The acceptable face of sleaze

Labour delegates are heading to Brighton for a week of hard conferencin g. Simon Calder sets out an alternative agenda
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The Independent Travel
Want sleaze? For two centuries, Brighton has been the place to go. Ever since 1783, when the Prince of Wales first headed south across the Sussex Downs to canvass for extra-marital support, the centre of the south coast has attracted those in search of sex and, more recently, drugs and rock'n'roll. For any renegade Labour delegate, who arrives there this weekend less interested in a minimum wage than maximum indulgence, here is an alternative agenda for the week.

Brighton is unlike any other resort in Britain. For a start, the beach is dreadful. The only notable feature along this dismal ribbon of awkward shingle is the shivering huddle of nudists at the eastern end (the far left, as you look at it). Yet the town manages to attract tens of thousands of visitors through its curious mixture of history and hedonism.

The Lanes area shows that history predated hedonism. The remains of a small fishing village have been miraculously preserved amid encroaching 20th-century developments, and these twisting alleyways and teetering cottages have become the trendy heart of the town.

It took the Prince of Wales's "big idea" in the 18th century to place Brighton indelibly on the map of public consciousness. His prototype dirty weekends were conducted in a farmhouse outside the original fishing village, but once he became Prince Regent he could indulge his taste for excess. The architect John Nash imported ideas from India, laced them with themes from China and created an elaborate Oriental palace close to the seafront - twirling domes that suggest you have stumbled upon the Sussex offshoot of the Taj Mahal.

When Victoria was crowned in 1837, she found Brighton far less amusing than her uncle had done. The new Queen stripped the Pavilion of its contents, and 143 wagons carried the booty to Kensington Palace. The Pavilion was pressed into a series of humdrum roles - tea room, hospital, concert hall, radar station, ration office - but it has now been restored to an approximation of its former glories and is open to the public. Politicians should study the collection of Regency cartoons in the gallery; they expose the adulterous affairs of the high and mighty more subtly than today's tabloids.

The former royal stables comprise the town's main concert venue, and when you study the autumn programme you realise the cultural clock stopped so long ago that a Labour government was in power. Last weekend you could have seen Joan Armatrading, Squeeze or the Everly Brothers; coming soon, the Swinging Blue Jeans and Neil Sedaka. Brighton is living in the Seventies, and is so politically correct in its pre-Thatcher ideology that it hurts. Or maybe the pain is caused by those uncomfortable non-leather shoes. Other towns have vegetarian restaurants; Brighton has two vegetarian shoe shops in the same street: Gardner Street, the heart of the North Laine area which has become a retirement home for New Agers.

A political sightseer minded to discover the worst effects of four consecutive Tory election victories should start at West Pier, whose landward side has been swept away - although the postcard of the pier sold in the tourist office cleverly conceals this fact. The tourist office itself is the next affront: in Bartholomew Square, this new building squashes the neo-Classical Town Hall into submission with help from the grotesque Brighton Thistle Hotel.

There is some reassurance that political fortunes are changing. Turn hard left into St James's Street (by the Job Centre), and you find yourself at the Conservative Association - you cannot miss it, it is the building on the corner of the High Street with a sticker saying "Tories Do It Better" in the window. A flourishing secondhand business takes place on the forecourt, with a good selection of cheap CDs on offer. Before your desire for cut-price music wrestles with your political conscience, note that this is a private enterprise and has nothing to do with the local Tories beyond paying rent. So dig deep for a fiver to buy the old Communards CD still on sale there: Red.

How to get there

By soon-to-be-privatised train from Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff or London. You reach the south coast in a flurry of Victorian ironwork; the elegant station is one of Britain's most stylish railway terminals, and sweeps you out at the top of West Street for your descent to the sea - and the truly horrible Brighton Centre, the dismal arena where the conference is to be held. Those approaching from the east should note that Volk's Electric Railway - Britain's oldest such line - has closed down; not because of the Tories, but because it always does in September.

Where to stay

Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie are among the illustrious guests who have stayed at the Grand (01273 321188, double room pounds 165 per night), which has long been renovated following the IRA's attack in October 1984. Afternoon tea costs pounds 9.50, 70p more than a night at the youth hostel (01273 556196). Simon Calder stayed at the Ascott House Hotel (01273 688085, from pounds 22 single or pounds 40 double), one of many cheap places for B&B in New Steine.

Escape the debates

Take the Brighton Ferries (01273 818751) catamaran from the Marina across the Channel to the French resort of Fecamp, if the company's negotiations for a vessel are successful.

Tourist information: 01273 323755.

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