Brighton: Anything goes at this liberal enclave

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.