Thomas Breathnach visits 'London on Sea' and discovers a town in which trendy locals and the avant-garde sit comfortably alongside Punch & Judy-style seaside charm
The zenith of the British seaside holiday may be resigned to the 1950s, when Punch & Judy shows and donkey rides drew the bucket-and-spade brigade en masse.
But with tightened belts, and a touch of ye-olde nostalgia, piers and proms have never been more in vogue, and 2010 has so far been a bumper year for English resorts.
Brighton, the hedonistic Sussex town which blends Regency heritage with unapologetic kiss-me-quick kitsch, has always seemed to draw the numbers, however. At least eight million tourists will visit its pebbled shores this year and I'm about to be one of them.
Following a quick jaunt from Gatwick, my first instinct as I emerge from Brighton train station is to catch a glimpse of the waters, which originally saw the town emerge as a spa retreat for wealthy Londoners.
Peering down Queen's Road, there it is -- the English Channel glistening under high-noon sunshine, the sight of which offers a jolt of pep as it beacons me towards my lodgings.
With such a tourist influx, Brighton's plethora of accommodation options can be somewhat overwhelming. Be it hotels, inns or B&Bs, all seem quintessentially Brightonian but, on the back of TripAdvisor reviews, we opt to stay at Grey's, a boutique hotel in Kemp Town that's a five-minute amble from the town centre and a block from the seafront.
Named after the exterior colour scheme, Grey's has a calming energy: the hall splashed with orchids; our petite room spruced with Egyptian cotton and designer toiletries. In the breakfast room a giant palm kisses the skylight, adding a colonial air to the surroundings. Ah yes, this'll do nicely.
With the boho bustle of Brighton beckoning, we wander out to explore the city afoot. The town is divided into several districts and The Lanes and North Laine are quick to reinforce any preconceptions of the town. A myriad of red-bricked narrow lanes, called twittens, are brimming with avant-garde stores, old pubs, slow-food cafés and buskers. Shop fronts are brightly decorated, festooned with the rotating petals of wind twisters spinning in a psychedelic frenzy.
If it's dusty books, set-piece jewellery or vegetarian shoes you're after, this is where you'll find them.
It's then on to the town's most distinctive structure, the Brighton Pavilion. Appearing like a miniature Taj Mahal with its domes, towers and minarets, I'd assumed the Brighton Pavilion was originally a diplomatic gift from India which the British were too polite to refuse. The fantastical building is in fact a former royal residence, built under the nod of the flamboyant George IV in 1787 as a summer retreat -- it has remained a symbol of Brighton's eccentricity ever since.
Our audio-guided tour of the palace is a visual assault of oriental design wrapped up in the subterfuge of a Tudors episode. The interior features one of Europe's greatest homages to chinoiserie design and is adorned with bamboo staircases, gilded dragons and Chinese objets d'art throughout.
We visit the grand kitchen, where the world's first celebrity chef, Antonin Carême, would have prepared banquets for George and his guests, and the music room where Rossini would tinkle the ivories to entertain them.
Throughout the tour we're apprised of the King's rather gusty marriage to Caroline of Brunswick, a woman he grew to abhor for her garrulous nature and public displays of exhibitionism. That the moniker of Queen of Brighton currently reigns with local resident/belle of the ball Katie Price suddenly seems gapingly ironic and serendipitous.
For a spot of lunch we're tipped off to one of Brighton's most popular eateries -- Bill's Produce Store. Bill's is a market-style restaurant specialising in local produce, and the sight of crate-loads of plum-coloured aubergines and golden butternut squashes at the doorway is enough to whet any appetite.
We tuck into an all-day English breakfast, while trendy locals browse the surrounding shelves of mango chutneys and red-onion marmalades.
It's then time to check out Brighton's famed seafront, which stretches from Hove Lawns, with its façade of magnolia Regency architecture to the pier, and down to the town's marina, Britain's largest.
We make for the strand and pull up a striped, blue and white deckchair to recline in utter contentment. Now slightly at the mercy of a nebulous purple sky, we gaze out to sea at the lonesome iron skeleton of the old West Pier, which now lies derelict.
But Brighton, always eager to reinvent itself, has commissioned a 180m observation tower named i360. Britain's tallest viewing spire is set to open in 2012.
Kings Road Arches is a line of retailers under the main esplanade running along the seafront prom. Also known as Artists' Quarter, where easels of watercolours and oil paintings spill out on to the pavement, the strip is awash with seafront activity. Joggers negotiate around a rollerblade instructor and her client, a group of gentlemen, set off for a game of pétanque, and oh, there's Professor Mirza -- local clairvoyant extraordinaire whose line of satisfied customers include East-Enders legend Michelle Collins. We're in good company.
Further on, our walk towards the pier exposes a growing, and rather unsettling, hazard visitors to Brighton face -- seagull muggings.
Nesting birds can be particularly aggressive, with some local residents calling for a cull following a number of bloody attacks. Indeed, bearing witness to an old-aged pensioner's battered scampi being swooped out of her hands is all a little too Albert Hitchcock for an afternoon stroll.
Undeterred, we finally make it to the old dame that is Brighton Pier. Armed with a scrumptiously saline punnet of chips, and a 99 ice cream to follow, we mosey between slot machines, food stalls and helter skelters, shoulder to shoulder with blue-rinsed old timers, trendy couples and French exchange students. If the Pavilion is Brighton gentrified, the pier is Brighton tackified -- and everyone's loving it.
I hop on the Super Booster, which, with more G-force than any other British ride, has me dangling 40m over the city in three seconds flat. The view from above is gut-wrenchingly wondrous -- the white cliffs of the coast folding along the English Channel, while to the south, by George, there's France! And there below me is Brighton, an infectious playground whose denizens proudly bask in its glorious free spirit.
Get me back on terra firma to discover some more.
Gatwick Airport is the ideal gateway to the south coast, with Brighton less than 30 minutes away by rail. Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin, Cork and Knock to Gatwick, while Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com) flies from Dublin and Cork. Once landed, return train tickets start from ¤9.80; see nationalrail.co.uk. WHERE TO STAY Rates at Grey’s hotel start from ¤54pps (0044 1273 603197; greyshotel.co.uk).
FIVE GREAT THINGS TO DO
? Have a picnic at Devil’s Dyke on the South Downs. Overlooking the Channel, these are the same rolling hills which provided the backdrop to The Snowman, and along with a ginger beer, bacon butty and kite, are the perfect spot for the ultimate English picnic experience.
? Venture on a guided ghost tour through the spooky twitterns of The Lanes. Brighton is said to be England’s most haunted town — and they’ve the stories to prove it. If the ghost train at the pier didn’t do it for you, this should; ¤6; ghostwalkbrighton.co.uk.
? Take the kids for a ride on the VER — the world’s oldest operating electric train, which runs from Brighton Aquarium to the marina (from ¤0.60). Afterwards bring the railway children to the Toy Museum, an Aladdin’s Cave of old world toys and games. Family ticket (2+2) ¤15; see brightontoymuseum.co.uk.
? Go to the pictures at the Duke of York’s, one of the world’s first cinemas. From art-house flicks to cultnight soirées, catching a film at this historic venue is a must. From ¤8; see picture houses.co.uk.
? Check out the nightlife. The seafront houses some of Brighton’s top venues. Hit lounges like OhSo for a sundowner or The Honey nightclub, which has hosted international djs; thehoneyclub.co.uk; €10.