travel & outdoors: Pier of the realm

Brighton is decadent, elegant and endless fun, writes Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel
A fortnight from now, the fun officially starts in Brighton. But don't be confined by the calendar. Though the town's festival runs only from 3 to 25 May, Britain's first resort seems to bear a permanently glazed grin - as though a municipal-sized, mood-enhancing narcotic has been washed down with a reassuring pint or two of Fremlin's Ale.

Mind-altering drugs excepted, the quick way to cheer yourself up is to catch a train to Brighton. The entire railway network converges here, with expresses from almost every part of the kingdom. From Edinburgh they arrive, from Cardiff, and from London in less than 50 minutes. An assortment of rolling stock reaches the South Coast in a flurry of Victorian ironwork. Brighton station, ludicrously grand for a town of 150,000, imbues the visitor with a sense of style. Down the gentle slope to the sea, the arrogance intensifies as Brighton unfolds and the tang of salt air strengthens. And starting this spring, visitors can now tour the tragi-comic stump of the West Pier (above). The town's pulse is racing.

A certain civic exuberance is justified. To explain Brighton to people who have never been there is like trying to explain the joys of cricket, or Coleridge, to a philistine. Behind the mask of a humdrum provincial town, with the requisite retailing square footage of Boots, The Gap and McDonald's, lies the creased but much more engaging visage of a resort indulged by royalty, a Bohemian refuge on the Sussex coast. And within that, the weatherworn wrinkles of a fishing village which fell on hard times, and is now hermetically sealed by encroaching urbanisation.

Pause here, in the Lanes, to admire the way the medieval core of Brighton has adapted to change. A maze of alleyways that once housed a fishing community has been largely overrun by twee shops and theme cafes, but at least the sense of cottages in a conspiratorial huddle has survived. One restaurant where the ambience has not been imported is English's Oyster Bar, three fishermen's cottages moulded into a narrow restaurant. The walls are heavy with ancient scarlet velvet, the interior so cramped that diners are obliged to snuggle up side by side.

Intimacy is Brighton's strong suit. In 1783, the Prince of Wales spotted the potential for decadence beyond earshot of London's gossip-mongers. At first the future George IV rented a modest farmhouse, but once elevated to Prince Regent he was able to create a monumental folly embracing an architectural compendium from imitation Islam via ersatz Egyptian to counterfeit Chinese. John Nash imported to Sussex ideas from all over Asia to create an elaborate Oriental palace adjacent to the coaching road from London (now the A23). One moment you are steering south towards the sea - the next you are confronted with Britain's riposte to the Taj Mahal.

The twirling domes and piercing minarets of the Royal Pavilion give an exotic zest to the town, which could explain why such a jolly collection of curious characters has washed up here. Or it may be the lingering scent of sin. The Prince Regent began the tradition of taking scandal to Sussex, but he was followed south by a procession of other miscreants; 19th-century cartoons hanging in the gallery of the Royal Pavilion show that sleaze is nothing new, and hint at the many adulterous affairs of the high and mighty.

The fun temporarily abated when Victoria was crowned in 1837. The new Queen found Brighton less amusing than her uncle had done. After a bout of regal asset-stripping - 143 wagons carried the booty to Kensington Palace - the Pavilion was relegated to a series of undignified municipal roles interspersed with patches of dereliction.

Now, though the royal fun palace has been resuscitated to its former arrogance. In the grounds, the former royal stables comprise the venue for the Brighton Festival's main events -two weeks from tonight, Sir Simon Rattle opens proceedings in the auditorium whose bald name conceals a grand arena: the Dome. If one or two of the subsequent performances are duff, no matter: the impetuous Royal Pavilion, garishly illuminated, will cheer the emerging audience.

Brighton Tourism (0345 573512); Brighton Festival (01273 292961).

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