Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside

18th August 1995 at 01:00
Jellied eels, candy floss and penny slot machines in Brighton rekindle a sense of childhood in Arnold Evans.

When you visit Brighton, it's essential that you take a child. Not any old child, of course, but the one you used to be. Both of you must make a solemn promise (cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die) that you will make every effort not to spoil the other's fun. He must agree not to insist on doing everything at once, be sick, or sulk when he doesn't win at the shooting gallery. And, in turn, you must resolve to bite your tongue every time you hear yourself whingeing about prices, the inevitable tackiness and how the old place has really gone to seed since you were last here. Only then, to the cry of seagulls, and whiff of the old briny, can you set off from the station, fingers crossed, hoping that you'll be able to rediscover that indefinable thrill of being beside the sea side, beside the sea.

The big decision is what to do first. You could take a guided tour on an open-deck bus, and be shown the various Regency and Regency-style terraces and squares built in Brighton's halcyon days when it was hailed "the Queen of Watering Holes". And then, as a reminder of Brighton's subsequent decline, gaze at the lost splendour of the West Pier, built in 1866 but now shamefully abandoned and left to fall into ruin. But to see just how well the Victorians did things, you must visit the Aquarium. In the cool silence beneath its impressive vaulted ceiling, red-bellied piranha, shovel-nosed catfish, corkwing wrasse and other sleepy species, some looking every bit as old as the building itself, watch you, watching them, watching you.

You must take a sedate ride along the promenade to Black Rock on the Volk's Railway - the first electric railway to have been built in Britain. Then you simply have to explore the Lanes, a labyrinth of narrow streets, and alleyways. For centuries fishermen lived and mended their nets here, but now it houses an eclectic assortment of restaurants and shops that specialise in the sort of things you never realised you wanted to buy. You could spend all day just ambling around, window shopping or watching your fellow-visitors who you'll find are every bit as exotic as corkwing wrasse and shovel-nosed catfish.

But don't forget you've brought that child with you and so regard it as your solemn duty to return post haste to the sea front. Obviously you'd want to build sandcastles, but Brighton's shoreline is, as I heard one disappointed toddler scream to his mum, "all pebbles, pebbles, (expletive deleted) pebbles". You could choose, instead, to join the throngs slouched in deck chairs, getting as brown as tomatoes. You might even be tempted to seek the shade in one of the many seaside bars, and spend a few relaxing hours seeing Brighton as through a glass darkly. But forget such idle dreams this is your child's day out, so your first port of call has to be the Palace Pier. You'll find that it's garish, loud, graceless and tawdry everything, in fact, that a pier should be.

A word of warning: this is where adults, despite their efforts to enter into the spirit of things, are most likely to start grizz-ling. They'll notice that toffee apples aren't really worth the effort; that a stick of candyfloss looks ludicrous in the hand of anyone over three foot six, and that peppermint rock still tastes as ghastly as it ever did. Even from the busy shop that claims to serve two million customers with 200 tons of chips, and 40 tons of cod a year, the fish and chips don't taste nearly as coddy or chippy as when they came wrapped in the News Chronicle and cost a bob.

It's as hard to swallow as a mouth of jellied eels, but today's grown-ups in Brighton have to accept that, despite the kindly tricks that memory can play, the end-of-the pier amusements weren't wonderfully better in the good old days. Fair ground rides, for instance, can never have been as terrifying as The Ranger. You are suspended, upside down, and through the roar of blood rushing to your ears, you hear Whigfield's Saturday Night as your life flashes before your tightly shut eyes and your strangled oesophagus is pounded by a a tidal wave of candyfloss and the day's other bad mistakes. If you're still in cantankerous mood, and honestly believe that state-of-the-art arcade games don't measure up to the machines you enjoyed as a child, it's worth a quick visit to the National Museum of Slot Machines on the sea front.

Here you can buy 20 old pennies for a pound (the feel of them in your hand is warmly nostalgic) and try your luck on the old machines. You'll find it peculiarly distressing to discover that your parents were right all along they are a complete waste of money. Did we really twist handles to race wobbly metal greyhounds or squander scrounged pennies to discover that what the butler saw was a flickering lady in sensible bloomers? If the child you've brought with you doesn't regard it as an act of unforgivable sacrilege to squander precious time at the seaside traipsing around museums, there are others you could coax him into with a promise of an ice cream afterwards. The small fishing museum on the sea front, for instance, offers a token reminder of how the inhabitants of Brighthelmstone (as Brighton was known in her innocent past) once made their perilous living.

How bemused they must have been as they touched forelocks and bobbed clumsy curtsies to the town's first visitors who came, not to fish in the sea, but to drink the stuff. Some took it neat, others preferred it mixed in a cocktail with milk, crabs eyes and crushed lice. They had been assured it was a cure for, among other things, jaundice, glandular disorders, King's Evil, scrofula, gonorrhoea virtually everything, in fact, except wide-eyed credulity. In the Brighton Museum you can learn how the likes of Dr Richard Russell and Sake Deen Mahomed ("Shampooing Surgeon to George IV") persuaded the smart set that the ocean blue made not only an efficacious drink, but was also jolly good for bathing in.

The wily fishing community, realising that herring weren't nearly as good a catch as holiday makers, found gainful employment wheeling the bathing chariots across the pebbles, and, as "dippers", offering a discreet shove to gentry, nervous about taking the plunge. Of course, it wasn't the prospect of a medicinal dunking that had tempted the beau monde to Brighton, but the apres sea. A building boom had created for their delectation: gracious holiday homes, an elegant promenade, a pier, assembly rooms, ball rooms, theatres enough delights to eclipse Bath. Brighton rapidly became the capital of to quote a contemporary newspaper "morning rides, champagne, dissipation, noise and nonsense". Is it any surprise then that the most frivolous of royals, George IV (The Prince Regent, "Prinny", "The Prince of Whales") should have wasted no time in deciding that Brighton was his kind of town.

As well as gracing (disgracing) Brighton with his presence for over 40 naughty years, Prinny blessed the town with its most famous attraction, The Royal Pavilion. That little child you've brought with you, however disappointed he has been by other stately homes, will readily agree that this was one palace that was worth building. It's because Prinny, although he might have grown old and fat, never grew up. His Pavilion cocks a regal snook at the prevailing taste on an age that prided itself on architectural reserve and elegance. As subtly understated as a jeroboam over-flowing with Turkish Delight, it's an extravaganza of pinnacles, minarets and domes, a blancmange of a building, the birthday cake every child would like to have. If its Eastern exterior takes your breath away, you'll need an oxygen mask the moment you behold the kitsche chinoiserie of the interiors. The stupendously ostentatious Music Room, for instance, has a ceiling adorned with 26,000 gilded seashells. It's a disappointment to learn that they are made of plaster, but then virtually everything else is gloriously phoney from the cast iron rails disguised as bamboo to the trompe l'oeil decorative painting.

Other palaces provide a sober context in which grim men have wrestled with serious affairs of state; The Pavilion, on the other hand, was never anything more than Prinny's personal amusement arcade. Here, he and his pals devoted as much time as they could to wine, women and song and wasted the rest. It was all very childish, but then, that's what Brighton's always been for the child we bring with us. But the little hand has reached 10, so there's only time for one last ride, one last try at the shooting gallery (does anybody ever hit anything?), and then the reluctant climb up West Street to the railway station and the ticket back to reality. We're off to join the merry-go-round of tourists in sweltering London when you've survived The Ranger, you've got a stomach for anything.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today