Rather than tramp you round Sussex’s newest city and mini county, I thought I’d make some statements on it…
It is not London on Sea
Having come through various parts of London before and after, I can confirm how un-London Brighton feels. “London-on-sea” seems to be the new phrase for anywhere that people who have ever lived or now live in the capital, and/or look trendy and moneyed, and reside or indeed visit or even think of it. I’ve heard it said of East Anglian villages.
Yes Brighton is commutable, yes it’s one of two very obvious seasides to visit from London, yes it has a trendy/expensive/media worker element. But is that London?
No – because London is also gritty, high rise, busy. Although arriving from the train, Brighton feels much like East Croydon and a commuter new town suburb, once you get off and start walking, you are clearly in a different world. The pace is much slower, it’s immediately a place for leisure and chilling. Brighton may have tourists, but not in the way that central London does. Brighton may have tower blocks, but they are short compared to what’s popping up on London’s skyline. There’s no “glass temples to Mammon” here (I wish I’d thought of that phrase, but anti plagiarist schooling won’t permit me to deceive you). There’s less seagulls in London, and their call is a major hint that you are close to the sea. I actually felt something was missing when I slept in a part of London away from the river and heard no shrill screech of these greedy large birds that I’ve grown used to.
…It’s got a better twin
The city I know (and that’s most of Britain) that reminds me most of Brighton is Bristol – if you put Weston Super Mare where Bristol harbour is, you’d kind of get Brighton. There was a recent advert about skating down a hill of multi-coloured terraced houses and I thought it was Bristol until I saw a Brighton landmark. The London Road of Brighton recalls Bristol’s Gloucester Road around the rail arch; the Old Stein open space puts me in mind of St Augustine’s Reach/the Centre of Bristol, and Western Road Hove feels like Whiteladies Rd Clifton – with the right point of the compass (ie both being West). Other suburbs could also be paired up.
Both have classical style houses including grand planned estates; sharp hills; proximity to the sea (even though Bristol isn’t right on the coast, Clifton has a seaside air about it.) Both are colourful and alternative with media presence – Bristol too claims many of its residents are musicians, artists or in one of the several burgeoning media companies; and there’s that hippy political contingent too. Many shops and bars would feel at home in the other city.
And the letters of their names are almost the same.
Regency Architecture Makes You Chill
It’s not just the shingle and saltwater itself or the blare from a pier that makes you in holiday mode; it’s the building style that is most celebrated in Brighton, and the one that is intrinsic to all our spa towns. Most are inland, and all of them that I know bring a day off/out feel, even if you’re local. But earlier Georgian architecture doesn’t. Is it the colour palette – the pastels of the Season? Is it by association, knowing the most spa towns were built almost ex nihilo in that era for recreation?
Cheltenham, Clifton in Bristol, and Bath all have the same effect (NB Weston S-M also has contemporary architecture, and a pier that got burned…. is that not further west country affinity?) I feel it less in Victorian Bournemouth or little fishing towns on the Norfolk and Suffolk coast, though there’s hints of it in Kent and a little of Dorset and Devon. Brighton’s Lanes recall Weymouth, another warren of fishing community lanes with bowshaped early 1800s windows.
The Tourist Information Is Awful
There is a trend to make these sparse, tat selling booths, with more about London than the actual place you are standing. I have seen more red phone box items and pencils than a single book (such as in Cambridge) – and most leaflets are now behind the counter like age embargoed or prescription items. Brighton’s – sharing with the pavilion’s shop – is no exception. They don’t even do a brochure now – you are sent a print out of hotels or whatever you’ve asked for, and a bundle of leaflets, wrapped in a map that doesn’t cover much. No we don’t all have it or want it on a phone.
It’s Hard to Get a Good Guide Book
I never rued the demise of the Itchy series, but the Cheekies are even sillier, filled with bad pictures of its writers being drunk in the pub section, the same substandard print and design values of the South West’s Naked series, and so many ridiculous comments that you never know if they are ever telling you anything serious at all. Is there really a Brighton Yeti legend? The only laugh I had was about all the London Road area copying the legs on the top of Duke’s (see below). But it does draw out some less obvious places to eat and meet, including shall we say specialist groups – one section is headed “Where to Contact the Dead”. I am not sure if I will be allowed to print the others.
TimeOut’s little guides are pretty nifty, and this is the only in print colour offering with good production values. And it’s carry-able. But actually using it shows up its flaws – the maps are hard to use, and it’s not easy to flick through and find a type – eg bookshops, theatres. The index is minimal and its listings not exhaustive. Sadly it’s from 2011.
The Jarrold More Than A Guide series is no longer sold, but those colourful little books were both guides and souvenirs, and several Brighton favourites as well as the general flavour are preserved, even 10 years after it was published. My only sadness (apart from lack of reissue) is that it skims over the culture and nightlife.
The Frances Lincoln series does a lovely (but heavy to carry) pictorial souvenir and there’s a local one for about £8 which showed the spirit of the city through place, although it spends too long on each – I don’t need 4 pages of vintage cars or 8 of the pier.
There’s also an architectural guide, one of the updated city versions of Pevsner, with colour and maps. There is apparently no comprehensive eating and drinking guide or quality listings magazine like TimeOut et al, although there are several free ones like XYZ and BN1, found in cool cafes around the city, and a few local free papers (not the Argus).
The Cinema is Lacking
Brighton’s centenarian arts cinema is well celebrated, but for a city that is often billed as trendy and Londonesque, its cinema offering is small. In the whole of Brighton, there are but three cinemas. Hove has none. Gone is the alternative Cinemateque of a decade ago. Instead, only the seafront Odeon multiplex with the zaggy 70s roof, the Marina multiplex, and the Duke of York’s Picturehouse remain, the latter who now has a sister at Komedia, meaning that Picturehouses dominate the city. The Duke’s has charm, and the pale yellow classical theatrical building makes it perfect for Brighton – as does the addition of the striped legs on its roof. But its programming is fairly standard fare for its chain and the ever compromising arts circuit for this country generally.
And it might not even be the oldest running cinema – I’ve heard several claims for that – again from the South West (I’m fairly sure Clevedon’s is wrong since it began 2 years after the Duke’s) and at least one in London. I love having a full size auditoria but Notting Hill’s Electric is far more luxurious inside. The expensive gallery sofas are too low to see the screen fully from.
I’d love to see something like the Cinemateque return.
Read more cinema thoughts at http://cinemawithelspeth.wordpress.com/
The North Laines are Smaller Than On A Map
I first had the impression that the whole area between Trafalgar and North Roads is stuffed with streets like Kensington Gardens, of loudly painted independent retail units. There’s about 30 North/South little lanes intersected by five East/Western, larger roads. But there are basically 5 north-south roads with anything to do on them, and not all of the east-wests have cafes and shops on all the way down. Sydney, Kensington Gardens (not street), New, Bond and Gardner are the streets to visit to buy and eat in; the others are pleasant residential enclaves – or, like King’s Place – amputated by a carpark. But the streets that are shop ridden are pretty cool and are only one of the city’s interesting shopping areas.
The Lanes ought to be called the Twitterns
What stupid names our marketeers come up with these days – one word generic and often puffed up titles such as The (Golden) Mile, The Quarter, The Strip, and here – The Lanes. They hoisted the same dull, could be anywhere name onto Norwich, which was not wanted and I don’t use it. Norwich should have Lokes, its local word for skinny streets, and Brighton should use the Sussex dialect for the same: Twitterns. Local character preserved, no confusion. Especially with North Laine above in the same city, yards away. I’m going to see if I can start a trend of calling it the Twitterns.
Where is Food for Friends? The twitterns
Where is Ship Street? The twitterns
What’s the bit of Brighton of that’s made up of the old fishing village? The twitterns.
Twitterns – add it to your dictionary, as I have just done.
See? Soon it’ll come to you all naturally.
I warm to Brighton very much. For the most, I enjoyed the atmosphere as I sampled it and the independent (or as I mistyped – indecent) shops in little streets, found in at least 4 areas (there’s Hove and Kemptown, both stretching for a couple of miles, the London Road area, and an enclave at Seven Dials). I have come back to preferring low rise buildings to Victorian megaliths, or a certain stadium and shopping centre (eerily quiet after the O word finished).
One last moan – a 10pm hot drink was very hard to find on a weeknight; cafes are plentiful by day but mostly shut by 6pm; and bars and restaurants were switching off their machines – save one. I won’t say where incase everyone descends on them for the elusive beverage, but their name implies flatness and they’re near the Town Hall. They not only made a gorgeous one but did so with cheerfulness, so no wonder I went back. An arty city’s true boho factor is demonstrated in cafes not switching off the coffee machines or pulling down its shutters by mid evening – my own city has at least 5 that would have made me that drink at that time.
There is a vibe to Brighton – not so much in its individual buildings (hence no tour this time) – but in an overall picture best evidenced by vegetarian shoes, a chocolate sculpture shop, 50s dresses with Batman prints, rainbow flags, and those stripy legs like Jemima from Playschool mixed with Father Christmas and Moulin Rouge, all in one.
There are likely to be further days out with Moi in specific areas of Brighton and Hove.