Brighton, England: A Fashionable City with a Bohemian Vibe
By Connor Glaze
Brighton has long been considered one of the more fashionable cities in southern England, and after your first visit, it will be easy to see why.
Street art, head shops and alternate music venues line the streets, and it’s near impossible to walk from one place to another without being given a flyer for some kind of gig or exhibition.
While I love this bohemian vibe you pick up everywhere in Brighton, it’s easy to see how many strangers to the city can be overwhelmed by all the contemporary art and culture, and neglect to explore its rich history.
Here, I’ve listed just a few places of historical interest you should make sure to visit if you ever find yourself in this gorgeous, costal city.
A little background
There is little documented or archaeological evidence about Brighton’s earliest days. While it is mentioned in the doomsday book as “Brighthelmstone” and is recorded as a simple fishing and farming community, anything else we could have found out about its medieval history was burnt to the ground in an attack by the French in 1514.
The town slowly recovered through its various industries, but only really flourished when George IV visited in the late 18th century to swim along its beaches on doctor’s orders, quickly turning it into a fashionable spa for the upper classes.
The Royal Pavilion
The Royal Pavilion is probably Brighton’s most famous historical landmark. Before the eccentric George arrived to extend and renovate it, it stood as a modest farm house owned by the famous Sussex politician Thomas Kemp. You’ll find this hard to believe when you stand beneath this huge, beautiful work of Indo-Islamic architecture. The interior, which you can see at £5.95 a head, is no less sublime, with massive crystal chandeliers, long bamboo staircases, carved wooden palm trees and lavish crimson canopies.
Dozens of prominent English royals have stayed here, a chain that was cut off by Queen Victoria, who deemed it too vulgar for her own use and opened it to the public. While the lavish interior can be a little overwhelming, anyone slightly less fussy than Vicky will certainly have an unforgettable experience here, either wandering freely from exhibit to exhibit or joining a guided tour.
Another historical house to visit is Preston Manor, a luxurious Edwardian home that was owned by the Stanford family for over 200 years. This should come higher on your list than the Pavilion if you’ve got kids with you, as in all likelihood they’ll find the latter a little dry. Preston Manor counters this problem, having been kept in its Edwardian conditions in every way possible, including live actors and interactive displays.
Collections of the Stanford family’s furniture and other belongings are displayed here, including glass, ceramics, silver and clocks, among many examples of fine English art. The servants’ quarters and hall, butlers’ pantry, boot hall, kitchen, head housemaids’ and personal maids’ rooms are all beautifully recreated and open to the public, together with a walled garden and a graveyard containing the family’s pets.
Where to stay
Brighton has a long history as a tourist destination, both for foreign visitors and people all over the UK, and offers one of the widest selections of hotels of any costal town in the south. One hotel that has significant historical value is The Grand. The Grand lives up to its name; a union jack you could carpet a living room with hangs above the ninth story, and the minute you walk through the door you’re greeted by a huge chandelier, beautifully engraved beams and the only receptionists in England who can smile through their entire shifts and feel no pain.
Designed by the architect John Whichord, this was the first exclusive hotel in Brighton, built from 1862-64 to meet the growing demands of tourism in the city. When it was first opened to the public, it offered lavish accommodation in 150 rooms, along with a large ballroom and luxurious dining facilities.
It also gained a lot of fame in its early days for the technological marvels it boasted, such as the “Vertical Omnibus”, a hydraulically powered lift, and electric lighting throughout the building.
The Grand has played host to two US presidents; JFK and Ronald Reagan, as well as Napoleon III and the Duke of Windsor. Perhaps the most memorable guest here was the divisive British Prime Minister, who survived an assassination attempt by the IRA while staying there in 1984. The bomb that went off killed five Conservative MPs, and tore apart the central structure of the hotel, leading to years of painstaking restoration.
Food and Drink
After walking all over the city, you’ll no doubt want to relax in one of the many pubs Brighton has to offer, especially if this is your first time in the UK. Ye Olde King and Queen is easily recognizable with its weathered wooden carvings of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn above the door, and nowhere near the tacky tourist trap the name may suggest.
Ye Olde King and Queen not only offers great food and drink, but also takes you back a few centuries the minute you step through the door. The interior is fashioned to look like a Tudor nobleman’s hall, with regal iconography hanging from banners on the walls, and thick mahogany beams engraved with intricate, beautiful designs.
Just through the back there’s a fantastic courtyard where you can enjoy the summer weather and take in more of the rustic Tudor architecture. Despite Henry VIII appearing at the entrance, and his bust looking proudly from over the bar, the pub was actually named in honor of George III and his spouse Charlotte. Some of the staff may be able to point out the nearby hotel where an army barracks used to stand, and a secret passage in the back wall through which the landlord would sneak alcohol to the soldiers housed there.
Another chapter in the pub’s history is rumored to linger there a little more potently. Over the past century, many people have reported windows opening and closing by themselves on the upper floors of the inn, and a distressed shouting coming from the cellar below one of the bars. Some of the regulars will tell you it’s the ghost of a man who was killed following the Old Steine riots of 1817.
Hopefully this has given you a little more insight to prepare you for your visit to Brighton, and all you history buffs will have a better idea of where to start. Don’t let my recommendations dictate your whole trip though; the UK is so full of fascinating antiquity that it’s impossible to ignore anywhere. Ask around at the attractions listed here, and someone will be happy to point you towards other places with an interesting past.
Connor Glaze is a freelance copywriter and journalist from West Sussex. He has worked for a variety of publications to consistently positive reception, and has self-published several of his fictional works on the Kindle store. When he’s not writing for a living, he enjoys creating horror fiction, playing bass and reading. ConnorGlaze.com
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