Dubbed ‘London By The Sea’, Brighton is one of the UK’s most popular destinations. Author Alexandra Loske reveals the hidden gens in this diverse and exciting beachside haven
Brighton has a brash and sparkly party pier, but look west and you can see the remains of another pier, slowly rusting and disappearing, already detached from the mainland. Not much of its original beauty is now visible, but it has acquired an entirely different kind of atrophied, melancholic beauty. Despite its fragile state and now shadowy contours, it is one of Brighton’s most-loved structures and is cared for by the West Pier Trust.
The West Pier skeleton is also one of the few urban spots left in the UK where starlings gather in their thousands and create murmurations – swirling, swooping, synchronised ballets in the air. The mesmerising spectacles usually happen at dusk in the colder autumn and winter months. Because Brighton beach faces south, they can often be seen against spectacular sunsets.
Walk up Dyke Road from Churchill Square for just a few hundred metres and look out for a large stone archway to your left. Behind it you will find one of the least-known green spaces in central Brighton. St Nicholas was originally a cemetery and is now a public park, perfect for a bit of reflective wandering among the remains of Victorian gothic tombs. The long, south-facing garden is frequently drenched in sunlight. Because it is built on the slopes of the Clifton Hill area, you even get views of the sea from the upper terrace, albeit through a curtain of urban structures.
In various stages of beautiful decay, the terrace of vaults gives the place a sense of architectural unity and looks particularly evocative when a storm is coming in from the sea or mist is rolling in. Photographers can often be seen trying to capture the gothic character of the place. In the summer months the garden is sometimes used for concerts and open-air theatre.
The greater Brighton area has outstanding examples of Modernist architecture, including the recently reopened Lido at Saltdean, Embassy Court near Hove and the Furze Hill complex by St Ann’s Well Gardens. The most exciting larger structure is this, the oldest working commercial airport in the country.
Its terminal building and hangar date from the 1930s, but the flying fields were used as early as 1910, when local aviator Harold Piffard took off in his hand-built biplane, ‘Hummingbird’. Commercial cargo flights soon followed, and the airport played an important role during World War I.
Passenger flights resumed after the war and its official name is now Brighton City Airport. Not as substantial as Gatwick Airport, it has four runways and six helipads, and deals with around 50,000 flights per year. The airport welcomes visitors, even those with no intention of taking off.
You can watch landings and take-offs on the longest runway on a live webcam or marvel at the Art Deco interiors in the Hummingbird Café, which serves great traditional breakfasts, lunches and cake. There is a small museum, and guided tours can be booked. Events great and small take place at the airport all year round. If there is nothing special on, it is the most peaceful place for a cup of coffee and a dream.
Just five miles north of Brighton is a site of natural beauty that stunned the Romantic painter John Constable (see ch. 44) so much in the 1820s that he decided it was too grand to draw, as he couldn’t possibly add anything to it. The place is Devil’s Dyke, a V-shaped valley with hills rising more than 250 metres to either side.
The name derives from folklore: variants of a story circulate, in which the devil himself dug out the escarpment to flood the churches in the surrounding villages with seawater. He was interrupted in his vicious work, either by an old woman or because he injured his foot on a large rock. He left in a rage before finishing, and flung the rock towards the sea. It landed in Hove Park and is known as the Goldstone – and therein lies another story!
The Devil’s Dyke site is now cared for by The National Trust, and is also part of the South Downs National Park, with the South Downs Way running through it, so expect hikers and ramblers. Large signs illustrate walks and bike routes to suit everyone through the valley and beyond.
Make sure to take in the views on both sides of the road: to the east is the dyke valley itself, whose free-roam- ing cattle help create the amazing carpet of flowers that appears in summer, while to the west you can enjoy perhaps the best panoramic view of the Sussex Weald. The sea shimmers on the southern horizon.
The Banqueting Room of the Royal Pavilion is a sparkling, heavily ornamented interior. The most flamboyant object in the room, and arguably in the entire building, is the 9-metre-long, one-ton central crystal chandelier.
The design is fantastical, topped by a dragon with wings outstretched, under an illusionist ceiling painting of an exotic plantain tree. The dragon seems to be holding the heavy chandelier in its claws, but of course it doesn’t bear the weight; it hides a strong cast iron construction, suspended from the tent-shaped roof.
The chandelier certainly developed its own mythology. The Victorian historian J. G. Bishop repeatedly wrote that it was sent out in 1814 with Lord Macartney’s embassy to China as a present to the emperor and, following the failure of the negotiations, was brought back to England. Bishop got both the dates of the Macartney Embassy (1792 – 94) and the creation of the chandelier wrong. Needless to say, it never travelled to China.
Alexandra Loske is an Art Historian and curator and author of 111 Places in Brighton and Lewes that You Shouldn’t Miss. The book reveals the less explored pockets of ‘London By The Sea’, away from the more famed attractions and full of cultural anecdotes and insider tips. You can order your copy now on Amazon.