If you want to visit the English seaside you could do worse than a trip to Brighton; a bustling city with plenty to do and see. Situated on the south coast in the county of East Sussex and officially known as Brighton and Hove, it is England’s most populous seaside city. Brighton has a great mixture of the traditional and modern with more of a cosmopolitan feel than many towns outside of London. Brighton has a lively arts scene and good nightlife with plenty of bars and nightclubs so you won’t be short of things to do if you plan to stay a few days.
We went for a day trip this September, journeying by car from the West Sussex/Surrey border where we were staying with my parents. We set our sat-nav for the centre and drove about for a bit until we found a car park (us being well prepared and all that). It turned out that it was about a 20 minute walk to the centre – brilliant. We planned to visit the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Pier, and see if we had time for anything else.
The Royal Pavilion – a brief history
The opulent Pavilion is not the sort of building that you’d expect to find in an English seaside town and has a long history.
In 1811, King George III became too ill to continue ruling and his son, the Prince of Wales, had to take over. Prince George had been visiting Brighton for many years before his father’s illness forced the Regency upon him. As his lodgings didn’t have the space to entertain his important guests in what he considered a suitable fashion, in 1815 George had John Nash transform his villa into the Pavilion that can be seen today. George had a love for art and architecture, and filled his Oriental-style palace with beautiful Chinese artefacts and spared no expense in its decoration.
After George’s death the Pavilion passed to his brother William and eventually to Queen Victoria who sold it to the townspeople of Brighton in 1850. The townspeople looked after it, restoring it and holding many events until the outbreak of WW1. During the War the Pavilion was used as a hospital for Indian soldiers and then for amputees. Returned to the people of Brighton in 1920, the Pavilion has been restored to its glory days of the Regency period of George IV.
Our walk to the seaside took us straight past Wagamama for lunch (as usual) and then to the Royal Pavilion. We wandered into the gardens which were full of people enjoying the last blast of summer, either picnicing on the lawns or walking around. The husband was reluctant to see the inside of the Pavilion as entry is £12.30 on the door for adults. However I had heard tales of the beautiful rooms so I put on my best affronted-wife-face and shortly after we joined the queue.
The Entrance Hall
The first room that we entered is a delicate green with ornate cornicing and the subtle Eastern influence of dragons painted on the walls and on the skylights. So far, so pretty, especially the lamps, but the real magnificence is saved for the next rooms.
The Oriental decor really comes into its own in the Long Gallery, which is painted to resemble a bamboo grove. The furnishings and the staircases at the end of the passageway are also carved and painted to look like bamboo. The attention to detail here is exquisite; everything is perfectly restored. Don’t forget to look up at the beautiful skylights. The Cub was delighted with the pink background; pink being her favourite colour.
From the hallway we entered the Banqueting Hall which took our breath away. I think this must be one of the most spectacular rooms in the UK. Our attention was immediately drawn upwards to the domed ceiling where the magnificent 30-foot chandelier is suspended underneath a silver dragon. Four more dragons sit in the corners of the room, presiding over the diners, and others adorn the chandelier itself. The walls and ceilings are painted with a variety of geometric shapes and romantic scenes of Chinese life. The Cub had fun trying to spot and count all of the dragons, but there were too many for her.
The splendour of the banqueting hall came to an abrupt end as the tour took us into the servant corridors which seemed very bare in comparison. The next room is the kitchen which is set out with food that the king and his guests would have eaten.
Adding to the authentic look, I’m sure that the birds are real, stuffed animals – keep an eye out for the swan! I loved the oriental detail on the pillars – the theme continues even in the kitchens. Apparently the Prince was proud of his kitchen and would take his guests on a tour through it.
From the kitchens the tour continued back through the Banqueting Hall and towards the Music Room which has another fabulous domed ceiling. This beautiful room has had an unfortunate history – after being damaged by fire in 1975 the newly restored room was again badly damaged when a stone ball from the roof crashed through the ceiling after the hurricane in 1987.
The detail in this room is again astounding. Beautiful golden murals are painted over a red background, dragons hold up the curtain poles and the lotus-shaped lamps are stunning. The stained glass windows around the dome threw dapples of colour onto the carpet which The Cub was fascinated by. We had to carry her out of the Music Room – this was definitely her favourite room.
Upstairs the rooms are less spectacular but still beautiful, with faithfully reproduced wallpapers and furnishings. The Oriental decor continues but in a more understated way. We found a wealth of information on the Pavilion (although we couldn’t spend much time looking at it as The Cub wasn’t interested) and the Tea Rooms which overlook the gardens. You can also see where Queen Victoria stayed when she visited in 1842.
Needless to say, the husband was glad that we’d paid the £25 for entry. The Saloon, the central reception room, is currently being restored so we will have to go back next year to see it when it re-opens.
As we exited the Royal Pavilion we found ourselves pretty much in the commercial centre of Brighton and so we walked over to the seaside. The beach at Brighton is wide and steep, and covered with pebbles rather than sand. The pebbles are surprisingly comfy to sit on and in the height of summer the beach is packed. Even in late September the beach was full of people and there were some brave souls in the sea.
One of Brighton’s most famous attractions is its pier which dates from 1823. This can’t be missed so we stepped onto the boardwalk and wandered down. There are shops, restaurants, arcades and a funfair right at the end.
From the Pier you can get a lovely view along Brighton’s sea front. You can also see the burnt remains of the West Pier which was destroyed in two separate arson attacks in 2003. By the West Pier is Brighton’s newest attraction: the British Airways i360 observation deck. It stands 162m tall and carries up to 200 people in its circular pod. We didn’t try this out as it was a bit too far for the Cub to walk but it does look like a fun experience.
The Cub was too small to go on any of the rides at the end of the Pier but taller children would have a blast. There are some white knuckle rides as well as some more gentle ones. It didn’t look cheap though and if you plan on going on more than a couple, a wristband would be more economical.
The husband and I enjoyed the retro feel of the Pier – it looks as though life here has barely changed for decades. All the striped deckchairs and arcades added to the very English seaside vibe.
After our walk on the Pier we went in search of ice-cream which we found just across the road in a lovely little shop. As you can see from the photo, we all thought it was delicious…
We then began to slowly walk through the streets back to the car. Brighton has the usual high street shops but also has a series of winding narrow streets called the Lanes filled with independent shops. Many of these shops are jewellers but we also passed a fun looking chocolate shop and plenty of souvenir shops. This area is lots of fun to wander through but you could also spend quite a bit in some of those jewellery shops if you were so inclined.
We only had a very quick taste of Brighton but all of us had a great time here. We will definitely be back to see what else Brighton has to offer.
Know before you go
Brighton is easily reached from London by train (60 minutes or so). Trains depart from London Victoria and London Bridge stations every few minutes. Buy tickets online or at the stations. The train station in Brighton is centrally located.
If you travel by car there are several car parks centrally and all are signposted. Perhaps pick one nearer to the centre than we did!
The Royal Pavilion website sells tickets in advance and has different pricing options for families and concessions. Take a look at the History Pass if you think you might visit the Brighton Museum and Preston Manor. The Pavilion is buggy accessible on the ground floor only; you can leave buggies in a dedicated buggy room and carry your child upstairs.
Brighton Pier website has information on the funfair and pricing for wristbands if you want to go on the rides.
The BA i360 website sells tickets in advance and booking is advised. Tickets are free for children aged 3 and under but they will still need to be booked on to the system.
Other attractions for families in Brighton are the Sea Life Centre, Brighton Museum, and of course, the beach.
*A note on photography: all photos of the Royal Pavilion are official images as photography inside is not permitted. My thanks to the Royal Pavilion for allowing me to use these photos.*