UNFULFILLED desires. I’ve had a few. We won’t go into names. How many times have I gazed up at the gleaming white facade of the Grand Brighton, particularly the upper level sea-facing balconies, and thought but if only?
Even a couple of years ago when we stayed at the chic and chichi boutique Hotel Una around the corner in a Regency Square I couldn’t resist straying into the Grand’s very period ground floor Victoria Lounge and posing like Hercule Poirot investigating the scene of the crime. The crime I had never committed – of staying there. Which I finally managed this summer.
A Grand EntranceFunny it all seemed so recognisable. Perhaps because it has provided plenty of location shots in its time (though I don’t believe it figured in either film version of Brighton Rock). Coronation Street, East Enders and Only Fools and Horses have all shot episodes in the hotel, now run by the De Vere chain.
They took it over long after the greatest Grand drama of them all, forever associated with it – the October 1984 IRA bombing. Five people were killed and 34 injured in the blast timed to coincide with the Tory Party’s annual conference. The terrorists’ main target Margaret Thatcher escaped unscathed.
Widespread damage was caused to the 200-room seafront landmark, but it reopened in 1986 – 120 years after it was built to accommodate visitors as the railway’s arrival turned ever-fashionable Brighton into a tourist boomtown.
Louche and laid-back the resort has never really gone out of fashion. Easily mocked these days as London by the Sea, with rubberneckers name-checking Brighton habitues Nick Cave or Fatboy Slim in Waitrose, it seems to constantly renew itself with cutting edge lodgings and eateries.
Which should have left the Grande Dame of them all high and dry. My worry on finally checking in for real was: Would the wrinkles show despite the recent De Vere facelift?
When does lived-in period become dowdy? Certainly, I was reluctant to settle for a standard room at the back, which I suspected might have a gull’s eye view of a couple of brutalist car parks. Even ascending the fabulous 123-step central sweeping staircase to get there wouldn’t compensate.
Luckily, our hosts had granted my secret wish for a large sea view room on the sixth floor with French windows and a balcony overlooking the beach and both piers – the fun-filled Palace and the burnt-out West's gaunt skeleton. The room itself was large, comfortable and perfect for our needs (it would be perfect for a dirty weekend, but that’s another unfulfilled desire!).
Below us all Brighton life paraded along the prom, from skateboarders to power waddlers, moving relentlessly west towards Hove. Busy, busy. We were never going to be the only pebble on the beach. Here’s a few of the things we did or almost did and recommend you to do in Brighton.
Couldn't Be FresherDine out
Brighton’s full of excellent places to eat, notably lauded veggie Terre a Terre, Gingerman and its string of ginger-themed gastropubs and one one of the better Jamie Olivers, but I’ll especially recommend Due South. Not just for its excellent fresh fish dishes but for its position bang on the beach. Get there early for a front window table, watch the sea lap the shingle, while savouring the catch of the day and an appropriate, affordable wine list. 139 Kings Road Arches BN12 2FN (01273 821218, www.duesouth.co.uk).
Lion And LobsterPub it
Characterful boozers abound. The convivial Lord Nelson Inn (36 Trafalgar Street, one the edge of North Laine) stocks the entire range of Harveys honeyed ales from Lewes, while the Hand in Hand (33 Upper St James’s Street) in gay epicentre Kemptown is reckoned to be the UK’s smallest brewpub. My cosy favourite, though, is a five minute stroll from the Grand and the seafont. The Lion & Lobster (24 Sillwood Street) is an eclectically decorated backstreet local with beers such as Dark Star and Harveys and interesting grub.
Royal PavilionThe Royal Pavilion
A visitor honeypot combining an Indian exterior and a dragon-themed Chinese interior. It was transformed from farmhouse to pleasure palace when the future George IV became Prince Regent in 1811. Its gilt-edge campness – parts resemble Bet Lynch’s boudoir – has benefited from a £10m re-fit. Don’t miss the banqueting hall with its astonishing chandelier, while the Brobdingnagian kitchen is straight out of an upstairs downstairs period drama. www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk/ RoyalPavilion/Pages/home.aspx.
Sea-Life Marine Centre
Still there’s part of me that prefers the tatty, moss-edged delights of the well-stocked Sea-Life Marine Centre (www.sealifeeurope.com), which has a different kind of period charm. Nemo’s Nautilus is the inspiration for the Ocean Tunnel, which allows you to check out sharks and giant turtles overhead. An electric diddy train takes you from here east to Brighton Marina, which I definitely don’t recommend.
Fishing MuseumSalute the old tars
The city’s seafaring legacy is also commemorated in a tiny museum just along the lower promenade from Due South. The Brighton Fishing Museum contains restored traditional Sussex clinker fishing boats and evocative old photographs. If by now the salt tang is in your veins, there are snacks to be had an excellent smokehouse nearby. www.brightonfishingmuseum.org.uk/
North Laine and The Lanes
Poles apart as offbeat shopping bazaars but with ample places to have a pint pulled or an oyster shucked for you if the retail process gets too much for you. The Lanes are full of jewellery and clothes shops, while North Laine further up towards the station on the hill is more leftfield offering masses of junk/collectables, good second hand book and record shops, tarot readings and natural shoe emporia.
The one must-see in my book. It’s a candyfloss and cockles in your face funhouse of a stroll, with fabulous view of the seafront, which might almost be Miami if you squint hard enough. A salutary reminder of the transitoriness of all kiss-me-quick high jinks is the distant fire-wrecked shell of the West Pier, what’s left stranded 50 metres from shore. There are plans for a state of the art ‘Vertical Pier’ on land as a replacement. Views would be great, but where would you chuck your empty whelk carton?
Neil Sowerby travelled to London with Virgin Trains, which runs up to 50 trains a day between Manchester and London. For details of services and fares, including special promotions, visit www.virgintrains.co.uk. For timetable information ring National Rail Enquiries 08457 48 49 50. He travelled from London Victoria to Brighton on the Southern Train service. It takes just over an hour. Visit www.southernrailway.com.
Grand's Beautiful StaircaseGrand Hotel, 97-99 King's Road, Brighton BN1 2FW (www.devere.co.uk/our-locations/the-grand). £245 per room per night, based on Standard Sea View Room, double occupancy to include breakfast. Extras include hiring the De Vere Yacht! More affordable is a Sussex cream tea or a cocktail in the Victoria Lounge. We didn’t dine in the King’s Restaurant, but the promising menus featured lots of fresh local fish. We did get a smashing breakfast under its amazing crystal chandelier.
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