IT had been a harder day than usual at the Conservative Party conference. File the early stuff, then hit the bar in the Brighton Centre at 11 o'clock, breaking off only to have a few pints and a salt beef sandwich for lunch at the Hole in the Wall – aka the Marquess of Queensberry Arms. Then a quick call into the press office to pick up the latest pre-packaged ministerial speeches for browsing back in the Brighton Centre bar.
‘Never make the mistake of imagining that Brighton is some kind of Blackpool for soft southerners. Nothing could be further from the truth’
All done by six and time for a snooze before attacking the last night of the week; only Maggie Thatcher’s speech to come tomorrow. But as it happened, when my alarm went off at 10pm the rigours of the day kicked in.
Carousing on the last night of the fourth political conference in successive weeks (SDP, Liberals, Labour then Tories) suddenly lost its appeal. I turned over and tried to get back to sleep. Only I couldn't. Midnight passed. Then one, two – and as the clock approached three, an unmistakeable sound shattered the night. Boom...crash! An explosion followed by the sound of falling masonry.
It was 2.54am on October 12 1984: I'd just heard the sound of the IRA's attempting to assassinate Prime MInister Thatcher and her British Cabinet.
I sprinted down the seafront and saw how close Patrick Magee had come to succeeding in his mission. Next door to the conference centre the Grand Hotel, where leading figures in the government and their husbands and wives were staying, was, as ever, floodlit.
But an ugly, jagged gash now scarred the white, wedding cake façade of the hotel, one of Brighton’s most iconic landmarks. Five people died that night and many more were injured, some seriously. Mrs T made her defiant speech the next afternoon and the rest, as they say, is history.
I spent a week in Brighton just about every year between 1981 and 2004 on the political bandwagon, Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat, but never actually stayed at the Grand, usually booked out for party grandees.
So, in the 30th year after that traumatic night, checking in at the hotel’s splendid lobby for a weekend break was a long-anticipated pleasure. Co-incidentally I'd seen the movie Quadrophenia a few nights earlier in which the King of the Mods, played by Sting turned out to be Grand Hotel bell hop.
While the magnificent, chandelier-hung lounge and bar were very familiar to me – usually at least 10-deep until the early hours during conference nights – our third floor room with its ornate wrought-iron balcony overlooking the sea offered a new luxurious take on one of the most famous seaside hotels in Britain.
Designed in the Victorian Italianate style by John Whichcord and opened in precisely 150 years ago to cater for toffs taking in the sea air, the Grand was only the third building in the country and the first outside London to boast a “vertical omnibus” – hydraulic lift to you and me.
The hotel was closed for two years after the bombing and the construction of an extension in 1993 brought the number of rooms to 201. But it's the recent comprehensive refurbishment programme, interrupted by the recession but now complete, that has transformed the rooms to their former glory – though in elegant contemporary style – and seen the rebranding of its restaurant into GBI, a chic modern dining experience that majors in what Brighton has always done best, seafood.
Not only was the weekend my first stay at the Grand, it was my first visit to Brighton outside of a conference week (and Mrs K’s first ever). Thus I could cast off the political blinkers and be free of the heavy security imposed on political gatherings since 1984 to enjoy the attractions of the one-time Sussex fishing village of Brighthelmstone that became “London-by-the-Sea”.
Despite the massive mid-19th Century surge in popularity, much survives that predates Queen Victoria, not least Prince Regent’s magnificently idiotic Pavilion, an extravaganza of Mogul domes and minarets. It stands at one end of the fascinating quarter known as “The Lanes”, where narrow traffic-free winding streets are teeming with inviting restaurants, jewellers, chocolatiers off-the-wall fashion shops and proper pubs.
The Palace Pier, lined with entertainments, thrives, while a mile or so to the west, a pleasant beach-level stroll past lively bars and the Fishing Museum, all that remains of the historic, older, West Pier – wrecked by storms and fire – is a gaunt skeleton. Just inland a series of interlocking Regency squares offer a glimpse of period elegance that no amount of Brighton rock can disguise.
Despite the obvious trappings of a traditional British seaside resort – the aforementioned rock, chippies, piers, entertainments and deck chairs on the beach – never make the mistake of imagining that Brighton is some kind of Blackpool for soft southerners. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Brighton is a vibrant sophisticated university city, welcoming to its spirited gay community, successfully commercial and Bohemian at the same time. And the people are thinner. A lot thinner – and they can afford some pretty stiff drinks prices. On a sunny Saturday afternoon the beach – all pebbles, shelving and useless for kids – was heaving, with thousands more chilling out in open air bars along its length featuring some pretty damn good live music.
On the first night we dined in GB1, last year's effortlessly stylish modern makeover of what had been a rather stuffy King's Restaurant. In its new light, airy and contemporary guise, GB1’s philosophy is quality and simplicity, offering a great choice of the finest and freshly caught seafood from Brighton’s shores along with classic English cuisine, with contemporary touches, constantly updated by Executive Chef, Alan White’s brigade.
The striking Lobster Burger is a must try at GB1 as is the Fruits De Mer and an oyster or two. The seasonally changing menu also boasts meats from the grill and classic Sussex favourites along with vegetarian dishes, too. My Brill was just that – brill – while my wife’s locally caught korma-marinated monkfish with fragrant rice was tip top.
Next night we ate royally at the Greek-owned Regency, endorsed by Rick Stein and Jay Rayner – one of several excellent, modestly priced fish restaurants on the sea front near the West Pier – where the catch, always wonderfully fresh and varied, yielded superb lemon sole and halibut steak.
For a different take on the resort: Neil Sowerby’s Dog-friendly Brighton.
Further information, current rates and latest available deals: The Grand Hotel, 97-99 King’s Road, Brighton BN1 2FW. Tel 01273 224300; www.grandbrighton.co.uk.
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