Brighton, England — The hippest section of Brighton is a prime example of modernization and conservation done right. The North Laine was formerly a poor, slum area of town that has been reborn as a bohemian highlight of one of the most diverse and cultural towns in England.
Located on the South Downs and bordering the English Channel, 50 miles south of London, the town of Brighthelmstone has been around since Roman times, but grew in leaps and bounds when “Prinny,” the Prince Regent, later George IV, moved the court to the town to take advantage of the medicinal and recuperative powers of the salt water.
The original village is still intact, although much modernized, in The Lanes tourist shopping district. The North Laine (notice the different spelling), was outside of Brighthelmstone proper — no more than a quarter mile.
“Laine” is a Sussex dialect term for an open tract of land at the base of the South Downs, the chalk hills that run along the south coast of England. “Downs” is Sussex dialect term from an Anglo Saxon term for a farming land holding.
Brighton once was surrounded by five laines, but by the 19th century, the town had grown up and municipal roads surrounded it, followed by housing developments, and Brighton Railway Station appeared at the top of Trafalgar Street in 1840.
In the early 1800s, the North Laine was known mostly for squalor and a high number of slaughterhouses.
Even into the 1960s, the area was still working class. I spent a lot of time there as a small child, at my grandparent’s house, and I still remember the outside lavatory. Even in the 1950s the houses did not have electricity. It should be noted that I remember that in the area around the North Laine (on Foundry Street especially where my grandparents lived at No. 21), there was a sense of community that comes from shared experiences. I remember playing in the street with other kids while adults from the Pedestrian Arms pub (now The Foundry) would rotate popping out to ask us if we wanted a bag of crisps (chips in American parlance) or a lemonade.
In the 1970s, plans were afoot to demolish much of the North Laine and build high-rise flats and a car park. Brighton Borough planning officer Ken Fines pressured the local council to designate it as a conservation area and the streets between Trafalgar and North streets have since blossomed. Fines is commemorated for his vision with a blue plaque in his honor.
Wandering around the streets now is a treat. It is by no means modernized or glamorized out of recognition. The shops have the same, slightly run-down look I remember from my youth, But they are now “cool.” The glasses shop where my partner bought her very-hip English spectacles is cool (and so are she and the glasses). The vintage toys shops are cool. The bookshops are cool, with many of their titles aimed at the town’s large LGBT community. The here’s-something-smelly-from-Asia-that-will-help-you-relax shop is cool. And the we-only-sell-amazing-Cornish-pasties shop is very cool.
Anita Roddick’s original Body Shop began in Kensington Gardens in 1976 — I was frequent customer myself to buy some exotic moisturizer or hair product (yes, I used to have hair), all in recycled packaging.
Brighton is a two-university tourist resort, and on any given day the North Laine’s tight streets are packed with young and old alike, and the shops have something for everyone.
Brighton is a “sophisticated, cosmopolitan town, and the North Laine is the perfect example of how to “gentrify” an area and still retain its charm and individuality.