Home to free spirits Brighton is also known as “London by the sea.” Just as lively as the British capital, but sans the stress, it’s perfect for an unconventional weekend trip
In front of a building that looks much like the palace of an Indian maharaja, a lanky young man in long blond dread-locks gyrates, a hula hoop circling his body. Waves of movement pass from him to the white plastic hoop, and when it climbs to the top of his upstretched arms, the hooper grabs it and throws it into the air. Philipp Nicholls is one of several hoopers who perform on weekends on the city’s greens. He started out three years ago and now teaches hooping on the side. In his day job, he works as a project manager, helping academic publishers to digitize their systems. So he’s both a hippy and a nerd? “That’s not unusual here in Brighton,” the 34-year-old replies.
Here, contradictions are the norm: hip-swiveling men in suits, gardening rock stars, nude cyclists right next door. The city itself is quite unspectacular. It has those narrow, typically English terraced houses with bay windows standing side by side like books on a shelf, and beach shacks, where pseudo artists hawk painted cityscapes. But then down the street struts a man in red tulle, who moments later vanishes into a hair salon for dogs. Down on the pebbly beach I see the Addams family with their friends: men and women with bouffants, dressed in black, Victorian-style dresses and frock coats chatting happily as they unpack their picnic blankets and Tupperware containers.
“Goths love Brighton,” Nicholls explains. “They are magically attracted to the combination of conservative look and liberal values.” Icons of the Gothic movement are sighted quite often in Brighton and the neighboring town of Hove. Nick Cave at the supermarket, or Robert Smith, The Cure’s frontman, in his garden, where he allegedly grows his own roses. DJ Fatboy Slim and singer Adele have houses here. “Everyone knows where the celebrities live but nobody asks for an autograph,” says Nicholls. After all, they are just the most famous examples of unconventional types like Nicholls who have not lost their enthusiasm for having fun, for “senseless” silliness and for experimentation.
So just when did this playful spirit enter Brighton? Well, it was certainly already there by the late 18th century. Brighton was an elegant seaside resort, and the heir to the throne, later King George IV, had been sent there to take a saltwater cure for “swollen neck glands,” a circumstance he was actually quite happy about because he greatly disliked the stiff receptions and exchanging of courtesies at court. But once in Brighton, he soon neglected his therapeutic duties and turned instead to games of chance, the theater and horse racing. He became a permanent visitor and began building a classical pavilion in 1787. Between 1815 and 1823, he extended it, building the Indian-style palace on the English Channel where we found Nicholls hooping. No one ever called it a palace, however. It was only known as “The Royal Pavilion,” a small, temporary structure for a never-ending series of royal celebrations.
The Royal Pavilion is truly a crazy building. It looks as if a child had picked out various fashionable elements from past periods and combined them with little regard for whether or not they suited each other. The result is a collage of Indian pomp, Asian kitsch and cheap ostentation. The exterior: Indian domes and sand-colored walls boasting intricate but unfussy detail. The interior: manic ornamentation. The narrow entrance hall is hung with mirrors to make it look larger, and Chinese porcelain figurines have been placed between them. The walls are decorated with Asian-inspired bird drawings. Behind the sofas and the beds are hidden doors to secret passageways. George IV allegedly used these in his latter years, when he no longer wished to be seen in public. The passages end in the stables, and the monarch is said to have secretly gone riding at night. Hardly an exemplary ruler, he left the work of governing the country to his prime minister.
Even today, Brighton is governed differently than the rest of the country. Caroline Lucas, the only Green party MP in the House of Commons, hails from Brighton. She defied the Westminster Hall dress code by showing up for a public debate on sexism in a T-shirt bearing a provocative slogan. “Lucas is the headwind against which the men in gray suits push,” says Heike Feldpausch, a German expat who has lived in Brighton for 20 years. She came as an art student and is now involved in marketing for a wind machine manufacturer. Feldpausch is often seen around town on her bike. Once a year, she takes part in the Naked Bike Ride, in which hundreds of people participate either fully or partly nude. It’s a playful form of protest that began ten years ago with just a handful of people. “We ride naked to show that we are vulnerable,” the 44-year-old explains, “but I also want to call attention to climate change.” Feldpausch makes her own creative costumes. Sometimes she goes as a hippyesque field of flowers, sometimes as a cloud or a fish. “Being politically active and having fun are not polar opposites,” she says – at least not in Brighton. “There are many extravagant souls living here, who are open to new ideas.”
There are many extravagant souls open to new ideas
Ruth Allsop is one of them, or at least she used to be. The 46-year-old is at a burlesque show in the Proud Cabaret, a 1920s- style club. On stage, a woman who looks a little bit like Josephine Baker undresses suggestively and is soon wearing nothing but a corset and a feather boa. Up above, the domed roof of the club is adorned with painted Hindu gods, and down here, beside Allsop’s seat, lies a square slab of concrete. “That once was a grave,” she says, “and this room was the mausoleum of a rich merchant who now lies buried in a cemetery.” Allsop and a couple of friends discovered this space and organized some of the first parties.
Today, gay men hold weddings receptions here, bachelorettes celebrate themselves and burlesque dancers celebrate life. “Sure, you’ll find all of this in London, too,” says Allsop, “but life there is anonymous and stressful, and people hide behind their work. Brighton, on the other hand, is a big village where everyone knows everyone else.” That’s why she stayed. She works as a marketing manager and has two children who she likes to take to the Pier, an amusement park that is open all year round. They ride the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster. “Brighton is like a giant playground,” she says, “for adults as well as children.”
Souvenirs from Sussex
All in the mix
Blue Bird Tea has over 80 blends, and offers blending courses, too.
The fresh aroma of Brighton Gin is like that of a fresh sea breeze.
The Rizzlekids combine retro hip-hop with pop elements.
Choccywoccydoodah sculpts fantastic, towering cakes.
Tip: The Duke of York’s Picturehouse is one of the oldest cinemas in the world. It has changed very little since 1910 except that the seats are now a little more comfortable than they used to be.