A Day Out with Elspeth in Chichester

For 20 years, I’ve been visiting the cathedral cities of England. I’m nearly done; so I savour each new city, knowing the pleasure of first arrival, first sighting,  first walking up to the church – how will it appear? is not to be had many more times. In fact, I have been to all but 2 of the large medieval Anglican cathedrals as well as several smaller, Catholic, Celtic ones and those great churches without cathedral status.

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I didn’t see the cathedral from the train, and nor as I walked up the Southgate. As I stopped for coffee in a stone vaulted early medieval crypt, I was far nearer the cathedral than I realised – the Vicar’s Hall is built over the crypt and appears to be part of the Close. Sadly, there was no information in the café about its home and I could find no guidebook to Chichester, and little online either.

I decided to leave the cathedral til later and orientate myself generally first.

Rounding the corner into Westgate, I was suddenly confronted with the cathedral, who is naked and unarmed to the street on that side.

As I’ve written on my sister blog, I am passionate about free cathedrals. I explain my thoughts on £10 to get in the gate Canterbury on this one. And as I told staff at Chichester, I am more inclined to come in and open my purse for NOT being forced to pay to enter, and especially for Chichester’s warm statement of commitment to not doing so. I supported the shop and café, though the latter wasn’t very charming service.

Although I like unfettered vistas of the whole church, it means that Chichester’s secrets are given up easily. It – nor its city – felt how pictures expected me to feel. I wish the guidebook explained more about the modern art in the church, which was my chief pleasure. I was especially moved by the post war German-Anglo reconciliation tapestry behind the altar, and the work of the bishop who commissioned it, George Bell.

The Close isn’t one of the best, although the St Richard’s walk (what did he do to get canonised? Think the bishop above did more) is a pleasant way to explore the palace area. The grass in the cloisters is called Paradise, but one may not enter paradise (ironic for a church).

My disappointment at lack of guide to the city is perhaps because Chichester isn’t one of the most photogenic of England’s cathedral cities. It made me appreciate York, Norwich and Canterbury. It reminded me that many of our cathedral cities are small, and that perhaps I’m expecting too much of them in terms of facilities and liveliness.

At least it is devoid of a shopping centre, and I was able to avoid seeing the chain ridden entertainment park.

The most interesting and atmospheric part of Chichester is the Pallants, the mainly residential Georgian quarter around an expensive art gallery with a shocking boxy modern extension to a Queen Anne House. The extension upset me because, unlike buildings I will shortly come to, it’s surrounded by older ones with whom it clashes, with severe featureless lines. It’s £8.50 (without gift aid, don’t start me on that!!) to get in – unless you’re unwaged – then it’s free. It would feel awkward to plead poverty. As I often campaign: the people most needing concessions aren’t those with handy proof of status – and pensioners and students aren’t always poor (but pensioners don’t get in here for free, which I agree with – they need to come into another concessionary category.) It’s reduced on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings. Information from the gallery gives confusing info as to  what is free and who pays when.

Chichester’s churches are little and only noticeable when they’re a gallery (the Oxmarket), a Christian bookshop, or a bar; architecturally, they make little impact on the city scape.

There’s a few more modern buildings that Chichester boasts of: the new Novium free museum and tourist information centre, the round (1960s?) library next door, and the isolated, concrete Festival Theatre with its atmospheric café (not – when I was there) where I could overhear a staff meeting. I won’t repeat the figures, but I do know exactly what annual budget the theatre has and how much the surprisingly high water bill is. If you don’t want the public to hear (it did make my lunch go down much better for knowing) – have your meetings elsewhere. New Park Cinema and community centre had an extension to the little Victorian school core, and they’ve build a 13 seater mini picture palace – which I think is the world smallest cinema. (Nottingham’s Cinema 21 claimed to be the most diminutive globally, and this room beats it). The brochure does include some interesting films not on the usual supposed arts circuit, but the café was another experience. I will save further thoughts for a full visit and my cinema blog – suffice to say, they were alien to the notion of providing food in the café. “We sell cinema food,” they said patronisingly. I can think of towns a fraction of the size of theirs whose cinema has a full restaurant menu, all day and evening. Have they not heard of pretheatre?!

I was surprised that there is little else to comment on in Chichester. The four main streets were quite ordinary, and only Eade House and the Council House, Corn Exchange and Buttermarket stick out as anything like a landmark worth mentioning. The side streets felt like simply back thoroughfares rather than anything worth walking down for their own sake. I’m not sure I saw anything medieval outside the Close, save the Market Cross and city walls; and I shall now come to those.

Like other promenadable city walls, they are shorter and less fortified looking than when built, because the tall towers and battlements are shorn to create polite walkways. They’re almost complete here, but with few towers and no gates. A nice way to walk round and snoot on people’s gardens – especially the Bishop’s, which you can also do from ground level, but the walls are visually less interesting than other towns’.

Overall, I found a market town atmosphere and nothing to note that wasn’t in the rather short brochure. (The best guide was found at the Council House, which also sold Walls books). I thought I’d struggle to choose refreshment stops, but all were just OK and chosen out of need to eat/rest rather than being especially tempted – only the Buttery at the Crypt was anything unusual, and that was mostly down to the building.

So back to the scuzzy station earlier than expected… no visit to Sir Patrick Moore-ville (the planetarium) this time.

Things to note: Monday is gallerys are closed day (except the uni’s Otter Gallery); and the Guildhall/Greyfriars isn’t normally open at all.

A Day Out With Elspeth in Brighton

Rather than tramp you round Sussex’s newest city and mini county, I thought I’d make some statements on it…

Brighton

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.

Overall

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.