Brighton Seaside Stories

I love a good audio guide.
It leaves me free to wander at will, listening to stories which bring places alive.
I have a good auditory memory while Pork Belly’s more visual so it suits both of us – I listen while he seeks out the best viewpoints. I can always tell him the tales later.

The best audio guide I’ve ever experienced is actor Steve Buscemi’s narration for the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia – the perfect voice for a blend of chilling facts and stories of human desperation.

• Eastern State Penitentiary – if walls could talk

Having lived in and around Brighton for most of my life I’m pretty familiar with its history, but there’s always something new to discover even in your own hometown.

Upside Down House Hove 2020 ©
The Upside Down House near the West Pier and i360

So I was delighted with the launch this year of QueensPark Books’ Discover Brighton project – a series of guided walks, narrated by volunteers using memories of local people drawn from the dozens of books they’ve published since the 1970s.

There’s a history walk for almost everyone.

You can stroll through Brighton’s shops past and present, get all theatrical with backstage anecdotes, discover the bravery of the early gays and lesbians who made Brighton their home and explore the city’s historic hinterland.

And best of all these audio guides are FREE!

For our first exploration we chose to follow the Seaside Stories route all along the seafront from the iconic West Pier to the Banjo Groyne, just shy of the Marina.

The walk is mostly flat, accessible and not too crowded in winter.

Of course it takes in all the usual points of interest – the piers, the aquarium, the Volks railway – but it also uncovers things long-gone and almost forgotten.

And it’s the personal stories that really make it come alive.

Discover Brighton

I have my own childhood memories of the Palace Pier – all noise and penny arcade games – but never set foot on the more elegant and refined West Pier where there were tea dances and less raucous end-of-the-pier shows.

I grew up with my parents’ and grandparents’ tales of the war-time years – the fear, the hard work and the laughter – but this audio guide brought something new.

West Pier Hove
The West Pier in its glory days. Designed by Eugenius Birch it opened in 1866. It was the first pier to be Grade I listed in Britain but was closed to the public in 1975 on safety grounds.
i360 and West Pier ruins Brighton 2020 ©
All that remains of the West Pier in 2020

Standing on the shore looking at the ruins of the West Pier at the start of our walk, the eye-witness accounts of the famous fire that pretty much destroyed it filled my ears.

Brighton’s Fishing Quarter

A little further along the seafront, on what was once the site of the open fish market, I could almost smell the salty, slippery scales, hear the slap of wet fish hitting the slab and listen to the cries of the squabbling seagulls eager for scraps.

Although the market closed in 1960 on hygiene grounds those seagulls are still here, wheeling and screaming as they snatch chips and donuts form the unwary.

The old fish market by the arches Brighton
The old fish market Brighton

Today the Kings Arches are occupied by a small museum dedicated to Sussex seafarers and stalls selling whelks, winkles, oysters and smoked fish.

Fishing quarter and museum, Brighton 2020 ©
Kings Arches in 2020

Brighton’s piers

Strolling on towards the Palace Pier the guide talks of the pleasure boat trips that used to leave from the end of the pier for the Isle of Wight or those with really good sea-legs could take a bouncy trip to Boulogne.

There are first-hand accounts of The Great Omani stuntman and illusionist who would dive through flames in chains before freeing himself in the sea below.

And of course there were the noisy slot machines and What The Butler Saw moving picture shows – the precursors of today’s hi-tech games and Virtual Reality Dome.

The Palace Pier in 1930s Brighton
The Palace Pier in 1930s Brighton
Palace Pier, Brighton 2020 ©
Brighton Palace Pier 2020

Some things never change – they just get a re-boot!

During the war years the middle sections of both piers were blown up to prevent enemy landings, and the walkway by the SeaLife Centre (the world’s oldest aquarium) housed massive tanks of petrol, ready to roll into the sea and set it alight in case the town was invaded.

• Sea Life Centre, Brighton

The threat of invasion was very real for the people of Brighton and Hove. If the church bells rang everyone was under strict instructions to walk towards London wearing bright-coloured clothes so they weren’t mistaken for the enemy.

Bank staff were told if the Germans came during office hours they could not hope to see their families, instead they, and their precious papers and money, would be whisked away to London on a specially chartered train.

Sandbags protecting the Aquarium in 1940's Brighton
Sandbags protecting the aquarium wall in 1940’s Brighton
Sealife Centre wall, Brighton 2020 ©
Now the Sealife Centre, the same aquarium wall in 2020

Volks Railway

A ride on the Volks railway was a real childhood treat but I didn’t realise the original track ran above the sunbathers as the beach level was way lower then. Today the restored line still runs, weather permitting, thanks to the hard work of enthusiasts and volunteers.

Crowded Brighton beach and Volk's Electric Railway in the 1930s
Volk’s Electric Railway in the 1930s near The Banjo Groyne
The Volks railway on banjo groyne Brighton
The Volks railway on the Banjo Groyne

I knew inventor Magnus Volk was the first man in Brighton to have electricity in his house, but not that he tried to sell the idea to the Council who turned it down! Or that the sleepers from his other, ill-fated railway nicknamed the Daddy-Long-Legs can still be seen at low tide.

Volks railway and Banjo groyne, brighton 2020 ©
Banjo Groyne and Volks Railway half way station

Madeira Lift

Looking down from Marine Parade you can see how much the coastline has changed.

Here’s where the walk ends with a view of the recently restored Madeira Lift. Opened in 1890 the lift links Marine Parade and Maderia Drive and in its heyday carried thousands of visitors to and from the beach.

The original cage was powered by hydraulics and decorated with mirrors and gilt – typical Brighton! It descended into an elegant room (now the Concorde2 music venue) which provded shelter if the weather was bad.

Madeira Drive Lift c1890s Brighton
Madeira Drive Lift in the 1890s

Today the lift is open (under Covid restrictions) and free to ride but is limited to six passengers at a time so you have to pre-book if you want a short trip through history.

Madeira Drive Lift, Brighton 2020 ©
Madeira Drive Lift as it looks in 2020

That’s just a few of the snippets from Seaside Stories, a walk that will take you one and a half miles and more than 100 years!

It’s easy to use – just head to their website and you can listen on your phone as you walk. It’s free and if you want to discover more they have a whole range of local history books to buy or download.

Not sure which one we’ll tackle next, but if you see me wandering the streets of Brighton, earphones plugged in with Pork Belly in tow, you’ll know that I’m continuing to Discover Brighton.

More about QueensPark Books Discover Brighton Project

Launched in summer 2020 the audio guide takes you in and around the city, using real people’s memories to focus on a specific theme.
The full range of audio guided walks is here

Black and white photographs reproduced by kind permission of QueensPark Books and Brighton Museums.
All other images ©

Where to next?
• Brighton Tomb Trail
• Ghost towns of Britain
• Vegan jumbleberry chocolate cake

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