Ghosts of Laughterland

The piers offer a view of Vintage Victoriana, writes Nicola Veash
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The Independent Travel
There was a time, before cheap foreign holidays overwhelmed the holidaying public, when the British coast was in its prime. The promenades were bustling, the hotels were full of town folk eager for sea air, and top performers entertained holidaymakers at the end of the pier.

The belle of the south coast was Brighton, with the Royal Pavilion, imposing town houses, and two piers. Like so many seasides it has suffered an ignominious decline, made more visible by the wreck of the West Pier which has scarred the seascape for more than 20 years.

In 1974, Brighton Council made moves to demolish what is the only Grade I listed pier in the country. Outraged residents marched along the seafront to save their beloved, imposing structure. But just a year later it was closed to the public for safety reasons, and the elegant Victorian coastal engineering was left to go to ruin.

The squatters moved in, then the pigeons took hold and the fantastic, mock-grand building, designed by Eugenius Birch, fell into a miserable spiral of decline. Yet today, even in its present state of decay, its beautiful architecture is still recognisable.

Throughout May, the West Pier Trust, a charity aiming to restore the pier to its traditional use, will be running daily tours, to coincide with the Brighton Festival. The hard-hat journey shows the all-but-vanished customs of Britain's once buoyant seaside life. A rust-coloured temporary bridge has been tacked around the pier for the tour parties.

The pavilion nearest the shore boasts original decorative ironwork and is in surprisingly good condition. On the wooden-slatted floor lie white iron sea-serpents, once wrapped around gaslights on the pier's promenade, waiting to be returned to their former glory.

But when you step inside the three-storey second pavilion, a sense of eeriness takes hold. Plaster peels from the walls and a painted clown, dusty and decaying, invites you to step inside "Laughterland".

The theatre upstairs once played host to Shakespearean drama and old- time music hall. To this day, the pink and ivory tickets of its last production litter the floor; you feel like a ghost visiting deserted haunts. The downstairs kitchens, with pots and pans rusted into old-fashioned catering stoves, have lain undisturbed for a quarter of a century.

The tours provide a rare opportunity to witness the allure of Britain's decaying seaside. And if you stay until the sun sets over the blackened structure, you may be lucky enough to see thousands of starlings swarming dome-like over the pier, in breathtaking contrast to the red skyline and the deserted wreck of the West Pier.

Pier tours run daily at 11am and 3pm, pounds 15; not suitable for children under 16, for safety reasons (01273 709709).

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