STING RAYS, SUN RAYS AND REGENCY IN BRIGHTON
My children had never been to Brighton until this week. To be honest, I have only been a light sprinkling of times myself – perhaps three or four – although we live only about an hour’s drive away in good traffic. When we were dragging ourselves through the monotony of half of February and the whole of March at school with a lot of gloomy, wet days to go before the next holiday the topic of Brighton came up and the children jumped at the prospect. We had chosen the date to go some while ago and even a few days before the forecast was cloudy and rather chilly which I figured meant that at least the place might not be overcrowded. In fact we got lovely warm sunshine and it wasn’t even that busy, possibly because local schools did not seem to have broken up yet.
To be honest, one of the things that puts me off going to Brighton is the parking which I had heard was expensive and hard to find, unless you park at the Marina which is, apparently free, but a bit of a walk. One thing that fills me with dismay is the idea of driving around an unfamiliar town, with unexpected one-way systems, with lots of other cars who realise I am an ignorant idiot and then having to find a needle in a hay-stack by way of a parking space which might well involve finally squeezing my car into a tiny gap, possibly next to a pillar or a Lamborghini. I had planned on trying to work out how to get to the Marina and then jollying the children along with sweets but I discovered that there is actually a Park and Ride just off the A23. You can park for free at the sports centre and then catch the number 27 bus into town. It cost £6.30 return for the three of us which was worth it for peace of mind alone.
We got off at the Clock Tower, about five minutes walk from the Royal Pavilion. My elder daughter is embarking on a new period of her life as a ‘home-schooler’ from now until she goes to secondary school and we have picked the Georgian period for our history topic so it was a happy coincidence that our trip would include the epitome of Regency opulence and excess. I had booked tickets online in advance for the 10% discount and to avoid long queues. In fact, we walked straight in and could have bought tickets at the desk if we had needed to. There were lots of groups of foreign students pouring through but these had also all pre-booked and so didn’t clog up the reception area. In fact, most of them went in and out of the Pavilion like a dose of salts, hardly deviating from staring straight ahead as they speed marched through, audio-guides pressed to their ears…
The audio guides were £2 each to hire but were excellent. My younger daughter had hers set to the children’s recorded guide and my elder daughter had hers changed to the adult recording after a minute when she realised the children’s version was a little simplistic and childish for her. She says the guide was ‘very informative’ but her sister gleaned a lot from hers as well. There was a children’s trail where you needed to spot certain items as you went through the palace but the children were too busy listening to the guides to do them and we had also forgotten to bring a pencil and we weren’t offered one at the desk. The lady in the gift shop gave them a sticker each anyway, which was kind.
The Pavilion was built by George IV while he was still the Prince of Wales, starting before his Regency to King George III and continued during the Regency period. In 1815 George had John Nash transform the already extravagant and exotic Marine Pavilion into a creation on a larger and even more opulent scale. George’s existing Pavilion already had an oriental theme heavily influenced by English visions of the unknown and unseen Far East; this was expanded to extreme heights of luxury in the reimagined palace. Today, walking into the Banqueting Room to see glittering chandeliers held aloft in a vast, decorative dome by twisting dragons, huge lamp stands, rich red drapes, every possible care and expense taken with paintings and and a vast table which would once have groaned with around a hundred dishes per meal, it is astonishing to think that real people once sat and ate their in their finery. The palace was too public and rather too pokey for Queen Victoria’s growing family and, moreover, despite being ‘tantaslising[ly]’ close to the sea it did not afford even a glimpse of it. On top of this, the palace was so extravagant in its epicurean-ism that living there had a sort of uncomfortable and embarrassing sense of decadence, the result of the unpopular George’s profligacy with which Victoria did not wish to associate her own reign. In 1850 she sold it to the town of Brighton for £50,000 making it the only Royal Palace not owned by the Crown. The town authorities opened it to the public and at one point the first town library opened there. During WWI it served as a military hospital for members of the Indian Army. The photos and paintings of the Music Room filled with hospital beds are incredible.
In the twentieth century the Pavilion was gradually restored to its current condition, the gardens following suite in the 1980s and ’90s, being replanted according to records from the Regency period. Now it is a remarkable window into a lost world or, perhaps, not a world but a cabinet of curiosities owned by a privileged and financially reckless man who opened it to a select company over the period of a few roaring years. It is not to my taste and, probably, not to the aesthetic preference of many modern visitors but it is a fascinating record of the Regency and definitely worth seeing. That said, I don’t think very young children would get very much out of the experience as it is without the exerted efforts of many historic properties these day to engage younger visitors and allow them to be really hands-on. It is necessarily a very much ‘look but don’t touch’ property.
After our tour we emerged into the sunshine hungry and ready for lunch. I had done a bit of research about good fish and chip shops in Brighton nut the affordable take-away options that scored well on Trip Advisor (Bardsley’s and Banker’s, for example) were quite a walk from the Pavilion, or at least, seemed to be. We headed for the Harry Ramsden’s near the pier and popped into its take-away counter before quickly popping out again when we realised that the menu on the wall didn’t quite seem to tally up with what it was actually serving and rather put off by the idea of carrying cardboard cups of Pepsi (urgh!) and our meals across two busy roads to get back to the beach. In the end, for the sake of immediacy, we ended up at Seasiders right next the the pier which actually scored four stars overall on Trip Advisor but whose very proximity to the pier made me suspect it wasn’t going to be the of the highest quality. It cost a rather extortionate £21-something to eat there – one cod and chip, a chicken nuggets and chips, and a single portion of chips plus three bottles of drink – more than a delicious take-away from my favourite Rockfish in Dartmouth. To be fair, this was only a semi take-away as we could sit at one of the many outside tables. The chips just tasted of oil and refused to absorb vinegar but my younger daughter ate all hers and my left overs so at least we had eaten fairly stress-free aside from a fizzing coke bottle.
We spent the next hour and a half just lounging about on the beach, playing with pebbles and chatting. Maybe one of us might have dozed off for ten minutes… It is very odd but you just couldn’t hear the sea. It was there and you could look at it but it seemed silent. It wasn’t even that it was drowned out by noise pollution as the beach was far from crowded and the music from the pier was consistent but distant.
At half three we walked the short distance to Sea Life Brighton. We had timed tickets for a later entry because they were significantly cheaper. I regret going with the Best value ticket deal rather than the Basic Saver package because the advantages were, apparently, fast-tracking, 15% off in the gift shop and a free ‘pop-badge’ but, in fact, there was no queue and even if there had been I can’t see how we could have been fast-tracked because all the pre-booked tickets were meant to be collected from the same desk, although when I approached it the man sitting behind it waived me back to the main desk with the air of one who is slightly embarrassed for someone else’s faux pas. The pop-badges were badges that have no pin but could be fastened to one’s clothing with the pop-out frame but they were hard to use and would have pulled at whatever you were wearing. They were basically a waste of plastic which is a shame as Sea Life is full of information on environmental issues.
To be honest, if I had read some of the worst reviews on Trip Advisor before we went to Brighton I am not sure I would have taken the risk and booked us into such an expensive attraction. I am so glad I didn’t; the three of us loved it! Even as we went in I was beginning to think I had made a mistake. The lady on the front desk asked us if we wanted to book tickets for the glass-bottomed boat, a novelty the girls had already seen advertised outside and were very excited about. Of course they said yes at once but the tickets would have cost us another £12 on top of the £37-odd we had already paid for entrance and a guide book (which was not worth £3!). Then when we entered we were immediately made to sit down and have our photos taken against a couple of back-drops for purchase later on which got my hackles up even further. We entered a long room lined with tanks and with a few further tanks in the middle of the room. I thought that was it and kept exhorting the children to take their time, worried that it would all be over in half an hour, but there were additional areas beyond that and we stayed ages, visiting many of the tanks several times.
Aside from ordinary tanks of interesting fish, there were sea horses; a walk through
tunnel of tiny tropical fish; a rain forest section with piranhas, an anaconda, turtles and lizards; a huge tunnel where you could watch the huge rays and giant turtles swim right overhead and a viewing area where you could view they from above, the rays skimming past just below. There was a rock pool tank where children could touch starfish and sea anemones. It was so interesting and exciting. My younger daughter told me that she was so happy she just couldn’t stop smiling. I was bemused by reviews that said that the whole thing was boring. I agree that it was expensive, that some areas looked a little shabby, that the attempts to get yet more money out of you seemed mean-spirited when directed at children but not that it was boring. I don’t know whether some children are just too used to screen entertainment and that reality consequently falls short of their expectations but even as an adult I certainly found it enjoyable and interesting. Later in the day was also the best time to go because it was quiet and there was lots of space and opportunity to look at everything. The cafe closed at five and a lots of the staff seemed to melt away; it even seemed darker so perhaps they dim the lighting. If I had arrived at four thirty this might have impacted my visit but as it was we had plenty of time.
Towards the end of our visit my daughter realised that she had lost our expensive guidebook and was very upset. We looked for it but couldn’t find it. The man who had taught them about the rock pool creatures very kindly found her a free replacement. We did buy a £4 necklace in the gift shop but forgot to use our 15% discount, which is possibly fair enough as we had been given the guidebook. The necklace broke the next day but can be easily mended with a pair of pliers. Still, I am glad we didn’t buy anything else. To sum up, the actual Sea Life centre is a brilliant outing as a one-off, expensive treat but resist any attempts to get you to pay more on top. You don’t need a posed photo (especially as you can take photos freely without a flash), you don’t need to use their cafe, you don’t need the guidebook because it really doesn’t tell you that much extra information, you don’t need fast track or a pop-badge and you don’t need the glass-bottomed boat ride because you can be just as close to the fish in the tunnel and viewing area. You probably don’t need a £4 necklace either!
On the way to the bus stop we called in at Scoop and Crumb for ice creams (we went for Proper Chockywocky and Italian Espresso Cream but if I had seen the Roasted Plum Crumble or Eton Mess I might well have gone for them!) which were delicious. The shop has a lot of indoor seating and serves sundaes, waffles, cakes, drinks and hot dogs but we took our cones to take away and ate them in the sunny Pavilion gardens.
When we go to the bus stop at about 5.45 pm we found a 29 minute wait for our bus so it is worth noting that the park and ride bus becomes much less frequent in the early evening and later. Fortunately the stop is just across from a Waterstones that was open til 7 pm and has a fabulous children’s section! For once we did not buy anything, having already spent a small fortune, but there was so much choice, There were so many hard-to-find favourites that I would have loved to buy if I didn’t already have them. It really is worth a visit if you are in Brighton.
Eventually we boarded our bus, got back to our car and drove home in an hour, having missed all the rush-hour traffic. We had a wonderful day that we will be talking about for months to come.