“Brighton is naturally a place of resort for expectants, and a shifty ugly-looking swarm is, of course, assembled here. Some of the fellows, who had endeavoured to disturb our harmony at the dinner at Lewes, were parading, amongst this swarm, on the cliff. You may always know them by their lank jaws, the stiffeners round their necks, their hidden or no shirts, their stays, their false shoulders, hips and haunches, their half-whiskers, and by their skins, colour of veal kidney-suet, warmed a little, and then powdered with dirty dust.” Thus wrote radical pamphleteer William Cobbett in 1822. His disgust at Brighton’s moneyed layabouts is clear and, of course, to be expected of an agitator for political reform. What is striking about this account, however, is Cobbett’s horror at the ethereality of Brighton’s inhabitants. They appear as walking corpses, diseased, mutated and disgusting; at once alive and dead, muddying the boundary between animated body and lifeless corpse. Further, what is truly unpalatable for Cobbett is that these are corpses dressed as humans, attempting to conceal their lifelessness behind deceptively shaped garments and an excess of cosmetics, hiding their withered frames with “false shoulders”, cloaking their deathly pallor in powder and dust. Brighton, at its very heart, is exactly this kind of horrific being. It is a grand, luminous, morbid, shambolic spectre; a city conjured spectacularly out of the ground, seeming almost semi-present yet infinitely beguiling in its immateriality. At its ragged northern and western edges it seems to abruptly dematerialise, giving way suddenly to the rusted tractor-husks of the semi-urban countryside, as though the Wyrd Sister tasked with summoning it from the abyss has been somehow drained of her magical energies. It is at once vividly alive and irreversibly decaying; a living skeleton dressed in a ballgown.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Brighton was not much more than a diminutive and unremarkable fishing village. Daniel Defoe described it thus: “a poor fishing town, old built and at the very edge of the sea.” In fact Brighton was not ‘Brighton’ at all but ‘Brighthelmstone’, a corruption of the Saxon ‘Bristelmestune’ (or thereabouts) – ‘Bristelm’s Farmstead’. This town encompassed what is today known as ‘The Lanes’ or ‘The South Lanes’ (incidentally this name has no relation to the naming of the North Laine, which derives its title from a Sussex dialect word for a tract of land and is singular, not plural), and viewed from above, the area presents a notable contrast to the rest of Brighton. Whereas most of the city (modern suburbs excluded) is comprised of grids of nineteenth and early-twentieth century terraced housing, The Lanes are made up of twisting alleyways and haphazard clusters, reflecting the layout of Brighthelmstone’s ancient streets and market squares. There is a reason that ‘ghost walks’ around this area are infinitely popular with tourists.
During the eighteenth century, Brighton’s fortunes were remarkably altered by one Dr. Richard Russell, a physician from the nearby town of Lewes, a man thought of by many as the founder of modern Brighton. Indeed, a plaque in his memory, now affixed to the Royal Albion Hotel, reads “IF YOU SEEK HIS MONUMENT, LOOK AROUND”. In the year 1750, the eminent Dr. Russell authored a paper expounding the positive effects of sea water on bodily health, and the result was a dramatic upsurge in Brighton’s reputation. Brighton became the fashionable place to be for Britain’s aristocracy, and gradually this inconsequential fishing village began to be colonised by the harbingers of wealth and glamour. Where before there had been nothing but grass and chalk now sprang up elaborate Regency dwellings: all bow windows, corinthian pilasters and ostentatious neoclassicism. For the next one hundred and fifty years, Brighton continued to materialise spirit-like out of the ether, spurred on by a collective desire to facilitate pleasure and gaiety for all its residents and visitors. In the short space of 50 years or so – the latter half of the nineteenth century – vast tracts of rural land were bought up by developers and populated with rows of ornately decorated (at least relative to contemporary domestic architecture) Regency-style residential properties. An entire city was conjured in half a century. As a result, there is simply no better architectural catalogue of the shifting tastes, follies, vices, virtues, atrocities and curiosities of the nineteenth century than Brighton. The Royal Pavilion, for example, seems to sag under the weight of its own orientalist flamboyance, like an ageing dandy whose breeches and waistcoat are beginning to split conspicuously at the seams. The North Laine, once Brighton’s most destitute slum and now its excruciatingly-titled ‘Cultural Quarter’, remains essentially a ragtag assemblage of nineteenth century industrial structures: joiners workshops, warehouses, timber merchants, ironmongers, butchers, cleaning works, drinking dens and, of course, rows of terraced houses built for the workers who populated the area (these structures, it is worth noting, are a potent reminder of exactly who produced and sustained Brighton’s opulence and glamour: a vast army of exploited and impoverished workers). The Palace Pier, too, juts out of the coast like a splinter, as though the pursuit of pleasure on land is not enough: the sea, too, must be incorporated into the realm of jollity and fun. Brighton’s buildings seem to be infected with history, saturated by it, weighed down by the paradigms responsible for them. Every building possesses some kind of unnecessary flourish or whimsical decoration, some nod to the purely, delightfully, deliriously aesthetic, divorced from any practical, civic or theological concerns (there is, again, no better illustration of this than King George IV’s Royal Pavilion, with its unashamed, explicitly contrived, madly orchestrated flamboyance). In Brighton, the spirit of wanton aestheticism has been allowed to remain practically unmolested. These wonderful nineteenth century-isms declare themselves to be, in a way that no other architectural style does so readily, explicitly and undeniably of their time and of their time only. They can only be of the long nineteenth century: which other era could have produced such ostentation and such destitution so close to each other? Which other era could have taken so seriously the pursuit of pure delight?
In this way, Brighton seems to fizz with that quasi-malevolent, vigorous, orgiastically aesthetic dynamism so typical of the nineteenth century. And yet, as I prepare to leave it in a few month’s time, possibly for the rest of my life, its palpable sense of hollowness and ethereality becomes harder and harder to ignore. It is a bizarre and beguiling place, certainly, but like a stage set it exists only for the eye. Most of Brighton’s nineteenth century structures, though grand and stately in appearance, are built with a substance known as bungaroosh, found only in Brighton and its surrounding towns. A wonderful example of the insatiable appetite for quick and low-cost building in nineteenth century Brighton, Bungaroosh is essentially lime mortar – a crude form of cement – mixed with any available miscellaneous building materials: broken bricks, pieces of flint, cobblestones, fragments of metal, and so on. Left to set around a wooden frame, the bungaroosh walls of a Brighton house would then usually be covered over with stucco or ‘mathematical tiles’ – another architectural technique unique to Brighton and its surroundings which involved covering over bungaroosh with glazed tiles to give the appearance of brickwork. The result was a house which would appear grandiose and expensively built, but could in fact be “demolished with a well-aimed hose”, in the words of local historian Rob Fraser. Exposure to water (astute readers will note that Brighton is quite palpably next to the sea, posing something of a problem) causes bungaroosh to become unstable, and as a result much of Brighton is at risk of imminent collapse. As well as this, bungaroosh is especially porous, meaning that damp and mould are able to infiltrate a Brightonian house with relative ease, a problem which few residents of the city are unfamiliar with. Archeological evidence suggests that many of the original inhabitants of Brighthelmstone lived on the sea – that is, what is now ocean and shingle was once habitable land upon which Brighthelmstonians built their dwellings. Coastal erosion forced the boundaries of the village back, and until the construction of various bulwarks, Brighton was a village perpetually falling into the ocean. To me, this is a character it still retains – a sense of gradual but continuous collapse.
In light of this, Brighton, for me, takes the shape of a collection of decaying, rotten, shacks disguised cleverly as delightful and enchanting Victorian buildings. It seethes and swarms with the ghosts of the nineteenth century; they seem to drift down every alleyway and peer out of every window. To the architectural ghost-hunter (I count myself among their number) this spectral army is delightful and seductive to the eye, but always immaterial, somehow out of reach. The façades are crumbling, the stucco is peeling, the walls are sagging – the Victorians built themselves a vast playground and then abruptly left, shooed away by the passage of time. What remains are the crumbling totems of their desires and their fantasies, built manifestations of their follies and their predilections, amongst which we – Brighton’s contemporary inhabitants – can only ever move as guests or visitors. We are like a family that has moved into a house in which a grisly murder once took place – the sense of the place will always be rooted in the past, the space through which we move always defined by what has happened there before. The purpose of Victorian buildings is virtually always writ large upon their surface – a side-effect, perhaps, of the embrace by ecclesiastical and civic architects of the spirit of the Modern Gothic, obeying Pugin’s dictum that architecture must be ‘honest’. A Victorian pub, for example, emphatically declares itself to be a pub, and nothing but a pub (for a wonderfully vivid demonstration of this, see the Victory Inn on Duke Street, pictured above). A Victorian house is nothing other than a house: the drawing room – site of the explicitly domestic – clearly visible through a large frontal bay window. We can inhabit and repurpose these buildings, but we can never quite rid ourselves of the sense that they are for something or someone else, and that this purpose or these people are never again to return. It is this which, for me at least, makes Brighton a ghost town.