Though Brighton, at the time of writing (early 1999) does not form a part in any passports catalogue itineraries, it is fairly common in custom programmes or as an optional day trip from London. Hence its inclusion here.
Brighton (population 150,000) is one of England's most popular seaside resorts and most idiosyncratic towns. It has acquired this role fairly recently. Though it was a Roman foundation and medieval fishing port of moderate importance it is not until the C18 that began to boom. A that time, a fashionable physician to the well-to-do, named Dr. Russell, began recommending Brighton to his patients for sea-bathing and the invigorating effects of the salt air. Up until this, the seaside was never considered a place for recreation or vacation. In 1783, George Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and then King George IV) chose Brighton as his summer residence and built a fantastic pavilion here. This was the permissive era known as the Regency, named after George (he became Prince Regent in 1811). It was an age of decadence, flamboyance and glorious extravagance. In the Prince Regent's wake came the beautiful people so that Brighton soon rivalled Bath as the prime social centre of Regency England. Its image changed in the C19 with the coming of the railways. From then on, Brighton become a preferred seaside resort accessible for the ordinary middle-class family. It was popularly known as "London-by-the-Sea," since the railway made it possible for Londoners to venture here for weekends. Thackeray and Dickens, among others, popularised Brighton in their novels as a fashionable resort. This role continues today, with two amusement piers jutting out to sea, and shops and restaurants to cater to holiday makers. Its atmosphere is an appealing mixture of cosmopolitan refinement and decadence. Brighton enjoys a 6-mile sea frontage (even if the beach is pebble), with handsome promenades and crescent-shaped streets lined with expensive vacation houses. Sussex University has given the town a student population, and various language schools have made it something of a mecca for foreign students learning English.
On arrival in Brighton have the coach drop you as near as possible to the Royal Pavilion, eg. in Church Street next to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Walk down through the lovely gardens of the Pavilion, restored exactly as they were at the time of the Prince Regent. As you stand looking at the mind-boggling exterior of the Pavilion, so splendidly incongruous on the south coast of England, you should give your introduction to the place. You will find it hard to guide within (though there is an excellent guide book available at the ticket office and all the rooms and items of interest are clearly explained on placards or by attendants.)
The Royal Pavilion This is the highlight of Brighton and the focus of your visit. It was the holiday home and pleasure palace of the Prince Regent. Across the road on Old Steine was the house where his mistress and clandestine wife Mrs Fitzherbert lived (now the YMCA). The exterior is in a sort of Moghul fantasy style with onion-shaped domes, decorative minarets and lace-work arcading between the columns. The initial, fairly sober building was begun in 1787. As parties became more lavish and the Regency grew in flamboyance it was constantly altered and enlarged and finally developed into the extraordinary confection you see. In this incarnation it was built by the architect John Nash, also responsible for much of the building of Regency London, between 1815 and 1824.
Where the exterior is quasi-Indian in inspiration the interior looks further to the east. Here the style is all orientalising, predominantly Chinese. There are sinuous scrolls, bamboo screens and banisters, inlaid tables, dragon and lotus motifs, lacquerware, fragile lamps and Oriental vases. There are also slender columns in the form of palm trees, voluptuous chaises longues and exuberant chandeliers. George himself sometimes attended banquets dressed in Chinese robes. Two rooms in particular are absolutely breathtaking: the Banqueting Room and the Music Room. The upstairs rooms, associated more with Queen Victoria and her family, are similar in style but more restrained. At the end of the visit there is a 20 minute video on the history of the Pavilion which is very interesting and well worth it. There are also loos and a tea room. Recently, several of the rooms, including the Music Room, were seriously damaged by a fanatic who set fire to them, but they have now been splendidly restored to their former glory. Unless you intend to watch the video or eat here the whole visit should take no more than 45 minutes or so.
The Rest of Brighton From the Royal Pavilion it is a two minute walk down to the charming little area known as The Lanes. This is old Brighton, with its close-knit network of narrow, cobbled streets, interesting shops, particularly antique shops, and lots of restaurants and cafes. It is much the most appealing part of town to explore at leisure. If you walk down five minutes to the sea you come to the wide pebble beach which is Brighton's raison d'être. There is a small entrance charge to the lively and lovely Palace Pier, a typical late Victorian way to get out into the sea without getting wet. It is full of amusement arcades, trinket stalls, places to buy Brighton Rock and mini-rides etc. (Sadly the other, and far lovelier, West Pier is now derelict.) To eat, Brighton is the ideal place for some fish and chips. When you leave the town you should ask the driver to follow Brighton's seafront promenade for a couple of miles so that the group can see some of the grand hotels and elegant squares of the Victorian era.
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