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The history of Brighton

PUBLISHED: 10:36 12 June 2018 | UPDATED: 10:36 12 June 2018

Interior of St Bartholomew s Church Brighton UK (Credit: Duncan McNeill/Alamy Stock Photo)

Interior of St Bartholomew s Church Brighton UK (Credit: Duncan McNeill/Alamy Stock Photo)

Credit: Duncan McNeill/Alamy Stock Photo

Clive Agran gets a new perspective on the much loved seaside city of Brighton

Although I can’t tell my doric column from my gable end, I appreciate good architecture and recognise the critical role it plays in creating an agreeable environment. And so to assist me in this month’s exploration of Brighton, I’ve turned to an acknowledged expert on the subject. Formerly professor of architecture at the University of Brighton, David Robson has written a number of books including A Guide to the Buildings of Brighton, which is tucked under his arm and helps me identify him on the concourse at Brighton railway station. He’s also vice chairman of the Regency Society, a Brighton-based organisation that encourages excellence in conservation, planning, design and construction and cares both about the past and future of the city.

Before we set off on our stroll, I’m treated to a fascinating private tutorial on the history of Brighton. “It was never a fishing village,” explains David. “It was a coastal town called Brighthelmstone. As it had no river running through it, it was totally cut off from the rest of Sussex by the Downs.” This geographical isolation encouraged a non-conformist and independent attitude among the seafaring community that is still very much apparent today.

Severe flooding in the 12th century left much of the original settlement under the sea and a ‘new town’ was laid out in a north-south grid pattern that survives in the famous Lanes.

In the first half of the 18th century, Brighton suddenly developed a reputation as a spa and the curative effects of seawater – to bathe in and drink! – were promoted, principally by Dr Richard Russell of Lewes who published a treatise on the subject and moved to the town, where the first of many hotels were built to accommodate visitors.

Later in the century Brighton became a popular point for boats leaving for France. “Travelling by sea was quicker than on land,” explains David and so the fastest route to Paris from London was via Brighton.

A further boost to the town’s fortunes followed when the Prince Regent (later King George IV), who first visited in 1783, spent a great deal of time here and built the extraordinary Royal Pavilion. It was then that the name Brighton came into common use.

After overcoming the significant obstacle of the Downs, the railway arrived in 1840. Because of the sloping terrain there were various technical problems that prevented locating the station more conveniently next to the sea. Although somewhat awkwardly sited on both a bend and the side of a hill, the station is architecturally impressive and, as we sit and chat, David’s eyes frequently look up to admire the dramatic arched roof.

Without referring to the travails of Southern rail or rolling his eyes, he observes that the travel time from London to Brighton by train is more or less the same now as it was then. Now he’s looking down. “There’s a warren of unused space beneath this station,” he observes as, tutorial over, we head east out of the station into an area known as the New England Quarter that belonged to British Rail before privatisation. The apartment blocks are about ten years old but look a lot older. David is evidently not a fan of what’s been built here and regards it as an opportunity missed.

Significantly more impressive is the adjacent St Bartholomew’s church. An enormous brick building dating from the 1870s, David considers it “one of the architectural wonders of Brighton.” It’s massive and some believe it has the biblical dimensions of Noah’s Ark. If you ignore the steeples and towers of other churches, at 144 feet high it might well be the tallest church in the UK.

One of several built in Brighton during rather pious Victorian times that were financed by either Reverend Michael Wagner or his son Reverend Arthur Wagner, it is ‘high’ church in every sense of the word as it is Anglican Reform. Inside it’s a vast hall with an uninterrupted view up to the distant roof. It is extraordinary as is the fact that, despite having been to Brighton countless times, I had never even noticed it. How could anyone miss such a towering brick edifice?

We wander up and down the once-fashionable but now, sadly, rather scruffy London Road pausing outside a few architectural gems that, truthfully, have seen much better days. David introduces me to the work of Amon Wilds and his son Amon Henry Wilds, two talented architects who had a considerable impact on Brighton both in terms of the number and quality of their buildings.

They moved to Brighton from Lewes in 1815 and between them were responsible for some of the most attractive buildings in the city. They evidently had a sense of humour as well as a creative eye as their signature motif, an ammonite-shaped capital on top of a pilaster, was a pun on their shared Christian name. If nothing else it makes it easier and quite entertaining to spot their work.

We walk through the now covered Open Market and emerge in front of a green space that David explains is part of a verdant strip that runs north to south through Brighton. Wellesbourne could perhaps best be described as an occasional stream that would sometimes surface in winter and flood the valley. After the construction of Patcham Waterworks in 1876 which siphoned water from its sources, it has never flowed again. But the stream prevented any building on what is now a welcome green ribbon.

We cross over to admire Park Crescent, a horseshoe of 24 very impressive villas built by Amon Henry Wilds in the middle of the 19th century on land upon which previously stood a cricket pitch and a failed pleasure garden complete with maze, theatre and saloon. Sadly, the formerly inward-looking crescent has been reversed so that the front doors now open onto the communal garden and the main entrances are the less attractive rear doors around the outside which the servants would have used. The 24 villas provide 48 homes and David believes the development was the progeniture of semi-detached housing.

Park Crescent in Brighton UK (Credit: Edward Simons/Alamy Stock Photo)Park Crescent in Brighton UK (Credit: Edward Simons/Alamy Stock Photo)

Brighton may also have been the birthplace of the bow façade and bow window combination that improved the view of the sea and let more light into the home. Certainly there are plenty of examples of this attractive feature on numerous Regency buildings around the city.

Conscious of my need to reveal ‘secrets’, David is keen to show me the Allied-Irish Bank in Marlborough Place. A handsome neo-Georgian building, it was designed by local man John Leopold Denman, who was also responsible for some of the best-looking pubs in Brighton. A 20th century building, it is decorated with carved reliefs of Denman, the carpenter, bricklayer and various other craftsmen who worked on the project.

We stop and stare at the Royal Pavilion. “Brighton is full of these absurd things,” observes David. “It’s fantasy… fairy tale. It’s the spirit of Brighton and ‘creative’ and ‘fun’ is what we’re famous for.” He believes Brighton should encourage originality.

“The last thing we want is ersatz Regency. We shouldn’t try and copy what’s gone before. Brighton is like Britain; it’s enjoyed a glorious past but now faces an uncertain future.”


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