Formerly known as Brighthelmstone, Brighton was once a fishing village on the south coast of England that became fashionable in the early nineteenth century thanks to the Prince Regent – later George IV – who came here to escape the rigours and strictures of Court life in London and to carry on with Mrs Fitzherbert (among others).
The prince built his celebrated Royal Pavilion here and courtiers and hangers-on soon flocked
to the coast, leading to the building of the great Regency squares and terraces such as Brunswick Square, Sussex Square, Palmeira Square and Adelaide Crescent, marking the start of Brighton’s life as a chic retreat.
More recently, Brighton showed its seedier side. In the 1930s and 1940s the town was terrorised by the so-called razor gangs, the racketeers who monopolised the local racecourses and who were immortalised in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. In the 1950s, Brighton was famous as the town in which to book a seedy hotel and be deliberately photographed in a compromising situation in order to give grounds for divorce, while in the 60s it was notorious as the battleground for run-ins between the Mods and Rockers.
Today Brighton has reclaimed some of its Regency glamour, without having entirely lost its grubby underbelly. The late, great Keith Waterhouse, a long-time resident, once memorably declared that “Brighton has the air of a town helping the police with its inquiries”.
Brighton gained city status in 2001 as Brighton and Hove, although it is just as likely to be referred to as London-by-the-Sea, thanks to its trendy bars, clubs, restaurants (more per head than anywhere else in the UK outside London), its rich cultural life and its proximity to the capital (just 49 minutes by train).
The Brighton Festival is the largest in the UK after Edinburgh, and the city is home to the world’s longest continuously operated cinema (the Duke of York’s, established 1910).
Brighton also boasts the world’s oldest aquarium; the world’s first – and oldest – public electric railway (the Volk’s Railway, established 1883); the world’s longest-running motoring event: the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run (1896); and the world’s longest-running motor race: the Brighton National Speed Trials (1905).
There is a racecourse here, a greyhound track, a Championship football club, Brighton and Hove Albion (aka The Seagulls, and notoriously frustrating to support), and the country’s first-ever county cricket club, Sussex CCC.
The city is famous for its vibrant gay community and for claiming the UK’s first and, so far, only Green MP, Caroline Lucas. It is the most visited weekend destination in the country and in particular remains a magnet for hen and stag parties.
Despite its London-on-Sea nickname, though, the whole point about blowsy, buxom old Brighton is that it isn’t London, and that is why so many of us are drawn to it. Yes, it is a bustling, vibrant and cosmopolitan city but it is a city on a manageable scale. Somehow the sea, the Downs, the jaunty architecture, the dirty weekendness and the Graham Greeneness of the place all combine to create a snazzy-seedy town of relaxed and amused tolerance.
Some pretentious fellow once said that Brighton was a state of mind and my, how we laughed. But perhaps he had a point, for here you can be anything you want to be and you are not judged by your accent, your job, your background, your wealth (or lack of it), your sexuality or your family. The wacky and the eccentric are part of Brighton’s everyday, and nobody stares at you or bothers you no matter how weird – or even how conventional – you are.
Brighton is a town for free thinkers and good-time girls and boys. Come on in, the water – and the gin – is lovely.