A flâneur in Brighton

What is a flâneur? If you guessed a piece of cooking equipment, you’d be wrong.

Merriam Webster describes a flâneur as an “idle man-about-the-town”, but I prefer the Oxford Dictionaries version: “A man who saunters around observing society.”

Leaving aside the obvious gendered-ness of these descriptions (the word originated in the 19th century French literary scene, which was probably a bit of a sausage-fest), I rather like the concept of the flâneur – at least, I can see how it relates to my own life.

Living in Brighton is a bit like living in a giant piece of performance art. The other thing I can compare it to is a sprawling orchestral production, where there is no conductor and everyone is playing from different sheet music.

But it’s not just the brash, city-centre hubbub that I’ve come to love as a Brightonian – its the contrast between this and the forgotten corners of the city.

As a student at one of the city’s universities, and then as a freelance writer getting screen burn, I would often cast out into the streets to walk off my nerves and shake off the cabin fever.

My favourite thing was to pick a general direction and let my feet choose the way, not caring whether I got lost. I found that the most interesting side to Brighton – and probably any city – was the bits that the tourists don’t see.

Seeing a glimpse of a swing set in a back-garden, hearing snatches of a band rehearsal, or suddenly inhaling a gust of marijuana smoke, there was something heart-achey about all these lives going on completely separately to my own.

It felt like a return to those teenage years when you start to realise just how enormous the world is, and don’t know whether to react with hope or fear.

Yet, as much as I adore my adoptive home city, I’ve come to realise that Brighton can make people feel very lonely. The vivacity of the city can leave you feeling like a spectator, always struggling to catch up.

The cafe culture, the myriad pubs, they beckon. “If only you had more money,” they say. “If only you had more free time, and you knew more people, and perhaps had better clothes – you could be having more fun.”

One good thing about having children is that it tends to distract you from this type of thinking. I’m happy to say that I’m no longer trying (and miserably failing) to keep up with everything the city has to offer.

But I still take the pram out every now and again to remind myself of what life felt like in that moment. The flâneur in me is not yet done with Brighton.

 

 

 

 

 

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Watch this space…

I’ll start by explaining my long absence – it has something to do with the birth of two little girls called Matilda and Josephine. My daughters are now 10 months old, and active enough to keep both their parents busy 24/7 – leaving no time for blogging I’m afraid!

Although I love raising children, I’ve been itching to write some new posts here, as the issues I’ve been discussing on this blog continue to rumble on. House prices in Brighton and Hove continue to soar, developers continue to draw up proposals, and conservationists/ homeowners continue to push back vociferously. Meanwhile, countless thousands of people agonize over whether to move out to Shoreham, Burgess Hill, Peacehaven or – shock, horror – to another part of the country altogether.

One case in particular has interested me recently. Brighton’s Argus newspaper reported that hundreds have signed a petition against a new development by Preston Park, which will replace an eyesore sometimes described as ‘Brighton’s ugliest building’.

The petition criticizes the lack of affordable housing – which I agree we desperately need – but its call for a return to the drawing board is unhelpful. The project has already been through a number of iterations, and developers on any city plot are likely to have limited patience. Our city needs to be one that looks forward, and proclaims itself open to business, and if plans continue to be knocked back in search of the ‘perfect development’, we will achieve the opposite effect.

I’m hoping to come back to this blog more frequently, as there’s a real need for an examination of the changing face of the city. Each new project needs to be assessed on its merits, and we owe it to all of Brighton’s residents to think carefully and fairly about how the city develops in future.

 

 

Wetherspoons in London Road – class warfare in action?

Wetherspoons pub

A Wetherspoons pub. Photo by Elliot Brown – from Flickr.

A few days ago, Wetherspoons’ bid to open a new branch in London Road was slapped down by planning officers at Brighton and Hove City Council.

We all know that Wetherspoons is bad. We’ve been taught to believe that the chain, with its formulaic pub names and identikit boozer interiors, spells ‘game over’ for any self-respecting high street in Britain.

It was therefore unsurprising that the council’s decision was widely seen as a victory. But what kind of victory? A victory of good over evil? Or a victory of the middle class over the working class?

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Review: The Grand Central, Brighton

Bar Grand Central Brighton

The bar at the Grand Central

The roof terrace at the Grand Central would be perfect for relaxing with a cold beer on a scorching summer’s day. Sadly, my visit to this pub next to Brighton station took place on a wet, miserable and thoroughly un-scorching Sunday.

Weather aside, I found the Grand Central to be a welcoming and homely place to spend a lazy afternoon. The pub has recently been refurbished, and while most pub-refurbishments in Brighton these days seem to involve bare lightbulbs and quirky found objects, the ownership of this establishment have gone for a more comfortable, vintage vibe.

The main bar is light, airy and open, while round the corner the atmosphere is more ‘fireside’ – there are bookshelves, lampshades and armchairs you can sink into.

Grand Central pub roof garden Brighton

The Grand Central’s roof garden – perfect for soaking up the rays with a cold beer in summer

The decor is reminiscent of a 1920s speakeasy, with velvet padding and old-timey lettering guiding you to the loos or the roof garden – and what a garden it is.

I remember visiting the place before the refurbishment and having a beer outside in the height of summer. The roof terrace was then a non-descript place, with low wooden benches and not much else going for it. This has completely changed, and the terrace is now filled with brightly coloured chairs, as well as a profusion of plants of all sizes. Even in the damp and chilly weather, the roof garden had a holiday-in-the-Med feel to it.

The pub also has a great range of craft beers, of which I chose Meantime Brewery’s Yakima Red – a reddish-hued, spicy ale that went down a treat. All in all, this is definitely one place I’ll be visiting again.

Our Valley Gardens mustn’t become a political football

View of new Valley Gardens from Greens plan

Detail taken from the Greens’ original plans for Valley Gardens. The view is across Victoria Gardens towards the King & Queen pub.

You could almost hear people all over Brighton breathing a sigh of relief when the plan to redesign Valley Gardens was revealed.  Although I had some initial misgivings – Brighton’s majority Green council had a somewhat spotty record with infrastructural projects – it was reassuring to know that the council recognized the unsuitability of the current layout and was prepared to do something about it.

Valley Gardens, the green strip running down the middle of the city from The Level to the seafront, has the potential to be so much better than it is now.

The current design is dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, with a complicated road layout leading to confusion over which direction traffic is moving in.

Greens' plan for Valley Gardens - water feature outside St Peter's church

Detail taken from the Greens’ original plans for Valley Gardens. This shows the location of one of the new water features, outside St Peter’s church.

The Green council’s plans had lots to admire. They included:

  • A simplified traffic flow that put public transport on the west of the Gardens and private vehicles to the east
  • More trees, including new elms and other interesting varieties
  • New water features
  • More paths, making it easier to walk across the Gardens
  • More planting on the streets either side of the Gardens, making them seem less like an ‘island’ in the middle of traffic.

Lastly, the Greens pledged the scrap the ugly and incongruous Mazda fountain. The fountain was originally designed for the British Empire Exhibition in 1925, and was then donated to Brighton. It used to feature coloured light bulbs that were illuminated at night, but nowadays all it does is squat like a massive metal carbuncle, occasionally spraying water but otherwise simply acting as an eyesore.

The Mazda Fountain, Dominic Alves, Flickr

‘The Mazda Fountain’ by Dominic Alves – from Flickr. CC-BY-SA.

Alas, the Greens’ plan ran into trouble after a new majority-Labour council was elected on May 7.

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What next for the King Alfred?

Brighton Wheel major landmark

The Brighton Wheel is now one of the city’s major landmarks. CC image by Les Chatfield from Flickr

Walking along the seafront in Brighton, each area has its own distinctive character and landmarks. The Marina dominates the shore to the east of Kemptown, while further west the elegant Madeira terraces provide a glimpse of the city’s past as a Victorian pleasure resort.

After this you reach the Brighton Wheel, which has become a symbol of the city and the delight of Instagrammers since it was built four years ago. Then, of course, there is Palace Pier (commonly known as Brighton Pier), the most well-known landmark of them all. Continuing west, there is the site for the new i360 – a gargantuan new observation tower than will supposedly bring hundreds of thousands more tourists (as if we needed more!) to the city.

Carrying on towards Portslade, Hove Lagoon provides a nice spot for some watersports or an icecream by the lake. The area’s also great for celeb-watching: Fatboy Slim owns the cafe by the Lagoon, and neighbours include Paul McCartney, David Walliams and Adele.

King Alfred Hove seafront

The King Alfred Leisure Centre in Hove – the weakest link on the seafront? CC image by George Rex from Flickr

Brighton’s seafront boasts unique, attractive features along the whole of its length – apart from in central Hove, where the only distinguishing feature is the King Alfred leisure centre.

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Wanted: venture capitalists to fund Brighton businesses

Brighton Silicon Beach

Brighton’s tech cluster has given it the name ‘Silicon Beach’.         CC image courtesy of Silicon Beach Training.

Brighton has many advantages over London for small businesses and startups. For a start, there’s the prospect of leaving the office and going straight to the beach for after-work drinks.

Then there’s the concentration of over 35,000 students from two universities in a relatively small area, providing a constant stream of new talent into the area. And while rents in the city are rising fast, living here is still more affordable than in many places in London.

One thing that Brighton businesses are lacking, however, is a thriving local venture capital industry to support them. According to economist Douglas McWilliams, the growth of London’s tech industry has been driven partly by a rise in investment from venture capitalists in the City – financiers who invest in early-stage and startup companies in the hope of making a profit when these firms expand.

City of London skyline

London’s tech startups benefit from close proximity to investors in the City of London.
“The City London” by kloniwotski – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In his book ‘The Flat White Economy’, McWilliams notes that the volume of venture capital deals in London has grown by 70% since 2008, and that the city now boasts at least five accelerators or ‘laboratories’  providing financing and support to technology companies.

Unfortunately, this situation has not been replicated in Brighton. Although our city by the sea has a burgeoning tech industry, it is so far lacking the investment infrastructure seen in the metropolis.

However, there are signs that this might be starting to change, as the Coast to Capital LEP recently committed £5 million towards helping local companies access the finance they need to grow and create jobs.

Elsewhere, the city looks set to gain a new business accelerator that will provide support as well as superfast broadband and office space to startups. Natwest-sponsored company Entrepreneurial Spark are gearing up to launch the ‘Hatchery’ this summer in Preston Road, with CEO Jim Duffy commenting, “Brighton is undoubtedly a very happening place with an excellent culture and mindset. We can’t wait to see what we can accomplish.”

The Sussex Innovation Centre (SInC), a business incubator based at the University of Sussex’s campus in Falmer, is also set to open a new base next to Brighton station.

The ‘Silicon Beach’ tech industry has a way to go before it matches the £416 million in venture capital funding raised by London-based technology startups in the first three months of 2015. But with a growing infrastructure of incubators and accelerators, and an emerging reputation as a hub for digital innovation, it’s surely a matter of time before Brighton becomes the number one destination for investors as well as tourists.

Brighton’s residents are driving greater sustainability

On the eve of the election, it’s a great time to assess the progress that the majority Green council have made over the past five years in curbing carbon emissions and reducing Brighton’s effect on the environment.

Over the last five years, the city has achieved a lot. Brighton and the area surrounding it have been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, an initiative which aims to encourage conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species, as well as development that is culturally and ecologically sustainable (see the video below).

Our city has also earned several awards and plaudits: it was named City of the Year in the CIVITAS awards 2014, in recognition of the council’s policies to promote cycling and bus travel. The installation of new segregated cycle lanes in Lewes Road has been particularly successful, leading to a 14 per cent increase in cycling journeys.

Brighton also received the Soil Association’s silver award for sustainable food, acknowledging the city’s many community growing projects and the council’s work in ensuring that the thousands of meals served through its food contracts met minimum health and sustainability standards.

However, the picture is not all rosy. City dwellers might not be surprised to hear that Brighton also has one of the lowest recycling rates in the country, with only 25.8% of waste re-used – despite the Green party’s pledge in 2011 that 70% of all domestic waste would be recycled by the end of May 2015.

Luckily, organisations and citizens have been taking matters into their own hands.

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Brighton desperately needs a new rail link – but which one?

A photo of Brighton station.

A photo of Brighton station.
“BrightonStation4681” by Clem Rutter

The Argus recently ran a story about the ‘luxury’ future of Brighton’s mainline. In a rare PR win for the operator Govia Thameslink, the piece described how the line would benefit from bigger and better trains with more seats and more services over the next three years.

But for those of us who have endured years of overcrowded trains and delayed or cancelled services, this sounds like too little, too late.

The situation is so bad that one service from Brighton to London Victoria was delayed on every single one of its 240 journeys in 2014. Services either side of this were only on time on 1-2% of their journeys.

This is disgraceful. As an erstwhile commuter, I have witnessed first hand the misery and frustration caused when trains arrive late or are cancelled time after time. Even when services are on time, the lack of space means that many commuters often have to stand for the whole gruelling 1hr15mins journey to London.

The problem is simple – demand is high, and having too many trains on the track means that the slightest delay can snowball into serious disruption for passengers. So what should be done about this?

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Want to save our Hippodrome? Then bring it back into use

Brighton Hippodrome first opened its doors in 1901, and has hosted some of the most famous actors, musicians and comedians in the world, including Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones.

However, this spacious and architecturally important building started to fall into decline in the sixties, before closing its doors in 2007.  Since then it has remained shuttered while various developers have mooted different plans for how to bring it back into use.

The façade of the Brighton Hippodrome from the northwest

The façade of the Brighton Hippodrome from the northwest

To date none of these plans have succeeded, and the latest setback came when the cinema company Vue pulled out of a deal that would have seen the space turned into a an eight-screen cinema with four restaurants.

According to a BBC article, English Heritage had decided that the proposal to turn the theatre into a cinema was likely to represent a “final chance to save the Hippodrome”.

But campaigners, including The Victorian Society, Our Brighton Hippodrome and Save Our Hippodrome opposed the scheme, saying they would rather the building remained in use as a theatre. Continue reading