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 11.
Brighton, England — There are several attractions that cater to tourists along the Brighton sea front, three of which have been around for more than a century (in one form or another). Here are a few more pocket profiles.
Volk’s Electric Railway
The world’s oldest electric railway clatters its way along Brighton beach front between the Palace Pier and Black Rock, near Brighton Marina, a distance of slightly more than a mile. It was built by Magnus Volk in 1883 and while it is not the first it is the oldest still in existence. The railway originally ran from the palace Pier to the Chain Pier, which was destroyed during a storm in 1896. It is fun to sit on the train as it rumbles along the pebbled beach. It’s not exactly fast and people regularly stroll across the track without fear. The VER runs throughout the summer unless weather intrudes (always a possibility in England). A round trip ticket costs 4.90 pounds ($6.13) and the railway is operational from 10:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. So grab an ice cream or some cockles and sit back for a leisurely old-fashioned shuttle along the seaside.
Here I am deliberately using the wrong name for the structure that juts out into the sea in front of the Sea Life Center. Technically, it is the Brighton Palace Pier but no self-respecting Brightonian refers to it as such, even during the decades when it was officially just called Brighton Pier. Designed by R St. George Moore, it opened in 1899 as a replacement for the Chain Pier which was destroyed in a storm. When I was a kid it housed a lot of amusements typical of a seaside town — horse riding games one operated with a crank, fortune-telling machines and penny in the slot machines. Examples of these games can be found in the Brighton Museum. Nowadays, the pier features slot machines and an amusement park on the end. It still has the best doughnuts in the world. For a few pounds one also gets the pleasure of watching the batter fall into the oil as the doughy confection browns and sizzles. It is the chewy doughiness that distinguishes them. Just be warned, the ever-vigilant seagulls are waiting to snatch the tasty morsel from your fingers — they only need the slightest opening, as Morgan, one of the LU study abroad students, discovered to her cost. There is something wonderfully trashy about the pier but no trip to Brighton is complete without a visit.
Even though the Chain Pier was long gone, Brighton was still a two-pier town when I was growing up. It was designed by Eugenius Birch and opened in 1866, after the Chain Pier. The Palace Pier had all the games and the West Pier had a concert hall. My memory is of it being more of a promenade pier. Some time in the late 1960s a toy fair was held in town and there were demonstrations of new gadgets at the end of the pier. I was there with my family and a TV representative asked my friend if he wanted to be on television. He was too shy. Of course, I immediately jumped up and said, “I’ll do it.” That’s how I ended up riding a kid’s hovercraft on the evening news. Sadly, the pier closed in 1975 when the owners couldn’t afford the maintenance costs and fell into disrepair. In 2002, part of the pier collapsed, and two fires in 2003 left nothing but a skeletal structure that still sits off the shore. Various projects have been proposed over the years but I doubt anything will happen. There is something magnificent about the bones of the old building, silhouetted forlornly as the waves lap on the shore at sunset. And the starlings that cover the structure during migration have inspired a thousand pictures.
British Airways i360
The latest addition to the sea front attractions is the British Airways i360, a 531-feet-tall pole that lifts a glass doughnut high into sky, offering a great view of the town. It only opened in 2016 so I had not had the chance to go on it before this trip. Of course, the day the students and I went it was drizzling rain and overcast so the view was not at its best. Entry is just like getting on a plane. The staff are all wearing British Airways uniforms and one has to empty pockets, remove belts (not shoes, thankfully) and go through a metal detector. Seems like overkill to me but I played along. The glass room slowly rises into the sky, pausing at the optimal height. There’s a bar which serves champagne and it can hoist 200 visitors who can wander around looking at the 360-degree views. I was fascinated to learn that they built the tower from the bottom up. Basically, a foundation was built and then segments were put in place, lifted, and the next one inserted underneath. It is a fascinating piece of engineering. The tower is 12-meters wide and has a height to width ratio of 40:1, making it the slenderest high tower in the world. The “flights” run every 30 minutes and last 20-25 minutes. Reservations are advisable. We got our tickets as part of the Brighton Pass, which includes access to the Royal Pavilion, the Sea Life Center aquarium and the i360 for 36 pounds ($45), which is a great deal. The i360 on its own is 15 pounds ($18.75). I am not sure that I would pay that just for the view of a town I am already familiar with. But if you are the kind of person who would stand in line to go up the Empire State Building, then the i360 is for you.