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I hardly slept on the plane ride to England. RDU to London non-stop and I was kept awake by anticipation like a young child on the night before Christmas. It was my fourth time to Europe so you’d think I’d know the drill - get some sleep or be a miserable zombie - but no, I’m batting 0.250 for getting some shut-eye on transatlantic flights now.
London calling. The plane circled for a minute before we were cleared to land. Here is the Eye on the Thames, there the Tower Bridge, icons of the city. Finally Heathrow and its row of business class hotels along the street rose to meet us. London!
Touchdown. I briefly wondered as I packed up my things, “Does this count as being on ‘island time?’”
We immediately boarded a train - the Gatwick Express - to Brighton with the idea that we’d spend a couple days sightseeing on the southern coast before spending the rest of the week in London. We’d had a choice of places to stay besides London - Cambridge, Bath, Windsor, wherever - but Brighton appealed to me. I liked the name Brighton - it just sounded so cheery - and I was secretly intrigued by the city that harbored such illicit pleasures as Jane Austen implied in Pride & Prejudice. (Brighton is where Elizabeth’s vain younger sister runs off with the dastardly officer Wickham).
But alas, I probably should know better than to take my vacation cues from two hundred (and three!) year old novels. Still, Brighton had a historical reputation as a place of pleasure and convalescence, and I hoped the seaside town would be a fine place for me to convalesce from my horrible jet lag.
It turns out Brighton beach is all lights and seaside - a miniature Jersey Shore perhaps but with British accents, or maybe Vegas with an ocean view. It was a hopping spot for “hen” and “stag” parties (bachelorette and bachelor parties) while we were there, but with an element of kid friendliness with the carnival attractions at the pier: a bright spot of nightlife on the southern shore with the English Channel stretching long and distant on the horizon. So close to mainland Europe, but so far.
I was a bit peeved from jet lag by the time we left our hotel, which was situated right next to the Grand Hotel where the Irish Republican Army bombed a conference room in a failed attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. We headed to the Royal Pavilion, an unmissable sight in Brighton, and my journal entry reflects my irritation. “I was too exhausted to even compose a decent photo of the pavilion, and the ‘No photography inside’ signs were for the first time in my life almost a relief. What a gaudy caricature of oriental decadence anyways,” I smirked in my sleep-deprived snark. “No wonder King George IV was ridiculed for his extravagance and follies. His ‘chinoiserie’ is silly in its imitation opulence. But it’s still quite a sight to see.”
King George IV, renowned for his various methods of self-indulgence, originally rented a small farmhouse in Brighton in the mid-1780s when he was still Prince of Wales. He was encouraged to visit the coast for the health benefits of the sea, but he reveled in the local social scene. This included close contact to Mrs. Fitzherbert, a widow and Roman Catholic whom the heir apparent secretly married despite a ban against British monarchs (and future British monarchs) marrying Catholics. Their illicit marriage was well-known in Brighton however, and the two were active in the social scene. George IV so enjoyed hosting social events in Brighton that he had his farmhouse residence upgraded to a villa, which he called the “Marine Pavilion.” At that time his interest in Asian decor consisted of Chinese wallpaper and furniture. However, in 1815 - long after breaking off ties with Mrs. Fitzherbert in favor of a disastrous marriage to his cousin Caroline of Brunswick (an arrangement necessitated by finances but which deteriorated into a relationship worthy of the most outrageous tabloids) - George IV commissioned John Nash to turn his Brighton villa into an “oriental palace.” Influenced by Indo-Islamic and Chinese styles, the Royal Pavilion was transformed with domes and minarets and spires on a cast iron frame over the original structure to support the lavish renovations. After the death of George IV the pavilion passed to King William IV and then Queen Victoria, who distanced herself from the extravagance of the pleasure palace and eventually sold it to the town of Brighton in 1850.
Tourist destination, WWI hospital for Indian Army soldiers, restoration project, and again tourist spot, the Royal Pavilion is a very unique attraction that requires constant conservation attention. But that is certainly some of the charm of Brighton: it’s so unique with its kitsch and its carnival pier and its over-the-top pleasure palace and its pebbled coast. And what better metaphor for Brighton than the Royal Pavilion: old farmhouse covered in crumbling exotica sitting by the glittering sea.
Have you been to Brighton? What are your thoughts of the pavilion and the beach area?