Having lived at the top end of Brighton’s London Road for the last six years, I’ve witnessed first-hand the rapid and accelerating gentrification taking place in the area, dimly aware that this is but the latest of many urban skins that the district has worn, and wanting to know more. Of interest then was this 90-minute tour, by renowned local University of Sussex academic and guide Dr Geoffrey Mead, which looks behind the pound-shop facades and painted pub murals of the present day to reveal the rich history of this often-derided cityscape.
A fan of the “less considered bits of the landscape”, Dr Mead’s credentials are impeccable
A fan of the “less considered bits of the landscape”, Dr Mead’s credentials are impeccable: a Dyke Road boy from the 1950s, he lectures in historical geography and local studies, with his PhD thesis in interwar suburban housing in Brighton. Yet, social history is of secondary importance on this tour; the focus is on the buildings themselves, with an almost maniacal attentiveness to the explanations behind different shades of brick and asymmetry in windows, kept interesting by Dr Mead’s enthusiasm for the subject and natural charm.
This is not throwaway stuff – we’re asked to consider facades in the context of the old Co-op building, and how the medieval strip field system influenced the development of the twittens and small streets behind St Peter’s Place – but it’s accessible and the imparted knowledge easy to digest. All questions on the tour were answered with expertise and studded with easily-recalled dates and facts.
The past was brought most resonantly to life at the beginning of the tour. When asked to contemplate the faded grandeur of the buildings facing St Peter’s church, we were informed of the almost indecent contrast between the image of the pre-railway 1830s environment conjured up by Dr Mead – a quiet area of prosperous tradesmen’s houses on the far edge of town – and today’s congested and siren-riven strip. An 1838 roving reporter waxed lyrical about the lushness of the finest private garden he’d seen in Brighton. The building’s current incarnation? The less-than- verdant branch of Breakfast at Tiffany’s at 17 York Place.
I was also struck by the sheer former extent of the railway works, productive until well after the War. Much is now shrouded and lurking in undergrowth but the colossal Victorian scale can be reckoned from the brick pillars still visible from the Brighton Greenway. The latter was a great inclusion to the tour which we followed from one end to the other. For me, the middle stretch actually on London Road was the least transporting section – largely an account of the department stores inhabiting the grander buildings during the area’s retail heyday of the 1930s and 1950s – but nonetheless still insightful and where Dr Mead’s instruction to “look up” was definitely rewarded, with ornaments and dates decoded before our eyes.
It wasn’t all just about the past either; the evocative Barrows development at Francis Street and the new student halls behind the old Co-op were evaluated both architecturally and how they might come to impact the area socially.
The pace of both the talking and the walking was fine for me, but the tour lasted a good 90 minutes including some steep steps, with no chance to sit down, so I’d think twice if you have mobility issues despite the “suitable for everyone” label. The tour was audible throughout, despite Dr Mead doing battle with sirens, weekend traffic, and last-day music from the Fringe.
Overall an in-depth and extremely well-informed tour, which will appeal to anyone interested in local or architectural history or anyone wanting to decipher the built environment of one of the most shapeshifting and enigmatic areas of the city.