The coldest winter in England for thirty years is finally coming to an end. I looked out the window and the world looked strange, then I realized it was sunlight. I hadn’t seen that for so long, I’d forgotten it. So, although it could hardly be considered warm, I decided to go to the seaside for the weekend, packing both my warmest coat and my swimsuit!
The place I always hear people talk about is Brighton. It’s only about an hour from London on the train and, even booking only a week or so ahead, the tickets were cheap. One of the first lessons I learnt in the UK was never ever to buy your ticket on the same day if you’re heading out of London: it will be expensive. Also, choose a specific train and stick to it – the prices vary and they will check your ticket to make sure you caught the right one. (When I arrived at Brighton Station, there were four burly policeman flanking the guy checking out tickets. Had there been an ‘incident’ or is this normal?)
So, tickets booked, hotel chosen, I headed out of London. And it started to rain. Sigh. But when I saw green fields instead of roads, cows instead of houses, hills instead of office blocks, I forgot all about the weather. I could have sat on that train for hours, watching the English countryside with its castles and hedgerows flicker past.
Brighton Station is in the middle of the town. Thankfully. Because I’d done my usual no research and would have had to wander in circles and rely on the directions of strangers otherwise. Coming out of the station, it’s really obvious that you just follow the crowds straight ahead down the shopping street and suddenly you’re in view of the sea. Bliss. They also have pretty good signposting; this is a tourist town after all and has been for centuries.
Immediately I liked the place. The air was clean, the seagulls were suitably mournful – and huge! Much bigger than their Australian equivalent. Even the light was different. I love London but it’s really important to have a reality check sometimes and remember that big, crowded, dirty cities are not the only places to be.
My hotel was easy to find. Not far from the waterfront in a grid of streets full of old Georgian buildings, now mainly converted to little hotels. It was in the area know as Kemp Town, just across the main road Old Steine but only five minutes walk from the center of Brighton. And about two minutes walk to the sea. The first morning at breakfast I managed to snaffle the prime table in the window and ate with a view of sun glinting off water. Yes, it had stopped raining.
The first thing I did when I arrived on Friday was go for a long, long walk beside the sea. Notice I did not say: on the beach. I would love to have walked on the beach but in Brighton this is only for the brave, foolish or hardy. The beach is made of large stones. Not sand, not small manageable pebbles, but huge, life-threatening stones that want to break your ankles and slide you into the sea in a noisy avalanche. I tried to walk along it, other people were, and dogs were running as if it were normal, but five minutes was like a lifetime on an endurance trial and I fled back to the safety of the path.
My path walk was lovely though. In the distance I could see dramatic white cliffs and I was determined to reach them. But they kept getting further away. When I got to the Brighton Marina I decided that a distant cliff view was good enough and turned back. This was as much due to the horrors of the marina itself as the exhaustion, rain and falling night. Brighton Marina is a mystery to me. Why would you cut off a beach (even a rocky one) to put in a shopping mall? This place is a concrete jungle of car park and ramps, shops, gyms, restaurants. Somewhere behind all that there is a place to moor boats. The people have spoken their discontent in the form of graffiti and rubbish. I turned my back on it and headed back to the centre of town, and the pier.
Brighton Pier is an icon. It’s a pleasure palace dating from 1899 and stretches out over the water with arcade games, merry-go-rounds, bars, fast food and treacherous rides. But a smile stroll along it is free. Walking back along the beachfront as night fell and all the lights twinkled on the pier, I wasn’t sure if the pleasure palace was fabulous or dreadful. Maybe it was the Brighton Marina of its day.
For dinner I ate fish and chips – what else. The choices of where to buy them were endless so I chose the biggest: Harry Ramsdens, claiming to be the country’s most famous fish and chip shop, and right opposite the pier. They were actually pretty good. I also ordered the obligatory mushy peas. These are, literally, peas mushed up. I love peas but even I don’t quite get the mushy pea phenomenon. What they do to them to lose the flavor remains a mystery.
On Saturday morning, I headed to the Brighton Royal Pavilion. This place is not to be missed. And is very hard to miss in its flurry of domes and minarets. Right in the middle of town, on Old Steine, it was the folly of George, the Prince Regent, before he became King George IV when his insane father finally died in 1821. Until then though, George had money and a taste for the high life so he indulged his love of food, pleasure and all things in the Chinoiserie (Chinese) style. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he employed architects and designers to turn a simple farmhouse into the wonder we see today.
Two of George’s favorite things were food and music. The two most sumptuous rooms in the pavilion are then the Banqueting Hall – a feast of gold and mirrors with a huge chandelier held up by dragon, and the Music Room – the dome is made up of hundreds of gilded plaster cockle shells. Even the kitchens are impressive – at the time they were the most modern in England.
The pavilion is definitely not to everyone’s taste – Queen Victoria found it too extravagant and did not like the smallness of the bedrooms and the lack of privacy so she sold it to the town of Brighton in 1850. But by then it had put Brighton on the map as the place for society and seaside visits.
To recover from the design-saturation of the Pavilion, I stared at the sea for a while, then headed into The Lanes. This is a tangle of narrow streets that makes up the historic quarter of the original fishing village. Full of shops, cafes and pubs, it’s a great place to wander and get lost. Even though it’s not very big, I managed to be in there for hours, eventually realizing they did not have two of everything but that I was going in circles. Not that it was unpleasant.
Then my friends arrived for a birthday celebration. We had lunch in a fabulous vegetarian café called Food for Friends. The chocolate pudding rendered me speechless with joy. Then it was on to cocktails at Gin Gin in Upper James Street, Kemp Town, near my hotel.
Brighton is a mass of great places to eat, drink and shop. Apart from The Lanes, and Kemp Town, there’s an area between the station and Old Steine which is full of alternative shops, cafes, and pedestrianized streets: Bond Street, Sydney Street, North Road. On Sunday, it was full with people wandering, browsing, buying, and drinking coffee in the sunshine. Bill’s Produce and Café on North Road was great. And just below the station, on the wall of the Prince Albert pub is a piece of famous Banksy graffiti, seemingly a major point of homage on any visit to Brighton if the shoals of people turning up to see it are anything to judge by.
With a final look at the sea, the pier and the inhospitable rocky beach, I headed back to the station and caught my train to London. I loved Brighton and will definitely go back. It’s a town I could live in. But I wouldn’t choose it for a summer holiday – all that sea to swim in but how on earth would you get past those rocks? Not gracefully, that’s for sure.
Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s tours in England, check out our things to do in London, escape the City on a Bath, Windsor Castle or Cotswolds day trip from London, or even discover mysterious Stonehenge.