Brimming with art, history, culture and entertainment, Brighton is a city that continues to attract pleasure-seekers from all over the world
he happiest place in the United Kingdom is just an hour’s train ride from the historic London Bridge station: Brighton, a city with a heady history of debauchery, valour and healing, the perfect ingredients of happiness some would say.
With our tickets in hand, my wife and I just managed to jump aboard the 09:05 am on time, thanks of course to my better half’s uncanny ability to be fashionably late everywhere. Before we knew it, however, our journey was over and we were in Brighton.
Also known as London by the Sea for its close proximity to the great capital, Brighton is a popular seaside town of East Sussex county, voted in 2019 as the best place to live and work in. It came into its own during the mid-1700s when seaside resorts became fashionable for cure-seekers. But it was during the Regency Age that it really took off, becoming infamous for the variety of hedonistic and often immoral pursuits it offered to Londoners. In fact, leading the pack of pleasure-seekers was the flamboyant Prince Regent “Prinny” himself (later King George IV). Fleeing his stifling royal duties in London, his frequent visits along with friends and courtiers firmly established Brighton as the city of self-indulgent pleasure. In fact, so notorious was Regency Brighton that the famous novelist Jane Austen chose the city as the site of giddy Lydia Bennett’s elopement with George Wickham in her novel, Pride and Prejudice.
Prinny’s biggest contribution to the town is also the top highlight of Brighton today and was naturally our first stop: the Royal Pavilion – an exotic palace the Prince Regent got constructed to impress his mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert. Redesigned by the famous architect John Nash in 1815, the palace is a bewildering amalgam of Indian, Chinese and Regency architecture. In fact, its exterior appears more Mughal than the Mughal monuments themselves with its numerous cupolas, domes and minarets. Its lavish interiors are predominantly oriental with walls, ceilings and carpets reflecting Chinese motifs (sceneries, dragons, sun rays, lotus leaves etc) and rooms overflowing with oriental pottery.
As eye-catching today as when originally built, the Pavilion features in literature as well, most notably in the Regency writer, Georgette Heyer’s novel Regency Buck, where she describes how the Pavilion “was placed to catch the traveller’s Gaze immediately upon entering the town”. Unfortunately, Queen Victoria did not share Heyer’s sentiments and failed to admire its opulence, selling it to the city of Brighton only after two visits.
Though now a museum, the Pavilion also served as a makeshift hospital for Indian corps troops during World War I. The India Gate, a canopy-shaped south entrance to the Pavilion, was a gift by the people of undivided India in commemoration of this service.
It was also on the Pavilion grounds that Mir Dast of Tirah (now in Pakistan) became one of the few Indian Muslims to receive Great Britain’s highest-ranking medal – the Victoria Cross – for valour. A blue plaque commemorates Mir’s bravery at Ypres, Belgium, where he held his post under heavy fire and gas attack, leading British and Indian soldiers to safety after the order of withdrawal.
But let us not forget the most recent notable resident of the Palace: George the Pavilion cat. One fine day in 1965, a stray cat sauntered into the palace and made it his home for the next fifteen years. For the avid cat lover travelling with me, “George” was the real highlight of the Pavilion tour. At the end of the tour, the museum shop was plundered as usual, with all kinds of memorabilia bought, the most important of which was a replica of “George”. In vain did I beg that George not be separated from his friends in Brighton. To this day, George lounges on our couch, shooting dirty looks at me with his glassy eyes for bringing him to Pakistan.
Even before the Pavilion was redesigned, Brighton had developed a reputation as a Spa town, largely due to a Sussex doctor, Richard Russell’s theory that sea-bathing was an effective health cure. Consequently, a whole industry of sea-bathing developed. Strolling on the seafront promenade, one can almost imagine the bathing machines, with people undressing inside and being helped into the water by dippers. Dippers were experts that helped one bathe in the sea; Martha Gunn was one such famous pioneering dipper, whose portrait you can still find hanging in the Royal Pavilion.
We, of course, had to do without her services as we took a dip in the waters, hoping to cure ourselves of various unknown ailments. But alas, all we got were blue toes from the freezing waters. Although Brighton beach is quite pebbly, it is one of the most visited beaches in the UK, presenting a festive sight, especially on hot summer days.
Our next destination was the un-missable Brighton Palace Pier, a purpose-built pleasure Pier, built in 1899, with numerous attractions for everyone and visited by more than 4.5 million people annually. From slot machines to classic merry go rounds to heart-stopping roller coasters to tasty eateries, the Pier is truly a happy place. Sadly, as we were in Brighton for a day-trip only, we pulled ourselves away from this fun place to explore the town. But not before an exhilarating roller coaster ride that helped us throw up most of what we had eaten at Bardsley’s. By the way, if you are a fish and chips fan, Bardley’s is the place to eat – one of Brighton’s finest fish and chip eateries, serving since 1926.
Walking eastward past the Palace Pier, you are likely to stumble upon the Queens Hotel. So what if the British gave us the railroad? We gave them something equally important if not more – champi. Queens Hotel was once the site of Sake (Sheikh) Deen Mahomed’s famous “Indian Medicinal Vapour Bath”. A young man from Patna in undivided India, Deen Mahomed was a pioneer in many fields, including setting up the first Indian curry restaurant “Hindoostane Coffee House” in London and being the first Indian to write a book in English.
In 1814, Mahomed moved to Brighton; banking on the growing spa reputation of Brighton, he opened his bath, advertising it as the cure to many ills. He introduced champi (head massage) to the British, calling it “shampooing”, thus giving birth to the word “shampoo”. This entrepreneurial masseur, later known as Dr Brighton, soon became famous and was appointed as the “Shampooing Surgeon” to King Charles IV, attracting people from far and wide to try his medicinal bath and shampooing techniques. His services have recently been acknowledged by a blue plaque on the Queens Hotel façade.
Brighton’s rich history means that blue plaques are plentiful, each one, more interesting than the last. Another fascinating blue plaque commemorates Doreen Valiente, the Queen Witch of Brighton, who, after witchcraft was legalised in Britain in 1951, entered the Wiccan religion, researched pagan rituals and practices, performed witchcraft, and died in 1999 with full witchcraft ceremonial.
Had enough of history? Then head to “The Lanes”. The Palace Pier is not the only festive place in town. The Lanes, a collection of old alleyways and narrow streets, are the cultural heart of the city. Here, old and new shops stand side by side in a bright and cheerful setting, where you will discover antiques, artworks, jewellery, fashion and of course food. On weekends, the place is as vibrant as the Palace Pier and well worth visiting, even if only for an aimless stroll.
Brighton lives up to its reputation of being a city of pleasure even today, hosting a number of festivals the year-round. Notable ones include the Brighton Festival, one of the biggest multi-art festivals of its kind in England. Held in May each year, it involves art, theatre, music, dance, film and literature along with many family events.
To celebrate the winter solstice (December 21), Brighton holds the “Burning the Clocks” Festival, with the residents making willow and paper lanterns and parading around the city with them, ultimately flinging them into a big bonfire on the beach.
In the summers, there is the annual “As bare you dare” bike ride, that may not be your cup of tea but is an expression of freedom and liberty for the locals.
Brighton is a city that continues to attract pleasure-seekers from all over the world, just as it did during the Regency. It has something for everyone: history, culture, entertainment and a hip nightlife. No wonder then that it is the happiest city in the UK. So if you are feeling low folks, head straight to Brighton for some fun and frolic.
– The writer is a development professional and an avid traveller. He blogs at www.travelpangs.com and can be reached at [email protected]