Brighton's glorious past
Since the Prince Regent (later King George IV) first visited Brighton and Hove in 1783, his fantastic seaside palace, the Royal Pavilion, with its Indian domes and minarets and its Chinese style interior, has become a landmark not to be missed. And, thanks to his influence, some of the finest examples of Regency architecture in England can be seen in Brighton and Hove.
Adelaide Crescent and the beautiful Brunswick and Palmeira Squares open gracefully onto the peaceful lawns of Hove giving stunning views of the sea.
Visit the Regency Town House or elegant Preston Manor, with its refined atmosphere of an Edwardian gentry home. Enjoy traditional and modern seaside fun on the Victorian Palace Pier.
Stroll along the new-look beachfront and boardwalk with its Artists’ Quarter and Fishing Museum which celebrates the resort’s history as a fishing town.
The heritage of Brighton
Wandering around 'The Lanes' (a maze of narrow streets and alleyways just off the seafront) you can easily imagine the small fishing community of Brighthelmstone, with shadowy figures ducking down the narrow 'twittens' and sheltering from the strong winds, possibly engaged in a little smuggling! Turn the corner and you will find elegant, graceful buildings redolent of the silk and ruffles of the Regency dandy.
Brighton began as a small fishing village constantly at the mercy of French raiders and the sea. After a great storm in 1724 many of the houses were washed away and the townspeople were granted a "Brief', to beg for money all over England to raise banks against the sea.
The town's transformation from a small fishing and farming village began when it was 'discovered' in 1750 by Dr Richard Russell who proclaimed the therapeutic benefits of his amazing sea-water cure. Almost overnight it became the fashionable watering hole of London High Society.
When George, Prince of Wales - later to become Prince Regent and then George IV - decided to make his home here, Brighton's popularity soared. The town underwent an amazing transformation. Local people made money by providing bathing machines which carried the bathers into the sea and bathing attendants known as 'dippers' stood by - ready to duck reluctant bathers. One of the most famous of these, Martha Gunn, is buried in St Nicholas churchyard.
Although well-known for its connection with the Prince Regent, the first recorded Royal visitor was Charles II. After his escape from the Battle of Worcester in 1651, he hid from the Roundheads disguised as a servant. He stayed in the George Inn in West Street (later renamed the Kings Head) and escaped to France by boat, now celebrated every May with a race from Brighton to France, appropriately named the Royal Escape.
A PRINCE'S PALACE
The Prince of Wales liked Brighton so much that he decided to move here. At first his cook rented a small farmhouse for him, which he eventually bought and improved. Over a period of years it grew from a modest classical building to the magnificent oriental palace we see today. The Prince had flamboyant tastes and scant regard for economy and budgeting. The first changes were made in 1787 when Henry Holland was engaged to enlarge and refurbish the humble farmhouse. With the addition of a domed rotunda and a new wing it became known as the 'Marine Pavilion'. Further alterations were made in 1801 with the addition of a new entrance, conservatory etc.....At the same time Frederick Crace introduced the Chinese theme into the interior.
Meanwhile, William Porden was designing new stables for the Prince's horses. Inspired by water colour pictures of India he created an incredible building in the Indo-Saracenic style with a vast dome (24 metres in diameter and 19 metres high) covering the main hall. Many pessimists predicted that this daring construction would collapse once the scaffolding was removed!
Now known as The Dome it has been converted into a modern concert hall, while the western riding hall has become an exhibition hall known as The Corn Exchange.
Once completed, these buildings were so impressive that they completely upstaged the Royal Pavilion itself. So, it was back to the drawing board, and the Prince ordered another round of improvements! The project was taken over by John Nash in 1813, and it was at this stage that the Pavilion took on its present ornate form.
Nash built over and around Holland's original structure, introducing a huge central dome over the Saloon and tent-like roofs over the Banqueting Hall and Music Room.
The interior was decorated by Frederick Crace and Robert Jones in exotic oriental styles, rich in colour and detail. The whole project was finally completed in 1823. It did not attract universal aclaim but indeed some ridicule. Sydney Smith declared that "it looked for all the world as if the Dome of St. Paul's had come down to Brighton and pupped".
The Prince of Wales was far from conventional and is known to have kept a number of mistresses. But he fell deeply in love with Mrs Maria Fitzherbert. By English law the Prince was not allowed to marry without the King's consent, and as Maria Fitzherbert was a Catholic, the Prince knew his father would never approve. They therefore married secretly in 1785. Mrs Fitzherbert did not live at the Pavilion but a house was built for her nearby. This can still be seen, although much altered, and is now the YMCA in Old Steine. There are reputed to have been secret passageways from this house to the Royal Pavilion but alas their exact whereabouts are no longer known, if indeed they existed.
The relationship flourished for a number of years. Eventually, as his debts mounted King George III forced the Prince to divorce Maria Fitzherbert and marry Caroline of Brunswick. Caroline was a Protestant Princess and could therefore become Queen. However, they detested each other and the marriage was a disaster. George would not live with Caroline and refused to let her into Westminster Abbey for the Coronation when he became King. They had only one daughter who died in childbirth. He later returned to Mrs Fitzherbert and when he died in 1830 her miniature was found around his neck. Maria Fitzherbert died in 1837 and is buried in the chapel of St John the Baptist in St Georges Road.
Although Henry Holland, William Porden and John Nash made a remarkable contribution to the architecture of Brighton, establishing elements which became intrinsic features of Brighton's Regency style, there were others of perhaps even greater importance. The most influential and successful were undoubtedly Amon Wilds, his son Amon Henry Wilds, and Charles Augustin Busby.Between them they designed hundreds of Brighton and Hove's most spacious and elegant houses. Wherever you walk in Brighton and Hove their work can be seen: in terraces, streets, squares and crescents from Kemptown - with its famous Sussex Square and Lewes Crescent to Brunswick Square and beyond.
The palace of George IV
What do a Norfolk turnip, the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, a chessboard and the Kremlin have in common?
They are just four ways in which, over the years, people have tried to describe the Royal Pavilion. I say 'tried' because King George IV's former seaside residence literally beggars all description. To call it Brighton's answer to the Taj Mahal simply isn't enough. With its riot of onion domes and minarets, its blend of refined Indian architecture and opulent Chinese interiors, the palace is nothing short of an exotic feast for the senses, a mouth-watering masala to be savoured with relish.
It is hard to believe that this oriental wonderland was born from the imagination of a man who had never ventured further east than Germany. In 1783, the dashing young heir to the throne, George Prince of Wales, paid his first visit to the thriving resort of Brighthelmstone. It was to be a visit from which the town never recovered. With more showmanship than Phineas T Barnum, Brighton's patron saint - or some say patron sinner - set about creating his ideal home.
Over 30 years later, and some £500,000 poorer, George could finally step back and admire the handiwork of his favourite architect, John Nash. Not everybody was as enthusiastic as His Royal Highness. John Wilson Croker, a noted diarist of the day, had this to say: "It is, I think, an absurd waste of money, and will be a ruin in half a century or more".
How wrong can you get! If the Pavilion can survive a devastating arson attack, extensive hurrican damage and let's not forget Queen Victoria who removed everything including the kitchen sink, then what's to stop the most extraordinary palace in Europe from celebrating its 200th birthday in the year 2023?
Such a show of resistance against the ravages of time may have something to do with the dragons that feature in every corner of the Pavilion and who, in Chinese mythology, symbolize good fortune. But be prepared to encounter much more than a galaxy of weird and wonderful creatures. Retrace the illustrious footsteps of Rossini who performed amid the razzle-dazzle of the Music Room or Lord Byron who made merry in the lavish Banqueting Room. Recently restored to its full 19th century grandeur, the palace's astonishing colour schemes and superb craftsmanship will have you racing to try out new decorating techniques at home!
The novelist William Thackeray once wrote: "It is the fashion to run down George IV, but what myriads of Londoners ought to thank him for inventing Brighton". The Royal Pavilion's 400,000 visitors a year couldn't agree more.
Written by Ann Noon, winner of The Observer's Young Travel Writer Award 1996
The skeleton in the sea
Brighton's West Pier was a magnificent and unique English seaside promenade and pleasure pier built over 130 years ago by Eugenius Birch.
Closed since 1975, it suffered decay at the hands of battering waves but miraculously survived, fundamentally unchanged since 1916, until 2002/2003 when fire stripped the pier bare leaving just a skeleton of iron work. The grandeur and magic of seaside England lost forever.
The pier was built out from the sea using dozens of iron columns, literally screwed into the seabed and strengthened by a mesh of metal ties, braces and girders. Atop the substructure was a wooden promenade deck, which allowed visitors seemingly to be at sea and walk on water without the hazards of getting wet or being sea sick.
The Overall Structure and the West Pier’s component buildings are still of historical and architectural importance. They represent a culmination of the skills of the Victorian engineer as mechanic, architect and artist; skills honed in the great age of railway construction and bridge building and based on new materials and technologies arising from the industrial revolution earlier in the century.
The West Pier in the only pier in the world to be Grade 1 architecturally listed - it’s form, proportions and style are unrivalled.
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