Brighton: Anything goes at this liberal enclave

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Brighton rocks – and the extraordinary cast of characters who inhabit its infamously pebbly beach represent a refreshingly bracing liberalism

There's a bloke down on Brighton beach today wearing a T-shirt which reads 'Sex & Drugs & Sausage Rolls' – which just about sums up the seafront in my home town, with its bizarre mix of sauce, grit and comfort food.

The beach itself – pebbled, peopled, pitched on a daring tilt to the sea – isn't exactly what you'd write home about. Kylie Minogue, for one, never did: "Oh come on, I've been to Brighton," she once said. "Have you seen that place? I mean, the city itself is nice but the beach is full of rocks and pebbles! Not something I'm used to back home, I must say."

It irks me, but she has a point. There are arguably better beaches up the road at Climping, vast and romantic beneath the Turner sky, or at Rottingdean, with its rock pools and near-empty dreamscape. Brighton's beach, though, is about what's up. Or, more precisely, who's up. Usually, you'll find a fascinating collection of specimens in among the eight million tourists who rock up each year. Just as Brighton has its own micro-climate (the locals reckon it's a few degrees warmer than you'll find north of the Downs), so it has its own human sub-species of what rock critic Steven Wells called "crusty-wusty, hippy-dippy, twat-hatted, ning-nang-nongers". Again, fair point. But they're my ning-nang-nongers. And I love them.

I particularly love the skateboarding terrier who performs tricks down by the pétanque pitch, and the Somalian guy forever playing the mbira, on and on, day on day until it has become the song of the sea in these parts. I love the bracing, embracing liberalism of the place. The whatever-ness, the anything-goes. Not long ago, a giant Lego man washed up on the beach, and everyone just shrugged and got on with getting along.

The beach – all 614 billion pebbles of it, cast out beneath the hulk of the Thistle Hotel and the scandalously ugly Brighton Conference Centre – is really the people, not the place. The whole scene moves, grooves, ebbs and flows like the roiling sea beyond. On a summer's day, laced between the tangle of tourists who've paid a fortune to park and more again for a sorry portion of fish'n'chips in a polystyrene tray, you find the city's fitness fanatics, the gad-abouts, the fly guys and the show-offs, most of them on wheels. Skateboards, mountain boards, rollerblades, road bikes, unicycles, trikes, buggies, the occasional penny farthing – they're all jockeying for position down on the prom, while up on the road above, it's still more wheels, from the tailgating traffic to the swarms of Lambrettas, Harleys, classic cars or naked cyclists which descend in their thousands each year to peacock about down by the pier.

Besides being a glorious gaudy sideshow, though, Brighton beach is a living, working environment. There are police patrols and beach cleaners, professional dog walkers, cockle and whelk vendors, lifeguards, DJs, barmen and baristas and a man who will walk the length of the strip to tell you that you can't have your dog on this particular beach (there are designated dog areas; even anarchy needs rules). An idle ice-cream eater can wander past beach volleyballers, barefoot joggers, paddleboarders, kayakers, basketball players (very serious, very tall, huge shorts), stunt-bike riders, Fit Bitch trainees, a handful of tentative bikini wearers with goosebumped buttocks, Ultimate Frisbee freaks and a geezer making meaningless sculptures with sand. At night, the music kicks up and the beach chills out, home now to the pot smokers, night paddlers and the punters at the Fortune O' War pub, which sells beer in plastic pints so you can take it down to the water's edge and look for phosphorescence.

It's a sensual place, this beach. The view to the horizon as an orange sun sets equals any in the world, whatever Kylie says. There's power here, and an odd, messy kind of glory. It's about the naked black bones of the West Pier, stark against the sky, and the starlings in their cloud formations, circling the Palace Pier's Helter Skelter, sketching pictures in the air. It's the hurdy-gurdy twang of the carousel, the art galleries tucked into the salty arches and the lazy thump of chill-out music coming from tired beach-club speakers the morning after the night before, while a guy with sleeve tattoos and multiple piercings sweeps last night's spilled beer and broken promises into the gutter. It's the countless fallen hens in pink cowboy hats flaked out on the beach in recovery position, still wearing last night's glitter eyeshadow and angel wings. As they snore, a singer on a bar stool outside the Brighton Music Hall croons Frank numbers into a microphone, "Fly Me to the Moon" soaring up above the bacon baps and hot sweet tea.

My favourite stretch by far is the fishing quarter. There's a quaint little museum here, a place plucked out of time and shoved under the arches, recalling the days when the beach was heavy with boats, tackle and catch and Brighton's industry was fish, not fun. These days, the ocean-going vessels are mostly weekend sail boats and Hobie Cats, launched on Sunday mornings from the Brighton Sailing Club (the Club is run by a couple called Roger and Virginia Barnacle, which is so perfect it makes my heart sing). Up the way, you can still buy wet fish from Jack and Linda's Smokehouse, jellied eels in tubs (this is London-by-Sea after all) or a hot mackerel sandwich.

Further west from the Pier, things glide upmarket and the residents of Hove have their own beach quarter – an 'esplanade', if you please – up past the renovated Victorian bandstand where you can get hitched or simply pitch up for a macchiato, beyond the string of pea-green huts (the colour is designated by the Council, and woe betide non-conformists), past Hove lawns and out to the Lagoon. In the other direction, off to the east, the Volks Electric Railway will haul you along at sedate pace, past the Sea Life Centre, which always smells of boat bottoms and seaweed to me, past the rock climbing wall and the screeching playgrounds, below the great Regency crescents, vanilla, decadent and voluptuously curved, beyond the nudist beach at Kemptown ("a bit nippy in the winter"), to the soulless wastes of the concrete Marina and back. There's a giant Asda there, and it feels like the end of the world.

Back on the beach, beyond its daily quirks, there's a perpetual roster of races, championships and parades, the runs and rallies, the festivals, the circuses, big events like Pride, Paddle Round the Pier and the Burning of the Clocks, when paper lanterns are released to mark the Winter Solstice. The seafront is soon to get jazzier still with the arrival of a 45m-high Ferris wheel and, if sponsorship materialises, the i360, a towering observation needle allowing visitors to ascend to 150m and see far up into the skirts of England and out into the Channel, some say as far as France.

Not that I'd want to go. Sit for a while on Brighton beach, and you'll get the drift. People say it's impossible to be a misfit here, and I reckon that's about right: 600 billion pebbles, don't forget, and no two of them the same.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition