Saturday, August 9th 2014
On a warm sunny day the seaside is an appealing destination and one of the most appealing, for its variety and interest, is “London by the Sea”, Brighton. Brighton, though, is popular with day-trippers, especially at weekends during the summer, and there is a risk of overcrowded trains. We bought baguettes and coffee at Kings Cross and boarded the 9:40 Brighton train at St Pancras. There were plenty of seats available at this point but the train filled up at later stops until there was standing room only.
Mercifully, the journey takes only an hour and a quarter, though by the time we disembarked, we were ready for a coffee break. The station was very bust and the streets were crowded. Happily, things were calmer in Divalls Café. This cafe is next to the station, on the opposite side of Terminus Road and we often go there when arriving in Brighton or for a last coffee just before leaving. The customers in the window seats saw me taking the photo and are giving me the hard stare!
We followed Trafalgar Street, which slopes steeply down and passes under the station, and leads to the “happening” heart of Brighton, centred on Gardner Street. At the bottom end of Trafalgar Street, we found the Mad Hatters, as this shop is called, and of course went in for a look. Even though men’s hats have been making something of a comeback in recent years, it’s still rare to find a proper hat shop, by which I mean a shop that specializes in hats and stocks good quality items. I discovered that I could have bought my new Fedora here and tried it on instead of ordering it online and hoping for the best. Next time I buy a hat, I will come here first.
This is an area that is popular both with residents and with visitors, so it was crowded and busy today. Parts of it are closed to traffic, allowing cafes to have tables outside and shops to have street stalls. It’s a pity that this intrusive cctv mast has been erected here, spoiling the view. Not just a mast, either, but a stonking great big one that you can’t ignore.
Gardner Street was packed. It is a pedestrian area during the season and the roadway serves as terraces for the cafes and restaurants and extra space to walk in when the pavements are full. Old Brightonians might remember a time when this was a street of small, ordinary shops (my mother once bought new curtains here) but today it is a place of modern fashion boutiques, shops and cafes selling every possible sort of food and specialist outlets selling everything imaginable.
We continued from Gardner Street into Bond Street but about halfway along it deviated off to the right along a passageway. This took us into Jew Street (so called because Brighton’s first synagogue was built here in the 18th century) where many of the old buildings have been demolished to built a car park. The wall of the building provides a canvas for street artists and I here took my first panorama shot of the day. Art work like this continually evolves as new paintings are applied over the existing ones and next time we come here, it will look quite different. (Click for a larger view.)
Bond Street leads into North Street, so called because when it was built in the 17th century, it marked the northern limit of Brighton. Turning left and then turning left again brings you into a street called New Road. The name is slightly deceptive because the street has been in existence for over two centuries. It was built in 1804 to divert traffic away from the Royal Pavilion that had been growing ever larger over previous decades. Along one side are buildings that include the Theatre Royal, built in 1807 and, on the other, the gardens of the Royal Pavilion, happily now open to the public. (Incidentally, Bond Street, which runs parallel to New Road and dates from the late 18th century, and was originally called New Street. It was renamed Bond Street in about 1805, presumably to avoid confusion with the new New Road.)
We turned into the Royal Pavilion Gardens. This well tended park is open for the enjoyment of the public, though certain areas are closed off for regeneration or as reserves for special plantings. Today it was being well used with people relaxing and sunbathing or playing games. Here and there buskers were performing. In the picture you can see the dome of what is now that Brighton Museum but was originally built as the stables for the Prince Regent’s horses. Given the grandeur of the Pavilion itself, the stables had to match it in splendour.
The human population of the park is temporary but there is also a permanent population including birds, insects and small mammals. One of the latter, a grey squirrel, approached to see whether we had any food to share. I managed to get just this one photo before he hurried away in search of more generous sponsors.
We did not tarry in the gardens but walked through them heading towards the sea. I could not leave without at least one photo of the Pavilion, though. I love this fantastic creation with its riotous profusion domes, minarets and portals. Whatever his faults, the Prince Regent left us a unique jewel of a building which the city council has been carefully restoring to its original sumptuous beauty.
Near the seafront are the Old Steine Gardens. They are all that remain of an area of open ground where in ancient times, Brighton (or Brighthelmstone) fishermen spread out their nets to dry. It was then known as the Steyn, though I have not be able to find out the derivation of that name. Through it once ran a river called the Wellesbourne. This is now confined to a culvert but ever and anon causes flooding of people’s homes. The Victoria Fountain was erected in 1846 in honour of the new Queen’s accession. It took Brighton nine years to get around to organizing this celebratory installation and even then it was largely inspired and funded by a private citizen, surgeon John Cordy Burrows. It was commissioned from the Eagle Foundry in Gloucester Road by architect Amon Henry Wilds whose name (as “A.H. Wilds Architect”) appears on the basin. Unfortunately, the fountain was not working today though I do not know why not.
Here we met the first of our gulls. Gulls are seabirds but they are also opportunists and highly adaptable. In some parts of the country they have adapted to life inland and no longer venture out to sea. In Brighton and other places where people congregate in large numbers, gulls have learnt to beg – and steal – food from humans. This one was not at all aggressive but kept an eye on us in case we should have any food to spare.
Reaching the seafront, we set about photographing that symbol of Brighton, the Pier. Today it is called Brighton Pier but older Brightonians remember it as the Palace Pier. It used to cost us 3d to go onto it but these days admission is free. Once, the end of the pier would be packed with people fishing with rod and line, but fishing has been replaced by fairground rides and the fish can now swim safely around the supporting pillars.
Perhaps someone was feeding the gulls, though I couldn’t spot anyone doing this, but, whatever the reason, gulls were collecting in great numbers. (You can see some of them in the above photo.) Gulls engage in what I call “social flying” where they sail round and round in a crowd, often at speed. I suspect this has something to do with affirming group membership and hierarchy within it though you seldom see any rough play in the air. We watched fascinated as they soared and dived, often sailing fast parallel to the handrail only inches from us. We decided to try to get some photos of these masterly flyers, though the rapidity of their motion made this difficult. I got a satisfactory “bag” of shots and present six of these below in my “Gull Gallery”. If you have no interest in gulls you can skim over them but if you are as intrigued by them as I am, then enjoy the pictures.
Gull number 5 is a juvenile, still dressed in brown plumage. Juveniles tend to stay together in groups (as do human teenagers) but sometimes, like this one, they engage in social flying with the adults. In social flying, the gulls are usually quiet but sometimes they call out, as the one above is doing. Their cries are remarkably loud, given their relatively small frame.
In flight, gulls usually flatten their legs flush against their body to improve the aerodynamic configuration. If they have their legs down (see the gull in the background at the top of the first photo), this is like a plane with its undercarriage down: it probably means they expect to land shortly. On longer flights, their legs disappear altogether and this puzzled us at first until we saw a gull tucking his legs under his feathers. These gulls have their legs flush but not hidden: they have no plans to land but are ready if they decide to do so.
End of Gull Gallery
We went onto the Pier which was very crowded. At the entrance are “bouncers” or security officers, though with all the coming and going I don’t know how they expect to spot anyone posing a threat. These days, the pier is just a big money-making machine. There are shops, stalls, fortune-teller booths and a slot-machine gallery. At the end of the pier, where, in the old days, cross-Channel steamers used to dock, there is a fun fair with all the usual – noisy – rides, and the inevitable bars and fast food stalls. It’s a far cry from the days of my childhood when there was little apart from the slot-machine gallery and a few candyfloss stands. Not everyone shares my somewhat misanthropic view, however, and the crowds seemed to be enjoying themselves.
I took this photo from the pier, looking east along Brighton’s famous shingle beach. Unless you are used to it, the pebbles are hard on your bare feet, especially when you have been in the water for a while. Some people wear sandals even while bathing, for this reason.
The Brighton Wheel was set up, amid protests, in 2011 and is licensed until 2016. Local residents have gone to court to stop its installation or have it removed but have not been successful so far. Will it be licensed for another term from 2016?
There are gulls on the pier too, of course. The lamps are a favourite look-out point, high enough for the gulls to feel safe but close enough to passers-by to see who has ice cream or chips or any other food. The gulls may look innocent but don’t be fooled: we saw a gull swoop on two young women and try to snatch the food one was carrying. The attempt failed and, fortunately, no one was hurt but it shows the dangers.
Gulls are such expert flyers that they can drop down to you, grab food out of your hand and fly off again before you realize what’s happening. The gulls are blamed but it is the fault of people who feed them in defiance of the notices telling you not to do so.
Gulls are not the only sea creatures observable from the pier. We spotted this swimmer powering past as though his life depended on it. Perhaps it did. Anyway, he was a furlong out from the shore and still going strong. Not the subject of Stevie Smith’s poem, obviously.
I took the above panoramic picture looking west from a vantage point near the end of the pier. Visible is the blackened section of skeleton that is all that remains of the ill-fated West Pier, destroyed by storm and arson. Standing on Brighton Pier taking the photo and feeling the solid planks beneath my feet, it would be easy to dismiss notions of similar harm coming to it but so many piers have been destroyed over the years – swept away by storms, consumed by fire, or left to crumble through neglect – that their fragility must always be borne in mind. As a case in point, Eastbourne Pier has recently been badly damaged by fire. Happily, there are plans to restore it.
Among the noisy and rather violent forms of entertainment, a quieter installation was finding customers. It is perhaps surprising in this age of machines and sophisticated technology that the Victorian-style carousel with its organ music and painted wooden horses remains popular. And not just here: I find them in nearly every fairground or pier head that we visit. Perhaps the secret of their success is their very simplicity and their gentleness of movement that sets them apart in a dreamy childhood world that children are too quickly hurried out of these days.
I was not sorry to leave the din and the crush of people as we made our way off the pier back to terra firma and the bus stop where we could catch a bus to the station. I always enjoy a visit to Brighton where two worlds, that I vaguely call Then and Now, overlay one another and the past, with its memories, flickers in and out among the sights and sounds of today.
By leaving early, we beat the inevitable later rush and the train was not too crowded. We were soon again absorbed back into the mighty whirlpool that is London.