Though I lived in Tunbridge Wells in nearby Kent for about six months in 1988 I never got around to seeing East Sussex. Most things I was interested in at the time were in London and there was not much time left for exploring the south coast. The closest I got to Sussex was a signpost to East Grinstead and the name of that town did not suggest anything worth finding out more about. However more recently a good friend moved to Eastbourne from Australia and I’m slowly getting to know that part of the world better. I was back there again after a visit to Ireland for Christmas.
The only thing I used to know about Eastbourne was its annual women’s tennis tournament warm-up for Wimbledon and the fact it was full of old people. Eastbourne still has the tennis but is slowly shedding the “God’s Waiting Room” image. The 2011 census shows a population of 100,000 up 10% in 10 years with the average age decreasing as it attracts more students, commuters to London and Brighton and families (like my friend’s). It’s a relatively new town but it has old buildings such as St Mary’s The Virgin Church dating in part to the 12th century. The church is on the slope of the Bourne stream, that gave the town its name. Next door is The Lamb, parts of which also date to the 12th century. The Lamb is one of the oldest pubs in England, originally built as a clergy house to house monks who gave alms to the poor of Eastbourne.
The night I arrived a gale was blowing in from the Channel bringing heavy rain but the weather improved enough the following day for an outing. I told my friend I’d never been to Brighton so we hopped on the bus to take us there along the coast. We caught glimpses through the window of the choppy sea and parts of Beachy Head, the 100 million year-old white cliffs that look so much like Dover’s, it occasionally stands in for them in movies. Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising 162 metres above sea level. The name has nothing to do with a beach but a corruption of the original French words “beau chef” meaning beautiful headland.
Another sight from the bus were the oxbow laves of Cuckmere Haven. Oxbow lakes are U-shaped bodies of water that form when a wide meander from the main stem of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water, resembling the pin of the bow that wraps around oxen. The floodplains at the mouth of the Cuckmere leads to the chalky cliffs and its walks are popular with tourists.
After an hour our bus delivered us to Brighton. The city is renowned for its beaches, packed in summer but mostly deserted at the height of winter with big breakers coming in off La Manche (“the sleeve” as the French call the English Channel, linking the Atlantic with the North Sea). Brighton has 13 km of beach within the city limits with hotels lining the promenade. The beach is renowned for its pebbly surface but east of the Pier, a flat sandy foreshore is exposed at low tide. The city council owns the beaches, divided into named sections by groynes—the first of which was completed in 1724.
From previous visits I had been to Eastbourne pier but never to Brighton Pier, or to give it its proper name Brighton Palace Pier. Brighton Pier is familiar from its role in the films Brighton Rock and Quadrophenia. In the mid 19th century railways permitted mass tourism to seaside resorts but large tidal ranges at many resorts meant that the sea was often not visible from dry land. The pleasure pier was the answer, allowing visitors to promenade alongside the sea at all times. The Brighton Chain Pier was built in 1823 it was decrepit by the end of the century and was planned to be demolished to make way for the new Palace Pier. A storm blew it away in 1896 and the Palace Pier was opened in 1899. The pier attractions were tawdry – at least to this observer in January – but the pier remains incredibly popular and the most visited tourist attraction outside London, with over 4.5 million visitors in 2016.
We took a stroll away towards the town centre. To get there we detoured via The Lanes. Before Brighton was the ancient fishing village of Brighthelmstone. At the heart of Brighthelmstone were The Lanes, with a maze of twisting alleyways. These days they host antiques and jewellery shops nestling alongside specialist contemporary and designer boutique fashion. Its name derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Laine” meaning “fields”.
Brighton has been an important centre for commerce and employment since the 18th century. It is home to several major companies, some of which employ thousands of people in creative, digital and new media businesses. Despite job losses across Britain due to automisation and globalisation, in Brighton jobs growth is high – around 11% of existing jobs are in occupations predicted to increase – the third highest of any British city, according to Cities Outlook 2018.
Our destination was the remarkable Royal Pavilion. Beginning in 1787, it was built in three stages as a seaside retreat for George, Prince of Wales, who became Prince Regent in 1811. George loved Asian architecture and the Pavilion is built in the Indo-Saracenic style. Architect John Nash extended the building from 1815 adding the domes and minarets. Frederick Crace’s amazing interior design is jaw-dropping and the tour is recommended but photos are not allowed inside. The Pavilion was a royal palace until the time of Victoria, who hated the building and the city that housed it. “The people here are very indiscreet and troublesome,” she said. Brighton City Council bought it in 1850 and immediately opened it as a tourist attraction. It had a poignant re-use during the First World War as a hospital for recovering Indian soldiers who must have felt some ironic nostalgia for being placed there.
My friend then whisked me off by bus to Lewes, the ancient market town and country town of East Sussex. It was too late to check out the castle so he took me to the nearby Lewes Arms, whose website claims it is the home to ” pea throwing, poetry and pantomime – not forgetting the famous dwyle flunking match”. The English game of dwyle flunking involves two teams of 12 players each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team. Ah those mad English!
The town’s other claim to fame is the home of Harvey’s Real Ale brewery on the banks of the river Ouse. The brewery is an eighth-generation family business, with John Harvey first supplying wine and port to customers in Lewes in 1794. By 1811, his wine and brandy shipping business is well established “at the foot of Cliffe Bridge”. He began brewing as a seasonal sideline activity in 1820 and acquired the Bridge Wharf Site in 1838 where he added coal to his business activities and built an eight-quarter brewhouse. John Harvey’s Best Bitter remains popular around the region and when the aforementioned Lewes Arms was bought out by a rival brewery and stopped selling it in 2006, regulars staged a boycott leading to a humiliating backdown by pub owners. It’s not a bad drop but I preferred it mixed half and half with Harvey’s Old, what locals call “mother-in-law”. Any apprehension I had of asking for two pints of mother-in-law had disappeared by the third pint in the cosy Harvey’s pub next to the brewery. The only hard part was heading out in the cold air and grabbing a late night train back to Eastbourne to end the adventure.