I took the City Sightseeing bus to plan how and what to see in Brighton over my next three days. The feel of the seaside resort city (250K) is a combination of Regency and Victorian. The town’s popularity started in the 1730’s when bathing in and drinking sea water became a fashionable health cure. Doctors at the time also highly recommended the bracing air. I noticed a strong wind the entire week I was here.
Then when the Prince of Wales (later Regent and King George IV) bought a property here and built a residence (the Royal Pavilion) to hold his many parties, Brighton’s future was secured. The Prince liked gaming, fast living, and ladies, and his use of this new residence away from London helped him stay out of the eye of the Royal Court and his father, King George III.
It was rebuilt three times with the final result an Indo-Islamic exterior and a Chinese-Indian interior. King George IV and his successor King William IV stayed here often on holiday.
But Queen Victoria found this summer palace too confining for her family of nine children, so she sold it to the city of Brighton in 1850 and used the money to build Osborne House. (See The Gum Incident – Osborne House, Isle of Wight.) The Pavilion is open to the public for a fee.
Visiting the restored gardens at the Royal Pavilion is free. John Nash designed them in 1820 to create a natural outdoor space, unlike other royal gardens, where every leaf is managed. Even the lawns are left to grow longer than normal. Many local residents find refuge here from the bustling city.
Royal pleasure palaces aside, the centerpiece of the city is the beach, or better said, beaches. I’ve never been to Coney Island or Atlantic City, but I imagine they are similar to this.
I started my tour of the beach area with the Brighton Aquarium (Sea Life Brighton), the oldest in the world (1872). The gorgeous original Victorian architecture competed with the exhibits and an opportunity to touch spineless urchins and starfish. Their biggest tank, which can be observed from top, sides and underneath, contains 11 sharks, two giant turtles and one very large manta ray. My favorite exhibits were the nautilus and the cuttlefish.
Then I hit the Brighton Pier opened in 1899. Originally one of three, it’s the last one standing. And it’s free to enter! It has carnival rides (roller coasters, Cups & Saucers, House of Horror, bumper cars and more; ride all day with a £20 wristband), fortune-telling (Ivor was busy giving a taro reading when I walked past his wagon), henna tattoos, the Palace of Fun (an arcade with electronic and mechanical games – bring ear plugs!), and the Dome with games like Air Hockey and foosball. The pier originally had a theatre too, but it was damaged in 1973 when a 70 ton barge hit it in a storm, and was finally removed in 1986.
There’s plenty of food and lots of variety (what are jellied eels?), but be careful of the seagulls. They’re just waiting to take it away from you.
You can also get married on the Pier with Elvis Shmelvis officiating, though why you’d do that is beyond me. With all the people, noise from electronic games and carnival rides, dueling music sources, and happy/unhappy children, I can’t picture this as a romantic setting for a wedding.
But there was one offering, besides the ice cream, that I enjoyed – the free deck chairs. I was ready for some quiet contemplation of the sea beyond the pier.
The beaches at Brighton also provided other kinds of fun. There’s a promenade that extends the three miles (and farther) to the area where I was staying. I walked the entire length on several days. Along the promenade you can find places to play beach volleyball, basketball, take kids for safe water fun, ride a carousel, pass time with a glass of wine, appreciate sand art, get taken by the three-buckets-and-where-is-the-ball-now routine, listen to live music, ride 531 feet to the top of the i360 (Brighton’s answer to the London Eye), eat, rent a bicycle, and visit the Brighton Fishing Museum (free admission, since the the boats are sitting outside anyway). Interestingly, no one was selling selfie sticks.
On the quieter end of the beach, people actually do swim (while others of us are bundled up in coats). The groynes provide a nice barrier from the wind for reading and privacy for semi-nude sunbathing, though the nude beach (established in 1979) is on the south end of town beyond the Pier.
A bike lane runs along the promenade or the main sidewalk, where people also skateboard, little ones try out new bicycles, and families ride scooters. Along the Hove Lawns section of the promenade, I saw a line of colored sheds, with families removing things such as blankets and lawn chairs to take to the beach. Some people partied right in front of their sheds. A couple sheds even contained bars. I asked a lady who was reading in front of her shed if people rented them. She replied, “We own them.” I was cheeky enough to ask what they go for if people decided to sell theirs. Answer, about £15,000. “Dreadful, isn’t it?” she asked.
At night, the entire beach is busy. It’s a magical time. At nine, it’s still fairly bright out, yet all lights are on. The restored Victorian Bandstand, the Brighton Pier, the carousel, all begin to glow as darkness falls.
But nightlife is not my gig, so I walk home along the beaches, now familiar even in the dark. I see the occasional group with a beach fire. Soon it’s just the waves lapping the shore, me, and the moon.
For other essays about this trip to England see:
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