Brighton Pier

Teetering on The Edge

1st April 2010

Visit Britain has described Brighton as the country’s favourite year-round city. At just an hour from London, it’s an easy way to get a dose of the seaside.

Jack Watkins recommends a trip in spring for an early season savouring of its very distinctive atmosphere…

Brighton either enthralls or appals, according to your mood, and, perhaps, your history with the place. Someone who spent her childhood summers in the late 1940s and 1950s in Hove, Brighton’s slightly more sedate neighbour, tells me that it is now the vilest of resorts. In the days when Hannington’s Department Store still proudly ruled the roost at the bottom of North Street, and the West Pier remained a stately adornment to the Regency squares along the promenade, Brighton had, for her, a certain class. Now she thinks it just looks squalid. Another friend, not mincing his words, thinks that the whole place needs razing to the ground and re-planning.

By contrast, I find it endlessly alluring, revel in its diversity, and am intrigued by its fraying charm. Sussex is a beautiful county, but also a complacently provincial one, reactionary in its tastes. Brighton is the bolt up the backside… a shaggy, ugly beast a lot of the time, inclined to speak out of turn, but alive and kicking. It’s an old town, undoubtedly – now officially a city, in fact – but, with its edgy mix of history, art and pop culture, it has young blood in its veins.

The pulse begins to race for me as the train, on its approach into the railway terminus, slows to a crawl on the wide curve of the Victorian viaduct. The dense urban scene sprawls away on either side, with lines of elderly terraces, corner shops and pubs climbing uphill. Seemingly haphazard, the prospect – for some people at least – is reminiscent of the worst of the outer London conurbations. There are travellers who sink back in their seats and shudder. No-one ever is indifferent to this view.

For author Graham Greene, whose novels were a byword for seediness, no other city in the 1930s, ‘not London, Paris or Oxford’, had such a hold on his affections. He set his celebrated Brighton Rock here, and though the authorities must have frowned at its unflattering descriptions of the town’s race-gang violence, those who depended for their business on the curious day-trippers must have been secretly delighted.

Greene wasn’t the only writer with a taste for lowlife to be captivated by this part of the south coast. Patrick Hamilton’s The West Pier, featuring his loathsome chancer Ralph Gorse, is a novel that evokes the location even more recognisably. As you leave the station, instead of heading straight along Queens Road for the shopping centre, go instead under the bridge, along Trafalgar Street past the Toy and Model Museum, and on your right you pass still extant roads such as Over Street and Kemp Street – the dreary slumland of the novel.

Brighton, like London, always has a surprise around the corner, though. At the bottom of Trafalgar Street is the handsomely pinnacled church of St Peter’s, so lovely that it would grace a central London square – which is hardly surprising since its architect was Sir Charles Barry, most famous for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster. St Peter’s stands in an area of green space collectively known as Valley Gardens; the bow- fronted Regency houses on either side may have looked tatty for as long as I’ve known them, but are a foretaste of Bohemian Brighton, leading on down Grand Parade to the Prince Regent’s Royal Pavilion at Old Steine.

Climbing the roads east of the Parade brings some interesting views and sawn-off perspectives. The Gothic stone loveliness of Barry’s church suddenly seems about to be consumed by the looming red-brick monster of St Bartholomew’s, actually a couple of streets back. At 90ft, it has the tallest nave of any parish church in England – the dimensions representing the supposed size of Noah’s Ark. It was called Wagner’s Folly after Reverend Arthur Wagner, the vicar who ordered its construction, and it’s certainly memorable, for all its vainglorious absurdity.

Albion Hill, now covered in housing, is 230ft above sea level, with gradients so steep that it must be hazardous for residents in icy conditions. Once it was topped by windmills, and there even had to be a wall built across one road to stop runaway carts. It’s clear that Brighton’s undulations and snaking terraces stand on what, less than 250 years ago, was still open downland, the valleys echoing to the tinkle of sheep bells. Walking still higher, beyond the elegant Queen’s Park, you finally arrive at Brighton Racecourse on Race Hill. At first, with the wire fences and the whitewashed concrete buildings, it looks as if you’ve come upon some army boot camp, but quickly you see views opening up across the South Downs. The Flat season hasn’t started yet, but the spring sap is rising and the anticipation is palpable in the now warming breezes, blowing up off the glistening sea.

It’s said that the old Lewes racecourse, tucked away in the hills not so far away, was really something to behold; racing here at Brighton, with its high grandstand and the thunder of hooves as the horses charge across the hill, is quite a spectacle too.

Regency architecture

Below Race Hill is Kemp Town, with the most select collection of Brighton’s sea terraces. The engine of Volk’s Railway, the first public electric railway in Britain when it opened in 1883, trundles along the track beside the shingle. Just three passengers are on board today but, then, it’s still early in the season. The Royal Crescent – elegant black bricks, fan lights above the doors, verandas, balconies – is a neat row of houses: the earliest example in Brighton of resort planning, and built in the late 1790s to face the sea, rather than as was then usual, with its back to it. It’s hard now to picture them as they were originally, in splendid isolation in this remote spot, and to imagine the grisly incident connected with their earliest days… on their completion, the painter, leaning back to admire his work, fell – and skewered himself on the railings below. Sir Laurence Olivier lived at no 4 for many years; with Max Miller and Sir Terence Rattigan other former residents of the area, Kemp Town’s long popularity with the showbiz set is plain.

The abandoned West Pier

It was along Madeira Drive that Hale, alias Kolly Kibber, tried to escape from Pinkie’s gang in Greene’s Brighton Rock by mingling with the crowds milling around the Palace Pier. Now named Brighton Pier, in profile it always used to remind me of a speed boat skimming across the water next to the more galleon-like West Pier. The likeness is harder to spot now that the theatre on the end has been replaced by fairground attractions, and the West Pier is just a mangle of cast iron, its entire decking gone, completely cutting it off from the beach.

Of course, it’s a melancholy eyesore, yet seafronts so often have this lurking sadness about them. Partly this is owing to the way paint peels and iron corrodes so quickly in the salty air, so that dilapidation is always close at hand. But, more than that, it’s as if they retain a memory – soundtracked in the mournful cry of the seagulls – of happy summers past, or a sense that good days in the present will soon just be memories. Walter Sickert caught the discordancy in his painting Brighton Pierrots, the troupe of clowns performing in front of the arches of the Lower Esplanade beneath a setting sun, just beyond the Brighton Pier.

Adjacent are the famous Lanes, the heart of Brighton in its pre-resort incarnation as a humble fishing village. The Cricketers’ Arms in Black Lion Street is perhaps the oldest building, and was once a favoured drinking haunt of Graham Greene. He might have felt the present scrubbed respectability of the regenerated shops something of a turn-off. Brighton is generally at its most interesting when it’s raffishly teetering on the edge.

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