Wandering through the quirky, colourful, diverse, and fun British seaside city
Brighton, East Sussex is an English city along the coast of the English Channel. It is known for its diverse population, fashionable and off-beat shopping, laid back and sometimes eccentric attitude, cultural attractions, and the sea. I have visited the city a few times and never tire of wandering through the city and along the seaside.
The smell of fish and chips greets me as I walk onto Brighton Pier past several restaurants and food stalls. Farther out on the pier, the smell fades and arcade sounds are heard. Brighton Marine Palace and Pier, generally known as Palace Pier and informally renamed as Brighton Pier, is Brighton’s third pier. Work began on the 1,760 foot pier in 1891 and the pier opened in 1899.
Brighton’s first pier was Chain Pier, built in 1822 to 1823. Brighton did not have a natural harbour and it needed a landing stage so people did not need to board boats and rafts to get onto channel-crossing vessels. The Chain Pier quickly became a popular attraction, with people marveling at its huge chains and towers or thrilled to be walking over the sea. I was also told people may have appreciated the fresh air as they walked farther out on the pier. In those days, sewage drained mostly into cesspools behind buildings. The smell cannot have been pleasant. The owners recognized commercial potential. They built kiosks selling souvenirs and confectioneries, and entertainment stalls. They began charging an entry fee. At the height of its popularity in the 1820s and 1830s, up to 4,000 people a day went onto the pier, often entertained by regimental bands.
Brighton became the busiest cross-channel port, but the difficulty of landing in bad weather made Newhaven more attractive. After 1847, when the railway went to Newhaven, few ships sailed from Brighton. The pier suffered irreparable damages from many storms between 1824 and 1834 and was completely destroyed by a storm in 1889.
West Pier was built in 1866 as a pleasure pier. The pier had ornamental houses, gas lamps with ornamental serpent designs, and glass screens at the pierhead to protect visitors from the weather. The 19th century bandstand was demolished between 1914 and 1916 and replaced with a grand concert hall. The pier was closed in 1975. It suffered structural damage in a 1987 storm and access from the shore was removed for safety reasons. The remaining pier partially collapsed in a storm in 2002 and the pierhead burned in a 2003 fire.
The Brighton North Laine shopping area is the heart of the city’s cultural quarter. It is the place to go for retro chic, funky items, and locally made jewelry, sculpture, ceramics, painting, and metalwork. It is home to one of the largest sections of independent retailers on the south coast.
Just south of North Laine is the Lanes historic quarter. This maze of twisty alleyways offers antiques, jewelry, designer fashion, quaint shops, restaurants, and buskers.
One of the more eccentric attractions is the Royal Pavilion, also known as the Brighton Pavilion. Its exotic looks seem to belong in the Orient, not in an English coastal town. It was the seaside pleasure home of Prince Regent (George IV), who was fascinated with the Orient. George was an extravagant man with a decadent lifestyle. He came to Brighton on the advice of his physicians to benefit from the climate and sea water treatments. In 1787 he hired architect Henry Holland to transform his lodging house into a modest villa. The villa was not suitable for entertaining and large social events. When he became Prince Regent in 1811 he commissioned John Nash to change the villa into the place we see today.
The Palace was near the home of his mistress, the widowed Mrs. Fitzherbert. George and Maria Fitzherbert actually married in a secret ceremony. The marriage was done in secret because it was invalid under British law. Mrs. Fitzherbert was Catholic. A law in effect at the time stated that any heir to the throne who married a Roman Catholic would lose their place in the succession. Also, the Marriage Act of 1772 required that the King’s consent had to be obtained before any of his children could marry. Legal or not, Mrs. Fitzherbert was treated as a queen in Brighton.
After George’s death, the Pavilion became the property of his younger brother, William IV, and later his niece Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria sold the Pavilion to the city of Brighton in 1850. Thinking the place would be demolished, she stripped it of its interior decorations and furnishings. Instead the city chose to restore the palace. Queen Victoria returned many of the items in 1864 (chandeliers, wall paintings). The Royal Pavilion was used as a hospital during World War I. In the 1920s a programme of restoration began. Queen Mary returned original decorations, including furniture from Buckingham Palace. Today the restored Pavilion, complete with those original pieces of furniture and works of art, operates as a museum.
Brighton has a lively cultural life, with theatre, dance, comedy, and music events. There is a lively music and club dance scene. Many pubs offer regular entertainment in a variety of genres. There are a variety of water sports available. Cycling is popular. There are art galleries to peruse through and museums to explore. Or you could take one of the themed city tours. My favourite thing remains wandering leisurely through the city.
If you enjoyed this post, sign up for Destinations Detours and Dreams monthly e-newsletter. Get behind the scenes information and sneak peeks ahead in addition to a recap of the month’s posts.