Brighton is a place that’s pretty dear to me. I was born there but lived in a town further down the railway, visiting often to visit the beach and the pier (and once to the Dolphinarium before it became a Sea Life Centre.)
Despite my history and fondness for the place, I’d never actually visited it by myself and wandered about in my own inimitable style. I also has a fancy to visit The Royal Pavilion, having visited when I was 8 or so, but having a lot more knowledge of the 18th century and regency periods than I did then.
I hopped on the train at London Bridge and had a very easy ride to Brighton. There’s a magical moment on that route when the train goes into a tunnel through one of the South Downs and bursts out the other side. Very often, if it’s a little muggy and cloudy in London, the Downs shelter the sea side and you find yourself in brilliant sunshine, with Brighton being recorded as one of the sunniest Cities in the country.
Once off the train, rather than trammelling straight to the sea, I wandered around the houses and came upon the Church of St Nicholas of Myra, its original parish church. In the graveyard I came across the grave if Martha Gunn, one of the ‘dippers’ who would carry women out of bathing machines and dunk them in the sea. She lived till she was 88. There was also the grave of Phoebe Hessel, a woman who enlisted with her lover into the 5th Regiment of Foot, where she had a distinguished service and was bayonetted in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. She retired to Brighton, where she gave evidence against a robber and died at the age of 108. The sea air did both ladies some good.
After a little more wandering, I went to the Pavilion. It’s a little pricey at £18, though the ticket lasts all year (for whatever good that is). There are a number of options available to experience it; to buy a detailed (but also pricey) guidebook, to buy an audio-guide, to download it on a phone for free or to just wander and talk to the guides in the rooms. I recommend the guides. I highly recommend them. Each one I talked to had a fantastic range of knowledge but also clearly into certain aspects and that element of personality really raised the experience and made it worth it.
The Royal Pavilion is ridiculous - ‘Indian’ on the outside and ‘Chinese’ inside, and clearly all imagined by Brits. Oliver Goldsmith, in The Citizen of the World has his Chinese narrator laugh at the horrendous taste of English Chinoiserie with all the ‘sprawling dragons, squatting pagods and clumsy manderines’, something he wrote forty years before the Pavilion was begun. It’s a daft, tasteless and garish place which piles on so much excess that it kind of works.
Originally a simple farmhouse, Prince George had it done up into the Marine Pavilion in a French style. Later he had John Nash turn the outside into a Taj-Mahal-esque wonderland. Rather than rebuild exactly, Nash created steel frames to go around the original house and then build on. Some of this worked very well but a lot of it was short-sighted, being murder to upkeep. At one point, missing minarets were replaced with fibreglass versions but now renovations and maintenance is a constant work, using the same materials Nash used. In some ways, this already artificial building is more artificial. When Queen Victoria decided to abandon the palace, finding it too exposed and cramped, she stripped it of the original fixtures and fittings. Many of them have been put back by the Royal Family, but many are replicas. The music room in particular has been restored after an arson attack, something which took eleven years to restore before the Great Storm of 1989 blew on of the minarets through the roof.
Yet that adds to the pleasure of the experience. The striking rooms are truly striking. The Banqueting Room features a huge chandelier held up by a dragon. Apparently. the dragon was originally made for a chandelier commissioned by the actual Emperor of China but sent back because it has wings. The Music Room also has amazing chandeliers, and a roof covered in scales. The other grand room is the Saloon Room, with a huge, bright sunflower carpet in the middler. Oddly, the corridors linking these rooms, with their muted colours and thick-pile carpets look a little like an unfashionable hotel and the building does seem peculiarly dingy when not in one of the grand spaces.
Even the kitchen is themed, with the pillars shaped like palm trees. The kitchen was fitted up with all the latest technologies at the time, with a jack that turns by its own steam rather than clockwork or a poor dog. This impressive kitchen was largely created to tempt Marie-Antoine Carême, ‘the king of chef and the chef of kings’ to cook there. This worked for a while but his practices irritated the other staff. One thing he did which upset the usual order, was insist that all the food created under his aegis belonged to him and all left-overs were his prerogative. The kitchen staff were used to using left-overs for themselves, and to make extra by selling left-overs to local hotels. The local poor were also invited to take left-overs (like the old lady in The Belly of Paris) and one of these was Martha Gunn, who was once caught trying to smuggle butter in her dress.
The other rooms include George’s private apartments, the ones he had when he was King and his gout wouldn’t let him climb stairs, and the private apartment of Queen Victoria, who had many mattresses. She made a very good point about the Pavilion, for a royal palace created near the sea, there are hardly any rooms that is can be viewed from. Indeed, there’s almost nothing nautical about Prince George’s seaside retreat.
I left the Royal Pavilion with my republican and leveller sentiments re-entrenched, but also a peculiar gratitude that George had at least done something fun and ridiculous with his absurd income.
The rest of the day was devoted to indulgence. I wandered the seafront, drank local bitter at the marina and enjoyed a fish mixed-grill with chips and mushy peas opposite the skeletal West Pier - that’s another thing that’s changed, when I was a kid it still looked like a building.
Eventually, I went back to the station and back home to London, a little pinkier, a mite poorer but a great deal happier.