England’s Most Famous Pebbles
An Insider’s Guide to Brighton and Hove, England
By Lucy Grewcock
Fifty miles south of London, as the seagull flies, sits a small seaside city with lots of energy. Brighton has been a favorite holiday destination since the 18th century, when George IV first built his elaborate party palace, The Royal Pavilion, and Brighton hasn’t taken its feet off the dance-floors since.
But there’s far more to this enigmatic city than toe-tapping clubs and historic drinking-holes: experience Brighton’s rich history in the twisting twittens and gas-lit theatres; feel the power of the elements as kite-surfers leap over the pier; and get your boots muddy in England’s newest National Park. With a fun-loving, freethinking vibe like no other city, Brighton ignites the souls of all who visit.
Brighton and Hove, actually
A city of, quite literally, two halves, ‘Brighton and Hove’, as it’s officially known, gained city status in 2000. The boundary between the original towns is scratched into a paving slab which hundreds of flip-flopped feet saunter over each day, entirely oblivious that one historic half is blurring into the other.
For simplicity’s sake, the city is referred to as ‘Brighton’, but the distinction between the two old towns of Brighton and Hove is played on relentlessly by local residents:
Whilst ‘Brightonians’, living in the grittier, glitzier eastern half flaunt their creative and more urbane lifestyles, Hoveites in the western half are known to enthusiastically point out that they live in ‘Hove, actually’, where sweeping rows of grand Regency terraces encircle the smart grass lawns at Brunswick and Palmera squares – favorite picnic spots for Hove’s yummy mummies and dashing Dads.
If you’re visiting for a weekend, you’ll spend most of your time in Brighton ‘proper’, where the bulk of the city’s shops, landmarks and entertainment venues are found.
But if you fancy escaping the busy beach and energetic beat of city life, take a ten minute stroll along the seafront, and you’ll drift away from the restaurants and bars that back Brighton beach, as you wander onto Hove’s quieter, lawn-lined seafront, where there’s far more space to spread out your beach towel.
But it all began in Brighthelmstone
Beginning life as a small fishing town known as Brighthelmstone, the city grew around an historic quarter of maze-like alleyways, or ‘twittens’, known today as The South Laines; you can still find some of the original flint-stone fishermen’s cottages within these car-free, four-hundred year old cobbled streets today.
Getting lost exploring the antique artillery dealers, designer jewellery boutiques, alfresco restaurants and16th century ale houses, is a favorite weekend pastime of tourists and locals, alike.
The city rose to fame in 1750 when word got around that Brighton’s seawaters had health-giving properties. The wealthy flooded to this south coast settlement, its popularity cemented with a visit from the Prince of Wales in 1783. Brighton soon began to grow and prosper, with new dancing halls and theatres serving the growing demand.
By 1787, Brighton was fast becoming a favored Royal holiday destination, so much so that George IV ordered an elaborate palace to be built here. With its eccentric Indian domes and Chinese style interior, where bright pink paper lines the walls and silver-plated dragons hang from the ceilings, the Royal Pavilion is quite possibly the most flamboyant piece of architecture in Britain today.
Sold to the city in 1850 for £53,000, the Pavilion has grown to represent all that is fun and flamboyant about Brighton, and a silhouette of the Pavilion buildings has been the symbol of the local council since the 1980s. Entrance to the Pavilion includes a free audio guide: see the website for more details (4/5 Pavilion Buildings, BN1 1EE, 03000 290900).
Fun and Frivolities
With George IV setting the scene back in the 18th century with his lavish parties and extravagant dinners at The Royal Pavilion, Brighton has always loved to party, and still offers some of the best nightclubs, bars and live music venues on Britain’s south coast, which literally spill out onto the washed pebble beach.
If you like to keep your feet dancing till dawn, Coalition, The Honey Club and Digitalare all found along the beachfront, under the Kings Road arches – just drop down from the fairy-light festooned upper promenade to the beach-level pine-wood walkways, any night of the week.
Brighton’s mischievous reputation
More than 200 years old, The Theatre Royal, on Bond Street, has been entertaining audiences since 1807, and with its original and intricate interior architecture, a performance here is a real treat. Showcasing both in-house productions and star-studded West End shows, visit the theatre’s website to book tickets, the box office on Bond Street, or call 0844 871 7627.
Just around the corner from the Theatre Royal, on New Road, the Brighton Dome has a unique history of its own. Originally the stable buildings of the Pavilion Estate, with a 19 metre high glass dome as its centre-piece, the acoustics here are crystal clear, welcoming the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, ABBA and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, during its 150 years as a renowned entertainment venue.(01273 709709).
And Brighton’s entertainment scene has even more to offer: Try Komedia – the city’s favourite comedy club (44 – 47 Gardner Street, BN1 1UN / 01273 647 100 / komedia.co.uk); The Duke of York Picture House–a Grade II listed cinema, showing art-house, independent and classic films (Preston Circus) ; or The Brighton Ballroom – a 200 year old entertainment venue, showing burlesque shows and serving classy cocktails (83 St Georges Road).
What I love most about Brighton is the great outdoors. In just ten minutes on the number 77 bus (it leaves from the Jubilee Pier every 30 minutes), or a 20 minute bike ride up Dyke Road, and you’ll find yourself in Britain’s newest National Park: The South Downs.
Take a moment to enjoy the magnificent views across and sweeping green hills, which roll down towards the solid blue horizon of the English Channel and the sparkling South Coast.
Listen to the gentle lowing of the burgundy-colored Sussex Cattle and the cheerful chirps of yellow hammers and gold finches; chase after red admiral butterflies through buttercup-filled meadows and pull on your hiking boots,or jump on a mountain bike, and pick up part of the 100 mile-long national trail, the South Downs Way, as it winds its way through Devil’s Dyke – a cavernous dry valley that carves through the rolling chalk grassland.
Those with more adrenaline reserves could swap walking boots for a mountain-board or orb ball, and try hurtling across the grassland or rolling back down the Downs in a giant plastic ball: Contact Orb360 to arrange (Devils Dyke Rd, BN1 8YJ, /08456 434 360 / ).
When a gentle breeze blows, the sky above Devil’s Dyke is stage to a colorful collection of parachutes; Para-gliders take off from the steep-sided valley top and soar above the thermals on balmy summer afternoons – a serene spectator sport, or those who fancy flying for real should contact skylarkparagliding.co.uk (0788 4072536).
Adventure junkies who stay in the city should be prepared to get their feet wet. Brighton isn’t best known for its surfing breaks but, believe it or not, surfers have been splashing about in the city’s swell since the 1960s.
On a mid-tide, long-boarders flock to the far corners of Brighton beach, riding the breaks at either the ‘Hotpipes’ in far west Hove, or ‘the Marina’, just past the eastern harbor.
When the wind blows south-westerly, the horizon fills with the powerful kites of Brighton’s die-hard kitesurfers, who can be seen skimming gracefully across the English Channel and performing aerial stunts off the chop.
In November 2010 former British kite-surfing champion, Lewis Crathern, made the 50ft leap over Brighton Pier, to the awe of onlookers eating candyfloss on the beach.
If you’re without a paddle
Equally popular sea-sports in Brighton include sailing, stand-up-paddle-boarding, sea-kayaking, windsurfing, sea-swimming, fishing, wakeboarding…you name it.
Undoubtedly, the best place to find tuition is at Lagoon Watersports, just back from the seafront in West Hove; first timers can learn in the shallow sheltered waters of the club’s private lagoon, before braving the open seas (Hove Lagoon, BN3 4LX / 01273 42 48 42 / lagoon.co.uk).
But if you just fancy messing about on a boat for the afternoon, you can hire a kayak from Brighton Watersports from £10/hour, or book onto one of their mackerel-fishing trips and have a go a hauling in your supper(185 Kings road arches, BN1 1NB / 01273 323160 / ).
A favorite with food-lovers, Brighton is also home to some of the finest restaurants in the UK. Here’s a few local favorites to whet your appetite:
• Terre-a-Terre (71 East Street, BN1 1HQ / 01273 729051 /terreaterre.co.uk): Dubbed ‘probably the finest vegetarian restaurant in Britain’ by one of the UK’s toughest critics. Expect sculptured art-forms on a plate, that will send your taste-buds into overdrive.
The Gingerman (21a Norfolk Square, BN1 2PD / 01273 326688 /gingermanrestaurant.com): Famed for its local meats and full-flavoured dishes, this Brighton institution has two sister restaurants in the city, the Ginger Dog and the Ginger Pig: all three are firm favourites with Brighton foodies.
• Due South (139 Kings Road Arches, BN1 2FN / 01273 821 218 /www.duesouth.co.uk/):‘A seafront institution to reckon with’, according to The Guardian. Bang on the beach, enjoy alfresco dining at its best or, when the nights draw in, trybooking their famous sunset-view table.
• Moshi Moshi (Bartholomew Square, BN1 1JS / 01273 719195 / www.moshibrighton.co.uk/): Japanese cuisine that moves; take a table by the conveyer belt so you can grab as much sushi as you like as it skims past. If visiting on a Monday, sign up for membership on the website first for half price food.
• D.I.Y. beach BBQ: For locals and tourists alike, every good summer’s day ends with a beer and a barbeque on Brighton beach. Bring your own and watch the flocks of swallows perform their evening dance routine, whilst the sun sets behind the burnt-out West Pier. Truly magical. Tip: It’s wise to check the city council guidelines on barbequing first.
Where to rest your head
With grand Victorian hotels lining in the seafront, and boutique B&Bs buriedacross the city, Brighton is packed withso many accommodation options, you’re spoilt for choice. Try these to start with:
• The Grand(97-99 King’s Road, BN1 2FW / 01273 224300 / devere.co.uk): This local landmark has occupied pride of place on Brighton’s seafront since 1864. Originally built for the most elite tourists, the Grand remains one of the city’s most opulent and expensive hotels today.
• The 21 (21 Charlotte Street, BN2 1AG / 01273 686450 / thetwentyone.co.uk): Winner of Tripadvisor’s 2011 Travellers’ Choice Award, this boutique B&B is just a few paces back from the seafront, and offers full-English breakfasts, sea-view rooms and charming hospitality.
• Baggies: (33 Oriental Place, BN1 2LL / 01273 733740 /baggiesbackpackers.com): Budget travellers can’t do much better than Baggies; dorm beds from £12/night, a large common room and kitchen, great staff, hot showers… and all inside a lovely Regency house, a stone’s throw from the sea. Call to make a reservation.
Getting there and away…
50 minutes from London, Brighton is well-connected to the capital: see the trainline.com for timetables, or check southernrailway.com for one-way fares costing less than a fiver. The London to Brighton train usually stops at Gatwick Airport to pick up those arriving from international flights – a speedy 30 minutes from the sea. Travellers with more time and less money should also try nationalexpress.com, who run daily buses from London Victoria to central Brighton from £2.50 each way (2.5 hours) – bargain!
Lucy Grewcock is a freelance travel writer living in Brighton, UK. When she’s not leading Arctic and Amazon expeditions, or exploring England’s coastline and mountain tops, she writes for The Independent, Responsible Travel and The Education Travel Group.
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