Note: I am leading Lamar University’s study abroad group to my home town, Brighton, to study travel writing and photojournalism. As well as writing features about Brighton and beyond, I’m keeping a diary, of sorts, about the class experience. Here is part 10.
BRIGHTON, England — Sometimes it is just fun to wander around town. Even though I was born there, there are many things about Brighton that I have forgotten or never knew. While the Lamar University study abroad students were exploring the North Laines I took off on the long and winding — and very hilly — road to do a little exploring.
For our arrival, my mother had bought us a book, “111 Places in Brighton and Lewes That You Shouldn’t Miss” by Alexandra Loske. It sat on the coffee table at our residence for anyone to peruse. I was quite pleased at how many places we fit into the trip, but there were a few others that cried out for a visit so using the book as a guide I wandered off. The following are things of interest that really aren’t worthy of a full exploration but are of sufficient interest to be noted.
One of Brighton’s most famous sons is the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley who, along with his friend Oscar Wilde, was a leading figure in the aestheticism movement. His house is located at 31 Buckingham Place, up the road from the railway station. The walk to his house from London Road to what is close to the highest point of town is brutal and my calves were burning when I got there. Beardsley was from a relatively well-to-do family and his interest in art grew from long periods of illness as a child, contracting tuberculosis for the first time at age 6. Beardsley was heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and Japanese woodcuts. His first major work was the illustrations for Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.” He was appointed art editor of The Yellow Book quarterly magazine and soon illustrated Wilde’s “Salome.” The sensuous quality of his line work and the heavily eroticized women startled the public and critics alike. When Wilde’s sodomy trial scandalized society, Beardsley was fired from The Yellow Book in the backlash to aestheticism. He illustrated for a new magazine, The Savoy, as well as publishing poetry and illustrating Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” Tuberculosis, from which he suffered most of his life, finally invalided him and he died in France March 16, 1898, aged only 25. The house is a typical Brighton house and there is an inscription on the wall to mark the artist. Beardsley’s work has stood the test of time and the clarity of line work is masterful. Check out his work, especially “Salome.”
St. Nicholas Church
From Beardsley’s house, one can curl up over the hill to the sweet relief of Dyke Road which is downhill — steep downhill. There, one can find the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra, or St. Nicholas Church, the oldest in Brighton. It is thought to be on the site of a church mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. The present church dates to the mid-14th century. In 1853, following the boom in population caused by the court moving to Brighton to take advantage of the health benefits of seawater, eight new churches had been built to ease the congestion on St. Nicholas. Nowadays, the church is a peaceful retreat from the bustle of the city and the grounds are a nice place to sit and relax.
Martha Gunn’s Grave
In the grounds of St. Nicholas sits the grave of Martha Gunn, a Brighton legend (there is a pub named for her so that tells you how famous she is). Gunn (1726-1815) was a famous “dipper,” dubbed “The Venerable High Priestess of the Bath.” A dipper operated the bathing machines that transported women into the sea to swim, preserving their modesty. Gunn was a formidable woman — a dipper had to be strong enough to push the heavy bathing machines into the sea. She was a favorite of the Prince Regent, later George IV, and had access to the Royal Pavilion’s kitchen. She is pictured in an engraving of the time repelling French invaders with a mop. Gunn was from a family of fishermen and probably started her dipping career as a young woman but was still working into her 80s. She was born Martha Gillick and married Stephen Gunn in 1758. That she became so entwined with the identity of the burgeoning Brighton is a testament to the force of her personality.
Also buried in St. Nicholas’ graveyard is Phoebe Hessel, who disguised herself as a man to serve in the British army alongside her lover Samuel Golding. Born in 1713, Hessel lived to be 107. She was born in Stepney in London and served in the West Indies and Gibraltar, being wounded in the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy. Her identity was finally revealed when she was stripped to whipped, responding only with, “Strike and be damned.” She was not punished and the pair were salaried out and married. They raised a family in Plymouth and when Golding died, Phoebe moved to Brighton to marry fisherman Thomas Hessel. Thomas died when Phoebe was 80 and she supported herself for the rest of her life by selling oranges and gingerbread on the corner of the Royal Pavilion. She was assigned to a workhouse but the Prince Regent granted her a pension of half a guinea a week in 1808. She attended his coronation parade in 1820.
In old Sussex parlance, a twitten is a narrow lane between buildings. It may come from the German zwischen, meaning in between and was first recorded in the 13th century. Ship Street Gardens is a twitten that separates Middle Street and Ship Streets and is barely wide enough for two people to pass. However, that is positively spacious compared to Black Lion Lane in which one can easily touch both walls without stretching, making it almost impossible for two people to easily pass. Three house fronts are located in the lane. They do not have much of a front step.
Next time: More tidbits from the seafront.