How Brighton became an epicentre of freedom

How Brighton became an epicentre of freedom

The English city got the royal stamp of approval as a place to go for hedonism and escaping social restrictions – and has been imbued with inclusivity and tolerance ever since.

The English south coast city of Brighton goes places few other cities even think of. This is a town where a man dressed as a geisha can step delicately along the city’s thronged main street and draw nothing more than an approving nod from locals; or a battalion of naked cyclists can ride happily through the city on its annual Naked Bike Ride, doing away with clothing altogether.

People feeling free to dress (or undress) how they wish is a Brighton trope – like an elderly chap I chatted to recently, casually sporting a multicoloured fruit machine-inspired suit, its riot of cherries and oranges rounded off by pointy red winkle-picker shoes. Meanwhile, Brighton tailor Zack MacLeod Pinsent recently described to the BBC his decision to dress every day here as an 18th-Century Regency dandy as simple “self-expression – never an attention thing… If I enjoy what I’m doing, why change?”

How Brighton became an epicentre of freedom
View image of Brighton regularly tops lists of the happiest places in the UK to live (Credit: Credit: oversnap/Getty Images)

All of this is just choosing your way of being in Britain’s capital of “anything goes”. Artist and writer Woodrow Phoenix sketched an outline of the city’s distinctive character in his 2005 graphic short story, The End Of The Line: “Behind London’s back… Brighton gets on with its business. The business of magnetism.” He went on to list some of those it attracts. “The rootless, the curious, the feckless, the loveless. The wanderers, the day-trippers… the oddballs and the outlaws…. If you tipped England up, everything loose would roll down here.”

If you tipped England up, everything loose would roll down here

Gathering people who don’t feel so comfortable elsewhere has been Brighton’s thing since the 18th Century. Today, that includes a sizeable LGBTQI community mingled with a concentration of creatives and other myriad folk not keen on the nine-to-five routine. They help sustain small-scale wonders like “queer culture” pub theatre The Marlborough and the community-run Cowley Club, a fabulous radical social centre where all-comers are welcome. Add large-scale wonders like England’s biggest arts festival, Europe’s biggest alternative music festival, the world’s third-biggest Fringe festival and Britain’s biggest Artist Open Houses event – all in a city a fraction of the size of London.

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Brighton’s most high-profile early “outsider” was the Prince Regent, later George IV. Nicknamed “Prinny”, he fled stifling court life in London to enjoy sexual shenanigans, gambling, flamboyant theatre and other exuberances in Brighton from the 1780s on – helping establish a template of pleasure-seeking the city has followed ever since. In 1815, he hired architect John Nash to create a perfect Brightonian fantasy palace in the unique shape of the Royal Pavilion, an eye-popping architectural mash-up of minarets and domes uniquely fusing together visions of India, China and Regency England into one of the world’s most striking buildings, inside and out.

But before Prinny – and long before the Victorian railway brought day trippers the 60 miles from central London through the South Downs hills – geography and history injected something distinct into the air in a town where the salty tang of the English Channel licks an atmospheric shingle shore overseen by raucous yellow-eyed gulls.

How Brighton became an epicentre of freedom
View image of Brighton’s annual Pride parade draws hundreds of thousands of revellers to the city (Credit: Credit: Sam Mellish/Getty Images)

“Brighton was quite cut off,” explained local historian Louise Peskett. “Before the age of cars and trains, the Downs were hellish to get over from London. So, it had this psychological thing of being like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

History added another facet, with Brighton considered a prime spot for any French invasion and attacked regularly through the 1600s and 1700s. This gave the city an air of what Peskett describes as “go there if you dare”.

It was the novel idea of sea-bathing as a health cure – propounded in 1750 by Sussex doctor Richard Russell – that saw Brighton morph into one of Britain’s first seaside resorts in Georgian times, where pioneering 19th-Century women like Martha Gunn became famous as “dippers”, teaching Brits how to bond with the sea, and, crucially, attracting high-profile early royal influencers like the Prince Regent.

Given the royal stamp of approval as a place to go for hedonism and escaping social restrictions, Brighton was set on a course where, for more than two centuries, its principal “industry” was pleasing yourself in whatever way you wished, underpinned with a sense of rebelling against social norms. This included, at times, the sort of rule-breaking behaviour expressed by low-life gangsters in Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock and the mass brawling along Brighton’s 1960s seafront between rebel-rider Rockers and sharp-dressed Mods that inspired The Who’s Quadrophenia.

How Brighton became an epicentre of freedom
View image of The Royal Pavilion was built as a seaside pleasure palace for King George IV (Credit: Credit: Thyme/Getty Images)

All this has inspired some wonderful quotes about the city, such as Noel Coward’s pithy 1930s description: “Ah, dear Brighton, piers, queers and racketeers.” Perhaps the wittiest, though, is the droll 1970s summation by late long-time resident writer Keith Waterhouse: “Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.”

Peskett suggests another unexpected influence. “Sussex was the last English county to go Christian – so it was pagan a lot longer than other places,” she said. This may explain why Doreen Valiente chose to move to Brighton during the 1950s to find a town welcoming to a woman who wrote the key early texts and “liturgy” for the modern-day form of witchcraft known as Wicca. Books such as 1962’s Where Witchcraft Lives tapped into ideas of a wide-ranging spirituality, celebration of the environment, feminine power and alternative worlds that were decades ahead of ideas becoming increasingly popular today.

Sussex was the last English county to go Christian

A Blue Plaque – Britain’s only one recognising services to witchcraft – now adorns the humble council block at Tyson Place, Grosvenor Street, where Valiente lived until her death and burial with full witchcraft ceremonial in 1999. “Doreen found inspiration in Brighton,” said Julie Belham-Payne, director of the Centre For Pagan Studies, who reveals that Valiente also found many of the rare witchcraft objects in her renowned collection – exhibited at the city’s Preston Manor in 2016 – rummaging around local antique shops in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Wicca is still part of the city’s unique weave, according to Marielle Holman, head of its Ursa Minor coven. “The spirits of nature are lively in and around Brighton,” she told me, picking out the city’s blessed position at the nexus of ley lines, which believers say come to a focus at the giant ancient boulders supporting the Victoria Fountain in the heart of the city on the patch of greenery known as Old Steine.

How Brighton became an epicentre of freedom
View image of The Flint Grotto was created by a local fisherman using flint pebbles from the beach (Credit: Credit: Norman Miller)

Dr David Bramwell has been a chronicler of offbeat Brighton since arriving from northern England in his early 20s to find “an exotic seaside town that welcomed me with open arms”, as he wrote in his play The Haunted Moustache. Having first chronicled its eccentricities in 1999’s The Cheeky Guide To Brighton (now in its 7th updated edition), he runs the regular Catalyst Club offering talks on topics like Werewolf Erotica.

Bramwell offers two current favourite highlights of the city, both pure Brighton in their glorious contrast. One takes place in the town’s most leftfield quarter, Kemptown, where a sex dungeon doubles up as a cabaret venue for Club Silencio, a bi-monthly event Bramwell says “treads the line between chaos and order, high art and trash, genius and nonsense.”

He also picks out the Flint Grotto, a collection of strange stone creatures and human figures created by fisherman Rory McCormack on the beach just east of the Palace Pier. Though largely unnoticed by many passers-by, Bramwell calls it “outsider art at its most honest, that represents a true spirit of Brighton.”

Peskett further explores this eccentric spirit of Brighton in her Notorious Women of Brighton history tour. Rather than today’s idea of notoriety, she uses the term to encompass “people transcending the limitations of gender, class and convention.”

How Brighton became an epicentre of freedom
View image of Brighton became one of Britain’s first seaside resorts in Georgian times (Credit: Credit: Peter James Sampson/Getty Images)

One of the characters on her tour is Phoebe Hessel, who escaped London’s 18th-Century slums by dressing as a man to join the army, only discovered when she was wounded in battle. Honourably discharged, she chose Brighton as the place for a cross-dressing female soldier to settle. And Brighton being a town where all-comers meet, this former pauper became friends of the Prince Regent, who paid her pension until she died at age 108.

Brighton always had a reputation for being LGBT friendly

Peskett also cites early women doctors who, when female medical students were being pelted in the street in 1880s Edinburgh for defying anti-women social codes of the time, were welcomed in Brighton. People like Helen Boyle, who pioneered free medical care for poor women, as well as a very modern holistic approach to mental health care at a time where people were either deemed to be coping or sent to asylums. “I think it was tied up with Brighton always having a reputation for being LGBT friendly, which meant women who weren’t interested in settling down with a man would have come here because they would be left to get on,” she said.

In his book Eccentrics, clinical neuropsychologist David Weeks argues that living outside the box helps people cut stresses associated with caring too much what others think about you. And perhaps that’s also a reason why Brighton regularly tops lists of the happiest places in the UK to live. Because in a city where anything goes, anything feels possible too.

Soul of the City is a series from BBC Travel that invites you to uncover the unique characteristics of cities around the world through the stories of the people who live there.

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