If Santa Monica has a doppelganger, it’s the English coastal resort town of Brighton — even if the mirror image is somewhat distorted. Brighton (full name Brighton & Hove) is colder (the average temperature in July is 70° F), older (first settled in Neolithic times), bigger (population 250,000), and grander (Santa Monica has a city hall, Brighton a Royal Pavilion).
But both have firmly established their status as popular seaside destinations, with Brighton attracting more than eight million visitors each year.
To do justice to Brighton’s colorful past would take volumes. But synopsistically speaking, here goes.
Brighton’s first inhabitants were a Stone Age tribe living where a race course now sits. The first immigrants arrived in 500 BC. The town’s original name, as entered in the 1086 Domesday Book, was Bristelmestune.
In 1514, during the reign of Henry VIII, French raiders burned the entire town to the ground. St. Nicholas Church was the only structure left standing.
In 1783, before he became King George IV, the Prince of Wales made his first visit to Brighton. Four years later, he ordered work to begin on an opulent villa that became the Royal Pavilion, which has been variously described as a “quasi-Russian golden turnip” or a “suburban Taj Mahal.”
The railway between Brighton and London opened in 1841, making the town more accessible to the working class. The West Pier was built in 1866 and the Palace Pier in 1899.
Although Brighton had no shipyard, it was a target during World War II. The town survived 56 bombing raids and 5,500 homes were destroyed. West Pier closed in 1975 and partially collapsed during a storm in December 2002. Two months later, Palace Pier was damaged by fire.
On the Waterfront
The dilapidated West Pier sits abandoned after years of battering by Atlantic storms. Palace Pier, also known as Brighton Pier, is flourishing, heralded as either “vibrant” or “tacky,” depending on who’s talking.
Brighton Pier is considerably longer than its Santa Monica counterpart, but offers similar entertainment. Food stalls serve fish and chips, ice cream, donuts, hot dogs and hamburgers, as well as pizza, Indian cuisine, noodles and rice, French crepes, and jellied eels. The tumultuous arcade is packed with buzzing, ringing and clanging automated coin pushers, virtual reality contraptions, and, for the over-18 crowd, slot machines.
Horatios, a large family pub, features karaoke, and visitors can go home with a henna tattoo or a glimpse of their future, courtesy of a fortuneteller and palm reader. Public restrooms are sparkling clean and have attendants on duty.
As in Santa Monica, admission to the pier is free, but the rides are not. Tokens are sold for 50 pence each (approximately 85¢). Five tokens will buy a spin on the roller coaster, three a turn at the bumper cars. Twenty chances at the ring toss game take four tokens.
Immortalized On Film & In Print
Noel Coward’s Conversation Piece is set in Brighton, as is the Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock, which became a film starring Richard Attenborough. Brighton is also a principal character in Patrick Hamilton’s The West Pier, Colin Spencer’s Anarchists in Love and Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend.
The Who’s 1979 classic Quadraphenia was shot here, as was the Barbara Streisand vehicle, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Other Brighton-based productions include Genevieve (1947), Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), and Ian McKellen’s brilliant Richard III (1996).
Who Lives Here
That bad boy artist of the Art Nouveau era, Aubrey Beardsley, was born in Brighton and lived here most of his 25-year life. Today’s residents include FatBoy Slim and members of the British band Primal Scream. Oh. And former Spice Girl Emma Bunton has a flat on the oceanfront.
What draws people to Brighton?
“Everyone wants to live here,” says 23-year-old Rebecca Aspin, who holds a degree in environmental science and works at the Royal Pavilion. “That’s why it’s so expensive.” (With perseverance and luck, a two-bedroom flat can be found for $1,050 a month, but the average is closer to $1,800.)
“Brighton has the most funky shops in the country,” Aspin explains. “It’s Bohemian, and there’s a strong club scene. People call it ‘London by the sea.’”
Dizzy Cooke, a native of South London, “grew up with Brighton,” spending many a holiday here with his parents and five brothers and sisters. The city, says the 40-something clothing store operator, has changed drastically. “Some for the good, some for the worse. It’s a bit of both.”
The good, he says, is “the influx of new people.” And the bad: “Higher property prices and attitude. It’s like London 20 years ago, when university graduates came along and took jobs from the working class. We were shut out of our dwellings and pushed into new towns and areas.”
More than a few came to Brighton. Now, they’re being elbowed out again, “forced out,” Cooke says, “by the money of new London with their commuter belt accents. They turn up in their Kensington taxis, taking over quintessential English streets.” (A Kensington taxi is the UK equivalent of a soccer mom SUV.)
“Brighton was much better 20 years ago,” Cooke maintains. “Now they’re knocking down glorious old buildings in the name of progress. And parking is disgraceful.”
Not everyone laments the vanishing past. A young man who gives his name only as Darren moved from London to Hove four years ago “to live by the sea” and enthuses, “I love it here.” He works in the Visitor Information Center.
Dinkies & The Pink Pound
Brighton uses the same currency as the rest of the country, of course, but takes in more of it, courtesy of the city’s large gay and lesbian population. Because few gay couples have children, there’s more disposable income to spend on entertainment and luxury items, hence the “pink pound.” In Brighton’s economic structure, gays are the ultimate “DINKies” — double income no kids.
Who’s In Charge?
Residents in Brighton & Hove elect representatives (councillors) to the Town Council, and the councillors appoint a chief executive to oversee the various departments (directorates): Children, Families & Schools, Environment, Housing & City Support, Corporate Services, and Cultural Services.
In 1999, Brighton & Hove instituted a long-term modernization program to “make life better for people and businesses.” A new constitution was recently instituted, based on an executive committee system. The committees largely mirror council directorates and have executive powers. Although finance issues may go to the full Town Council, most decisions are made within the committees.
Brighton’s mayor is elected by councillors to a one-year term at an annual meeting each May. The mayor’s primary duty is to chair council meetings and serve as “first citizen,” representing the council at public affairs and civic and ceremonial events both in and outside the city.
Pam O’Connor, take note: The correct form of address for Brighton’s current mayor is “The Right Worshipful the Mayor of the City of Brighton & Hove, Councillor Mrs. Pat Drake.” After formal introductions, she may be addressed as Madam Mayor.
A Lord Lieutenant serves as the Queen’s representative in East Sussex, but the position is non-political and unpaid, and the appointee must retire on his or her 75th birthday.
Attractions & Activities
Three-fourths of the eight million tourists who visit Brighton each year are day trippers. Some come for the salt air, but many come to sightsee – and shop.
Brighton has a modern downtown area, away from the Pier, with the same mid-priced and upscale formula stores you find almost anywhere: The Gap, Laura Ashley, French Connection, and (yawn) Starbucks.
But the city’s real retail magnet is The Lanes.
The Lanes date back to the 14th century, when Brighton had four streets: North Street, West Street, East Street, and South Street. Between them ran pathways that connected gardens or other plots of land.
The Lanes somehow escaped the havoc of post-war planning and today is a labyrinth of cobbled streets packed with intriguing shops — from Vegetarian Shoes to Sandpiper Books. Then there’s Paradise, a huge, mostly second-hand outlet crammed with, well, almost everything: Goth formal wear, James Bond action figures, and vintage jewelry, toys, furniture, and tools. The Lanes also has some great restaurants, with creative cuisines and clever names, like Hell’s Kitchen.
Brighton has dozens of art galleries and museums (one devoted to fishing, another to penny slot machines). Brighton Museum and Art Gallery is one of the most popular and is home to important collections of early 20th-century ceramics, furniture, toys, period clothing, artwork, local craftwork and pottery. Treasures in the Hove Museum and Art Gallery include a large film collection full of memorabilia and a children’s exhibition.
The Booth Museum of Natural History boasts more than half a million specimens: fossils, rare stuffed animals, plants, insects, butterflies, fish, and maps. Brighton Sealife Centre is the world’s oldest aquarium, and Hove Lagoon – a water sports hub – has excellent sailing facilities.
Drinking & Dining
There are more than 300 pubs in Brighton and nearly as many restaurants. You’ll only go hungry if you can’t find what you like on the Mexican, Indian, seafood, Italian, soul food, Chinese, Santa Fe, sushi, Caribbean, French, tapas, Thai, and vegetarian menus. Of course, there’s always pizza, or something called Jethro’s Free Range Chicken.
Virgin Atlantic has direct flights from Los Angeles to London Heathrow twice a day. Phone 1-800 862-8621 or visit the website, www.virgin-atlantic.com.
Trains to Brighton leave frequently from London’s Victoria Station. Schedules and fares are available from National Rail at www.nationalrail.co.uk. It’s an easy walk (less than 3/4 mile) from the train station to the shore.