Some secrets of Brighton

Secrets are generally things held by individuals, are little known and are things that people don’t want known. Brighton is one of the UK’s seemingly best-known places and a location visited by so many people in such large numbers every year – over 10 million per annum still. However, scratch beneath the surface and Brighton can be a dark, brooding, secretive and mysterious place. Towns at the end of the line always are; there is something exciting about a place where 180 degrees of your options for movement are wet, increasingly deep, dark and dangerous.

Brighton is also not just a place on the edge, it has sometimes nearly been pushed over the edge. Invaded by Saxons, Vikings and Normans, each of whom left not just their place names but a bloody footprint, Brighton (or Brighthelmstone as it was until 1810) was nearly wiped off the map by the French, economic downturns and most of all the encroaching waves. The sea led to Brighthelmstone being nearly abandoned with 113 buildings washed away in 1665 and dozens more in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Defoe, who knew a few things about waterside locations, questioned whether the investment needed to pay for coastal defences to save the town was worth spending.

It was then saved by the same waves, this time however as a substance for the rich to be dunked under, to swim in, promenade beside and even to drink with milk. Dr Richard Russell’s decision to treat his wealthiest patients with his sea cures in his hydro at his nearest low-lying established coastal settlement accelerated the town’s recovery but also the idea of spending time by the seaside. The fact that the first visitors were extensively wealthy meant that the secrets were linked with court intrigues and affairs. The secrecy that wealth could buy meant that from its earliest days Brighton was built as a place of gossip, scandal and intrigue. Brighton became fashionable as people copied the Prince Regent, himself escaping the watchful eyes of court so that he could indulge in whatever secretive and scandalous behaviour or relationships he chose. He chose, of course, to engage in his on-off secret marriage with Mrs Fitzherbert away from his father’s gaze. So those who copied the prince by moving to Brighton were moving, or at least visiting, based on a pack of secrets.

Many people don’t know that despite being on the south coast, Brighton has spread out not only northerly, westerly and easterly but southerly since its earliest days. Also little known is that its southerly fishing community, which was based on the beach, was washed away by the 1700s due to erosion and horrendous storms. An early drawing of Richard Russell’s house, pictured here was precariously perched on crumbling chalk cliffs, whereas today the Royal Albion Hotel that has replaced it is safely inland behind a dual carriageway, promenade, esplanade and a wide shingle beach. Brighton was being eroded northwards, its chalk cliffs offering little protection from the encroaching tides, but the building of the coastal King’s Road (paid for by George IV, hence the name), sturdy groynes and tidal deposition in between these, means Brighton has since moved southwards further out over the sea than the old fishing dwellings beneath the cliffs ever did. Should you believe in the spiritual, these hardy fishing folk, who would have lost their lives in droves in the storms of the eighteenth century, don’t inhabit the area where the sea now is, but instead our sewer tunnels and space under our coastal road, built outwards over where the sea once lapped.

We forget that where the Madeira Terraces now stand, the cliffs underneath, encased in cement and awaiting a much-needed restoration at time of writing, were once the shoreline. We also forget that these chalk cliffs, always referred to on early maps (the area where the Metropole is today was once ‘West Laine Cliff Butts’ for example) have been not only encased under concrete and tarmac, but are part of the same cliffs that make up the cliffs at Peacehaven, the Seven Sisters and indeed even Beachy Head.

Brighton has lost not just its beach-dwelling fishing village, but also a village high up on the Downs. Balsdean, near Woodingdean, was a Saxon village that survived the Vikings and the Normans but was evacuated in the Second World War so that the artillery could use its rural buildings as targets in preparation for D-Day. Balsdean once had a manor house, cricket pitch, barns, lunatic asylum and even a chapel. It also had pluck. It reputedly was where Sussex yeomen stood their ground and stopped invading Frenchmen reaching Lewes in 1377 after the destruction of Rottingdean.

Heading under the land, Brighton has numerous tunnels – Kemp Town’s is one of the most secretive and was believed to be a smugglers’ tunnel, as is one that led towards the Druid’s Head. The Kemp Town tunnel, which has since collapsed and been filled in, gained its reputation partly due to the publicity campaign by Magnus Volk when his electric railway was extended. Volk was allowed to extend his original railway as he was forced to move the westwards end station eastwards for a planned swimming pool that never was built. The extension was also partially allowed as recompense for the treatment Volks received by the council over his ‘Daddy Long Legs’, where his seagoing railway was forced to be rerouted around new groynes, effectively meaning that it had to close. Black Rock, before the days of the construction of the mammoth marina, was a wild and windswept place and it was easy for Volks to claim the tunnel had been a smugglers’ route. The truth was far less exciting. In the 1820s, the tunnel was needed for the building of Kemp Town. Its supremely wealthy residents were far from the sort that would countenance illicit imports to the country, but the construction of the estate meant that large amounts of building materials had to be brought by sea. In the days before the railways, much of Brighton’s resources were brought into the town across the beach. Kemp Town even had its own temporary marina as the estate was being built, such a huge building project it was. It was big enough to bankrupt its financier, Thomas Kemp MP, who ended up dying in poverty in France. The Pavilion was also rumoured to have an underground tunnel to everywhere, including the Druid’s Head and the Market Inn, then called the Three Chimneys after its ownership by the Pavilion’s head chimneysweep.

Not surprisingly, considering the Prince Regent’s drinking habits, there is even rumoured to be a tunnel from the Pavilion to the shop that sold booze on the corner of Church Street and New Road! Roedean has a tunnel built in 1910 to the sea. Southern Water have built a tunnel 5 kilometres long and 6 metres wide under the whole of Brighton and Hove, following the line of the coast but it is not a secret; instead it exists to prevent storm water entering the sea straight from Brighton’s drains without being treated first to make it nice and clean. A more magical tunnel in Brighton must be the small one in Sussex Square that goes to the sea. It is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll when he saw a rabbit disappear down it. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland therefore owes something to our waterside wonderland of Brighton! The Daddy Long Legs mentioned earlier, which travelled across the land at low tide (and also through the sea at high tide) is also said to have inspired H. G. Wells to create the aliens in The War Of The Worlds (1898).

Moving from below the earth to 400 feet above it, the land high above Brighton is where the earliest Brightonians were buried. This is in a causewayed enclosure, which was some sort of camp for feasting and rituals, but not, it seems, a military defence. The camp is over 1,000 years older than Stonehenge, dating from the Neolithic part of the Stone Age (c. 4000 BC–2500 BC). The remains of a young woman and her newborn child told us much about this era, but also provided us with questions we may perhaps never answer, such as why were they buried, did they die of natural causes and why were they buried with animal bones and other rubbish? Was this a punishment for a young mother back at a time when children were lucky to make it into adulthood? The fact the mother was buried with an ox bone, two fossil sea urchins (called shepherds’ crowns) and two chalk ‘pendants’ with holes drilled in them perhaps suggests otherwise – these were probably good-luck talismans for the afterlife. The remains are at Brighton Museum should you wish to make your own mind up.

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