in Brighton belonging to our daughter Kate! We had been sent down for a "holiday" while it was temporarily unoccupied as she debated what to do about both her home and her own future. She'd bought the flat several years ago, Brighton being the "in" place for "20 somethings" to live. Since then she'd moved on and now, after travelling around South America and with a new life back in Devon, she found the pace of things in Brighton less suited to her aging "30 something" mentality.
Her home is an agreeable Victorian flat dating from the late 19th century. Kate has her own unique style of interior design – indeed she should have followed that avenue as a career. We call it "shabby chic". She can take a worm-eaten dresser, a mirror discarded in a streetside skip, a canvas screen from a junk shop and a couple of old silk saris picked up during her travels from a market stall somewhere in India, and turn a room into something both charming and unique.
Although we'd been sent off to have fun there were a few little jobs Kate hoped we'd do around the flat – like overseeing, and clearing up after the installation of some new Velux windows in the roof and the replacement of the bathroom door leading to the roof terrace that overlooks the garden of the flat below. Yes, the flat does have its peculiar little quirks, and passing through the bathroom with a bottle of wine or a sizzling lasagne for a relaxing summer supper amidst the pots of parsley on the terrace is just one of them! We've also found ourselves bargaining with the local second-hand furniture store to swap a folding teak table, considered by Kate as too modern and smart, for a folding linen screen to shield the loo from supper guests on the terrace; and carrying bucket loads of no longer needed soil through the streets to dump back in the local park, from where it had originally been surreptitiously "borrowed". Touching up the paintwork a little ended up in a full-scale repainting of the Victorian sash windows in the lounge as well as the high mantle over the fireplace, the cream frames of all the stripped pine internal doors and the skirting boards throughout the house! It's looking so lovely now, we'd rather like to stay!
So much for the "dutiful". The rest will be about "all things Brighton".
Brighton and Hove, together with several smaller towns, form a massive urban conurbation stretching along the south coast, some fifty miles from London. It has a total population of nearly half a million people and is within daily commuting distance of London. Brighton has two universities and many buildings of historic charm. There is a somewhat bohemian feel to the city. In the centre, and particularly the throbbing area around Preston Circus where Kate has her flat, it appears as run-down and shabby. Lovely terraces of old houses have been bought by landlords and let out as bedsits and apartments. Neither the tenants nor the owners are greatly interested in maintaining the properties. So external plasterwork decays and crumbles, rubbish bins are left on the streets, electric cabling dangles from many of the gables, streets are rarely swept and nowhere is there space for plants to grow. With so many bedsits there is not enough space for people to park and the streets are permanently lined with vehicles, often double parked. Outside Kate's flat three lanes of traffic lead down to a busy crossroads where five or six major roads converge. Traffic passes day and night but strangely, we hardly notice it. The air is dirty after Devon and it's impossible to keep windows and external paintwork clean.
There is a definite character to the immediate neighbourhood with everything you could ever conceive of needing available within a few moments walk. Predominantly it is an area of people on limited incomes. Amidst the usual banks, building societies, estate agents, chemists and mobile phone shops the main street is crowded with small individual shops selling cheap goods – 99p stores, an Aldi supermarket, charity shops, dvd and music stores as well as a YMCA second hand furniture store, a pawn broker, a couple of betting shops, cheap cafes, bakers and pubs. It's a cosmopolitan area with Tandooris, Chinese take-aways, a Thai restaurant and even a Persian run fish and chip bar. Despite the cold, benches outside the shabby but characterful pubs seem permanently occupied, during the day by pasty-faced older men, at night by young couples of either mixed or single sex.
Brighton is regarded as the Gay capital of Britain, if not Europe, with some 27% of households appearing on the census as occupied by same sex couples. The Gay Pride carnival is held for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community each June in nearby Preston Park - where two minority heterosexual pensioners were recently seen dumping buckets of soil and worms! It is the largest such event held in Britain attracting visitors from throughout the country. The city has many bars, clubs and entertainment venues devoted to the LBGT community and has become the "in" place for gay weddings and civil ceremonies. I was reliably informed by the two irritating young men installing the Velux windows here that the majority of residents in this area are pink!
Nearby is Brighton Central Station, approached by a magnificent viaduct constructed during the 1840s. It has twenty seven arches and is reputed to be built from 10 million bricks! It passes overhead just a hundred yards from here with terraces of houses built right up to it. It is now a grade II listed structure.
Brighton was already a recognised seaside resort by the 19th century with a commercial port. It was also an international ferry port linking Britain to France through the port at Dieppe. With the arrival of the railway, Brighton developed rapidly as a tourist resort for Londoners and became known as London by the Sea.
Almost opposite Kate's flat is another grade II listed building, the Duke of York cinema, currently celebrating its centenary. It is one of the oldest cinemas in the world - a delightful piece of architectural eye candy at the heart the colourful shopping and residential area. It has remained unaltered since its construction in 1910, except, that is, for the addition of a huge pair of striped Can Can legs protruding from the roof! But what else would you expect in Brighton? The Duke of York was a cinema for discerning clients, its slogan being "Bring her to the Duke's, it's fit for a Duchess". In recent years it has been sympathetically restored and is now also an arts centre – far better cared for than in its past when it sometimes hosted illegal punk concerts! Still in daily use, it is the oldest, continuously operating, purpose-built cinema in Britain. We crossed the road to explore inside. The auditorium still has one of its original box balconies. Although it now has the addition of a very pleasant coffee lounge, it was easy to imagine ourselves back in Edwardian England. Back then public cinematography would have been in its infancy - it was in Brighton that some of the very early experiments in moving pictures began in 1896 while Kinemacolor, one of the first colour processes, was invented in the town by George Albert Smith in 1906 and used from 1910-1914.
As a break from painting we took a walk around the town centre, exploring some of the streets of alternative shops and houses around the station area. Brightly decorated, highly expressive hand-painted shop fronts help make this area unique. Walls are painted with huge, colourful murals and the shops concentrate on selling extravagant shoes and clothing aimed at the young.
Making our way up towards the station we chanced on the ornate clock tower, constructed in 1888 to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Each of the four sides has a mosaic portrait depicting variously, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Prince and Princess of Wales.
A fifteen minute walk from the flat takes us to the seafront and the Palace Pier – now renamed Brighton Pier. During my childhood back in the 1950s we lived in Croydon and, along with thousands of other Londoners, would frequently take the train down to Brighton at the weekend. There we would have a picnic on the crowded pebbly beach, a stroll along the pier with its penny in the slot naughty 3D photos of what the butler saw, and a paddle in the sea.
The pier is another of Brighton's listed buildings. It has suffered various assaults throughout its history, including a fire and an IRA attempt to blow it up. It was also considered to be a major risk during WWII and was purposely partially destroyed to ensure a German invasion from France could not use it as a landing stage.
Brighton used to have three piers, including the Chain Pier and the West Pier.
The West Pier, built in 1866 was damaged by fire in 1975 but its skeletal remains still stand off-shore, its rusting iron legs battered by the waves. This pier figured as the control and command centre in the satirical musical about the First World War, Oh What a Lovely War. There are currently plans to replace the pier with a huge viewing platform at the top of a steel column rising 176 metres above the sea and offering views up to twenty-five miles away, along the coast, across the city and back over the South Downs.
The Chain Pier, built in 1823, was destroyed by a storm in 1896. The remaining Brighton Pier, built 1891-1899, strides majestically 1719 ft (524 metres) out into the waves and is one of Britain's major seaside attractions. As in my own childhood, Londoners still flock to the coast during the summer and invariably end up on the pier with its domed amusement arcade, restaurants, concert hall, bars, deck chairs, roller coaster, ghost train and even wedding venue. At night though, it seems it is starlings that flock to the pier, roosting in their thousands beneath the planked walkway.
Along the seafront between the Aquarium and the Marina runs the open top, narrow gauge Volk's electric railway. Opened in 1883 it is the oldest electric railway in the world. Like the West Pier it also figured in the film Oh what a lovely war as did the long wrought-iron arcade that runs parallel to the railway along the seashore.
Brighton is well endowed with superlatives including the London to Brighton veteran car run, an annual event that began in 1896. It is the world's longest running motoring event and the world's largest gathering of veteran vehicles. To take part cars must have been built before 1905. The rally starts in Hyde Park and officially ends at Preston Park, a distance of 54 miles, before continuing past Kate's flat down to the pier.
Brighton is mentioned in the Domesday book. In 1514 it was attacked and destroyed by French raiders. The present area of narrow alleys of tiny shops known as the Lanes is one of the few areas to have survived the raids. It formed the original fishing village known as Brighthelmstone.
Almost certainly the most spectacular sight in Brighton is the Prince Regent's Palace, or Brighton Pavilion, together with the neighbouring Dome and Corn Exchange, now an arts venue containing a concert hall, theatre, restaurant and museum. The buildings are linked by an underground passage as they all originally formed the palace built by the Prince Regent in 1805. The concert hall and Corn Exchange were formerly the Prince's stables and riding school.
Feeling we'd earned a treat we recently took ourselves off to explore the Royal Pavilion. It is absolutely amazing! Begun in 1787 by the Prince Regent, externally it is Indo-Saracenic in style reflecting the British preoccupation with India at that time. The skyline is a riot of cupolas, domes and minarets. Inside the style is quite different. It is exquisitely decorated in Oriental style known as Chinoiserie and is the largest and most magnificent example ever undertaken in Britain. The roof of the Great Kitchen is supported by four cast-iron palm trees while in the Banqueting Room a massive chandelier is held up by a silver oriental dragon. Structural iron work is made to look like bamboo, and furnishings include lacquered cabinets, silk screens, Chinese rugs, ornate oriental lamps and delicate vases and porcelain.
The Pavilion was a Royal Palace belonging to George, Prince of Wales who used it as a retreat from London where he could entertain friends and be with his mistress Mrs. Fitzherbert – whom he later secretly married. The seaside was becoming increasingly popular as a health cure and the Prince believed the sea water and Brighton air were good for his gout. In 1811 his father, King George III, became mentally incapable of ruling the country and the Prince of Wales became the Prince Regent, monarch in all but name, until his father's death in 1820 when he succeeded him as King George IV.
Brighton became increasingly popular with the London aristocracy, within easy reach of the capital, and it developed rapidly. There are now hundreds of attractive Regency buildings and several squares in Brighton displaying a style of architecture typically associated with the Regency period but totally different from the flamboyant style of the Prince Regent's own palace.
What started as a simple farmhouse by the sea developed to become a fantasy building possibly surpassing even the Bavarian fairytale palaces of mad King Ludwig II. George had extravagant tastes, living lavishly and sparing no expense, employing top architects Henry Holland and John Nash to design the palace. Wrought iron and glass were used extensively in its construction. Unfortunately the salt air later caused expensive corrosion problems. The Pavilion and Dome are set back from the sea in attractive gardens open to the public.
When George IV died without an heir in 1830 he was succeeded by his brother William IV. He also died without leaving an heir so the crown passed to his niece Victoria. She never liked the Brighton Pavilion, finding it poky and unsuitable for her growing family. She also hated the lack of privacy now that ordinary Londoners could easily take the newly established train service down to Brighton for the day. She preferred Osborne on the Isle of Wight so Brighton Pavilion was closed and in 1850 it was sold to the city of Brighton who have managed it ever since. It is the only royal palace in Britain owned by a local corporation!
A rather nice touch is that during the First World War the Pavilion was used as a military hospital for Indian soldiers wounded fighting for the "mother country" in Europe. It was felt to be appropriate as they would feel more at home in such an architectural setting!
Tuesday 8th February 2011, Brighton
Yesterday the new windows were installed in the back bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. Everything went smoothly with the minimum of fuss, mess or noise. This morning we were finally able to repaint the bedroom and at last our work here seems to be at an end. Everywhere is clean, repainted and smart. Tomorrow we return home in time to exchange notes with Kate before she comes up on Saturday to hand over the keys to the new occupier.
Today the sun has been shining and it has felt really warm. With our work finished, we were off to enjoy a stroll along the seafront towards Hove. This area was the setting for the recent remake of the film Brighton Rock based on the acclaimed novel by Graham Greene depicting gang warfare between Mods and Rockers in the town during the early 1960s. Brighton seemed transformed without the bitter wind and mizzling rain. There were joggers, children, people in shorts and bare feet playing volleyball on the beach and hundreds of others soaking up the sun at beachside cafes or simply lounging on the beach watching the giant waves crashing onto the shingle.
We strolled along the promenade, past the elegant seaside hotels and squares of regency villas until we reached Hove. Along the sea front stands the magnificent Grand Hotel, built in 1864. It was the scene of the Brighton bombing of 1984 when the IRA attacked the Conservative Party Conference intending to kill the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. Returning back along the lower, beach level we passed the ornate Victorian bandstand constructed in 1884 and the mangled remains of the pillars that once supported the West Pier.
Once back at the centre of town we made our way to the museum beside the Pavilion. Entry is free and the collections excellent, ranging from the usual archaeological finds and the local history of Brighton, to 20th century furniture design, fashion and costume, the Egyptians, Burmese puppets, ceramics, paintings, drawings and architectural prints by Piranesi. There was also a temporary exhibition on the development of filming in colour. The building itself is as interesting as the exhibits displayed there, reflecting the Indian style of the adjoining Royal Pavilion. It's an excellent museum and we only left when asked to do so at closing time.
Although this account has concentrated on Brighton and Kate's flat with its immediate vicinity, we have also had the very great pleasure of visiting a couple of different sets of friends in the locality whom we have not seen for several years. On Sunday we were invited for lunch in Newhaven, some twelve miles along the coast, from where the cross channel ferry leaves for Dieppe in Upper Normandy. Our hosts Pam and Keith retired while we have been off on our travels, to a charming little house on the cliff top overlooking the sea where they are buffeted by Channel breezes and caked in salt spray for most of the year but rewarded with occasional idyllic summer days where they lounge outside with their books and glasses of wine or take a leisurely stroll on the cliffs to watch the ferry gradually disappear over the horizon. Pam and I date back to our convent schooldays when we were aged eleven so we have many memories in common. It was a very happy day despite the rain splattering against the windows on the seaward side of the house all afternoon and the impossibility of taking a walk on the cliffs. Thank you both for your hospitality.
I am particularly indebted to Wikipedia for verifying many of my facts and dates in this report. Access to the internet is an unaccustomed luxury we don't generally have when travelling with Modestine.
Related links of interest
Kate in South America http://kateinsouthamerica2008.blogspot.com/2008/11/arrival-in-peru.html
Bavarian palaces of Mad King Ludwig http://modestine.blogspot.com/2005/10/wilhelm-tell-and-switzerland.html See second half of entry for 28th September 2005.
Images of Brighton Pavilion http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/england/brighton/pavilion/nash.html
Simon Calder's recent travel article in the Independent The screen star of Sussex celebrating Brighton's role in cinematography and the remake of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock