The Traveller's Guide To: Historic Brighton

From Regency spa to modern city by the sea, Brighton's story is written through it like a stick of rock


HISTORY? WHAT HISTORY?

HISTORY? WHAT HISTORY?

Oh please. Brighton isn't all jellied eels and candyfloss, you know. Originally named Brighthelmstone, it emerged as a fishing and farming community of some significance during the 11th and 12th centuries. The Domesday book of 1086 records how one landowner paid his annual rent with 4,000 herrings. Little remains of medieval Brighton due to a French attack in 1514 that burnt the town to the ground. After the introduction of mackerel fishing in the late 16th century, Brighton's population flourished, though the next 150 years brought plague, pestilence and some of the most violent storms the south coast had ever seen. The foreshore collapsed along with much of the town, forcing the constable to invest in two protective groynes.

HOW DID IT GET SO FASHIONABLE?

That was the Prince Regent's doing. Brighton had previous royal connections - following his defeat by the Roundheads in 1651, a heavily disguised Charles II stopped off in the town before fleeing to France - though it wasn't until the future George IV arrived in 1783 to "take the waters" on the recommendation of his doctors, that Brighton prospered once more, becoming a fashionable spa for the rich and over-indulged.

YOU MEAN BRIGHTON IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH?

Well, 18th century grandees certainly thought so. This was largely due to the discovery of the therapeutic effects of swimming in - and drinking - sea water. The success of the cure, promoted by Dr Richard Russell in his snappily titled Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Affections of the Glands, drew fashionable society to the south coast to discover the benefits of bathing. Today, the Royal Albion Hotel (01273 329 202) stands on the site of Russell's house. By the entrance you'll find a plaque that reads "If you seek his monument, look around."

WHAT ABOUT THE PAVILION?

Ah yes, Brighton's most famous landmark. Before the playboy Prince arrived, the Pavilion (01273 290 900; www.royalpavilion.org.uk; open daily 9.30am-5.45pm with tours at 1.30am and 2.30pm; admission adults £5.95, children £3.50 ) was a modest farmhouse belonging to Thomas Kemp. In 1787 Henry Holland extended the building into a neo-classical house, though it was the architect John Nash who transformed it into the Oriental-style pleasure palace that exists today, adding the onion domes and minarets. The interior is no less extraordinary, with giant crystal chandeliers, bamboo staircases, crimson canopies and carved wooden palm trees. Queen Victoria deemed it too vulgar for her own use and opened it to the public. Now you can either wander by yourself, or take a guided tour.

I'D LIKE TO VISIT A MUSEUM

Across from the Pavilion Gardens is the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (01273 290 900; www.brighton.virtualmuseum.info; open Tues 10am-7pm, Wed-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 2pm-5pm; admission free), which contains 15th-20th century fine art and ceramics, fashion from the Regency period onwards and a display of 20th century art and design. Head to the Booth Museum of Natural History (01273 292 777; open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; Sun 2pm-5pm; admission free) for an impressive collection of birds, butterflies and insects (all dead, of course), along with fossils and dinosaur bones. The recently-redeveloped Hove Museum and Art Gallery (01273 290 200; www.hove.virtualmuseum.info; open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 2pm-5pm; admission free) houses a small collection of fine art, antique toys and an interactive film gallery while the Regency Town House (01273 206 306; www.rth.org.uk; admission £3) on Brunswick Square, Hove, gives an intriguing glimpse into the workings of the urban 19th-century household. Opening times vary and all tours must be pre-booked. Meanwhile, the Brighton Fishing Museum (01273 723 064; open daily 10am-5pm; admission free) charts the history of the local industry via models, films and photographs. In the middle of the exhibition space is a full-sized, clinker-built punt - the traditional Sussex fishing vessel.

I'D LIKE TO GO OUT OF TOWN

Charleston (01323 811 626; www.charleston.org.uk; open 2pm to 6pm Wed-Sun and bank holiday Mondays, March to October; adults £6, children £4.50), the home of Vanessa Bell and her Bloomsbury entourage, is a must. Inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, the artists decorated the walls, doors and furniture and redesigned the garden in the southern European style.

Preston Manor (01273 292 770; www.prestonmanor.virtualmuseum.info; open Easter to September) is a stunning stately home dating back to 1600 which was rebuilt in 1738 and again in 1905. Foredown Tower Countryside Centre (01273 292 092; open weekends and Bank Holidays 10am-5pm; admission £2.70) not only offers spectacular views of the Sussex Downs but houses one of only two operational Camera Obscuras in the South-east.

The uphill trip to Devil's Dyke is worth the effort. Two miles out of Brighton, this dramatic stretch of the South Downs was an Iron Age fort with views of the coastline. Legend has it that the dyke was dug in chalk by the Devil who hoped the sea would drown all the Christians. His digging disturbed a local woman who lit a candle and set it on her windowsill. Believing that the sun had risen early, Satan fled and never finished the job.

TIME FOR DIVINE INSPIRATION

There's certainly no shortage of churches. Reputedly based on the dimensions of Noah's Ark, St Bartholomew's in Ann Street boasts one of the largest rose windows and tallest naves in the country. St Michael and All Angels' in Victoria Street is featured in Simon Jenkins's England's Thousand Best Churches, due to its sumptuous stained glass by William Morris, Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones. St Nicholas Church, meanwhile, is the oldest building in Brighton. Dating back to Norman times, it was one of the only buildings to survive the 1514 fire. The churchyard contains the tombs of local celebrities such as Martha Gunn, one of the famous Brighton dippers, and Phoebe Hessel, who pretended to be a man to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. She subsequently sold fish on the seafront and lived to the grand old age of 108.

WHAT'S NEW?

Plenty. Thanks to non-stop commercial development in the last decade, contemporary architecture and design is flourishing. Well-known architects, among them Piers Gough and Frank Gehry, are queuing up to build here. The newly opened Jubilee Library (01273 290 800), a stylish blue-tiled, glass-fronted building filled with energy-efficient lighting and heating systems, has been a hit with both critics and residents. The Brighton Museum and Art Gallery recently enjoyed a £10m face-lift, bringing with it innovative new galleries including "Fashion & Style, Body and World Art" featuring smart interactive displays. The £30m restoration project of the Dome Concert Hall, formerly the Royal Stables, is complete, There are plenty more developments in the pipeline. Twenty acres next to Brighton Station are to become the New England Urban Village with 355 residences, two hotels and a language school, while Terence Conran's name has been linked to the resurrection of the famous but run-down art deco block, Embassy Court.

WHAT ABOUT THE BEACH?

Of course, the beach. The Victorian author Richard Jeffries wrote "The beach is ignored, no one rows, very few sail, the sea is not the thing," though the biblical hordes that head straight from the railway station to the sea on summer weekends would suggest otherwise. The arches under the promenade have been transformed into a mini Santa Monica with beach volleyball, skate ramps and al-fresco cafés. The Victorian Volks Railway (01273 292 718; £1.30 for adults and 70p for children; Easter to September) is Britain's oldest public electric railway (preceded only by lines in Berlin and Portrush). For the majority of visitors, however, it's all about Brighton Pier (open 9am-12am in summer; 10am-12am in winter). With its slot machines, candy stalls and fairground rides, the pier represents old-fashioned English seaside culture at his finest. Miss it, and you really haven't seen Brighton at all.

ANIMAL ATTRACTIONS

The excellent Quadrophenia walking tour of Brighton (01273 888 596; www.brightonwalks.com) - which traces the locations of The Who's cult 1979 film - devotes some time to the city's Sea Life Centre (01273 604 234; www.sealifeeurope.com/uk/brighton), close to the foot of the pier.

The celluloid club venue has now become an impressive aquarium, which is an asset on days with less-than-perfect weather. You can wander around a fascinating piece of subterranean Victoriana, meeting all manner of interesting marine creatures and explore a new "tropical reef".

If you prefer creatures that can give you a return on your money, head uphill to one of the city's two arenas for racing. Brighton Racecourse (01273 603 580; www.brighton-racecourse.co.uk) - motto, "Where the turf meets the surf" - is one of the most picturesque |flat-racing courses, located high above the town. The next meeting is an evening meeting on 19 April.

If for some reason you have failed so far in life to visit a greyhound meeting, this is your opportunity to witness a piece of high drama. Brighton & Hove Greyhound Stadium (01273 204 601) - actually in Nevill Road in Hove, a 20-minute walk from Hove station - is a great place to become accustomed to the etiquette and excitement of a night at the races.

Simon Calder

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