We've been spending some time in Brighton. We really like it there.
It is a busy, cosmopolitan city, with a thriving art and music scene. It is architecturally diverse, with grand Regency hotels rubbing shoulders with stunning contemporary apartments. And of course, there is the simply bonkers Royal Pavilion.
The town centre seems to have (so far) largely escaped the recession, particularly the twisting maze that makes up "The Lanes." The homogenous high street stores are thankfully absent from the Lanes - every shop is an inviting boutique offering anything from designer jewelery to extreme sport gear, comics to vegetarian shoes. And veggie cafes and restaurants. Lots of veggie cafes. Brilliant. The best is Terre a Terre, winner of the Vegetarian Restaurant of the year umpteen times. If you're ever in Brighton, and even if you're not a veggie, go there. It is a gastronomic wonderland.
The great attraction of Brighton is, of course, the sea front, which welcomes eight million tourists a year!
Having travelled the entire South coast from Land's End to Dungeness, we have been constantly disappointed by the lack of effort taken by seaside towns with their sea fronts. It isn't enough to have an attractive beach if it backs onto a housing estate or a lumber yard. So often a town has wasted the opportunity given by a beautiful beach. We've even seen blocks of flats on the sea front, constructed in such a way that not a single apartment has a clear view of the sea. We've seen sea fronts where half the shops are boarded up, and the other half sell chips or tat. Brighton has got it pretty much right. There are, or rather were, two piers. Palace Pier has all the usual suspects - amusement arcades, candy floss stalls, kiss-me-quick hats and even a small fun fair at the end. All topped with festoon after festoon of flashing lights. Everything you could want from a seaside experience. The sadder West Pier has been the victim of several fires and collapses, and despite being one of only two grade 1 listed piers in England, there is only a skeleton remaining
The town has expanded Westward, gradually becoming a thin strip of conurbation, like an overgrown tide mark, reaching through Hove and Shoreham to Worthing, Goring and beyond. In contrast, a little to the East on a bleak and blasted heath (at least it felt that way on the cold, windy day I saw it), lies the monolithic Roedean School. The school of choice for the daughters of the wealthy and titled (Roedean is the UK's most expensive boarding school), a compulsory entrance qualification is being called Perdita or Verity or Daisy.
Beyond Roedean and its neighbour (the delightfully named Rottingdean), lies the fascinating little town of Peacehaven. The town itself shows no visible signs of its fame from the road, it looks like any other small town with a main road running through its heart (sad). Off the beaten track, however, the truth is clearer.
Peacehaven was the brainchild of Charles Neville, an entrepreneur who, in 1916, bought the land from the local council (dirt cheap) and offered small plots of the land as runner-up prizes in a competition to name the new settlement. The newspaper which ran the competition sued (and won) Neville, since the "free" land was only available on the payment of a sizeable "conveyancing" fee. The law suit actually brought so much publicity that Neville managed to sell even more plots and made a fortune. Since most of the purchasers had little money, and since this was in the days before such things as Building Regulations or Planning Permission, for many years the plots were occupied simply by huts, shacks or old railway carriages. Today, the tiny plots have enough space for a two-bedroom bungalow without a garden. Incidentally, the winning name was actually New Anzac-on-Sea, though that lasted less than a year when the disaster at Gallipoli prompted its renaming to the current one.
The other claim-to-fame of Peacehaven is that it is the Southern most point in England through which the Greenwich Meridian passes before reaching the sea. A small monument (commissioned by our friend Neville in 1935) marks the point, although the point has moved - they have had to re-position the obelisk twice because of cliff erosion. I don't hold out much hope for those sea-front bungalows. A little plaque on the monument helpfully lists the distances to such places as Rangoon, Fredericton and Pietermaritzburg. It is interesting to see that Dublin is 45 miles closer than Edinburgh.
A little to the North and West of Brighton is the imaginatively titled Devil's Dyke. This is a geologically interesting steep sided dry river valley cutting through the South Downs. I emphasise the geological interest because I couldn't see anything else remotely intriguing about it.
The Victorians, however, thought it was brilliant. they went to the effort of building a fairground, two bandstands, an observatory, a camera obscura, a funicular railroad and a cable car. I can only assume that all those things got bored and left, since nothing now remains except for a few concrete lumps. The origin of the name is much more interesting. Apparently, the Devil decided to dig a trench to flood the Sussex Weald to the North with the sea from the South. He intended to do the work in just one night, and would have succeeded if his digging hadn't woken an old woman, who lit a candle which in turn caused her cock to crow. The devil, thinking dawn was coming (and being strictly a night-shift worker) fled. Arf-a-job.
Back in the Iron Age, a hill fort occupied the ground above the dyke. They went to the trouble of stripping all the soil from the hill top revealing the white chalk beneath, just to impress the neighbours. The hill fort has now been replaced by a dreary red-brick and concrete pub which wouldn't look out of place behind a bus depot. From the top, the view stretches as far as the eye can see, which on the day we visited, wasn't very far. Apparently, the painter Constable considered this view "the grandest in the world." I can only assume that
a: he never visited Devil's Dyke on a bitterly cold, windy, overcast, drizzly day like we did, or
b: he didn't get out much.