Brighton can easily turn you into a schizophrenic. There I was, all ready to discover the nightlife of the city which has been described affectionately as London-by-the-Sea. But having arrived in the city at the start of what the English (also affectionately) refer to as our Indian summer, I got to explore Brighton only three days later.
Blame the happy sidetracking on my hosts, Michael and Jan-ice Bates, the British Deputy High Commission to Mumbai not so long ago. The Bates had planned a full-on eight-day itinerary; a plan they put into motion during the drive down from Heathrow to their lovely villa in Brighton’s posh suburbs. All they did was to take the scenic route home and voila, jet lag forgotten, I was hooked.
Yes, Brighton is all that you’ve heard of. It’s a regular haven for a weekend full of clubbing. It’s a romantic getaway for honeymooners. It’s shopping heaven for those who want London’s Oxford Street goodies at lesser prices. It’s got that long unbroken marina skirting the sea. And. Actually, it’s a big AND. It’s right on the Sussex Heritage Coast with some of the most stunning cliffs, rolling landscapes with unspoilt villages tucked away, almost, as it were, in the pages of Town and Country.
On our daily drives through the undulating South Downs that look over Brighton, Hove, Eastbourne, I would stare with fascination at the landscape’s geometry carpeted by a hundred shades of green and yellow. At cows grazing, fit-as-a-fiddle cyclists with locomotive breaths, joggers with headphones and people gardening. We walked on top of cliffs that dropped sharply down to the calm ocean. While seagulls, skylarks and finches circled overhead, we walked on marinas looking up at blindingly white chalk cliffs.
I discovered so many Indian connections. In gardens that contain seeds from all over the world including rare plants from the Himalayas. At Batemans, home from 1902 to 1936 to Rudyard Kipling who gave the world Mowgli and Akela the lone Wolf in Jungle Book.
In Brighton city, another strong Indian connection was revealed. I had arrived during the city’s most vibrant month. The Brighton Festival was on in full swing. Started in 1966, the festival has become a major fixture on the international art calendar by offering a combination of local acts and international performers in theatre, dance, music and art. This year, Bombay-born London resident and Turner winning artist Anish Kapoor was appointed as Guest Artist Director for the Brighton Festival.
These are a few of my favourite places in and around Brighton:
THE ROYAL PAVILION
For three hours I was Alice in Wonderland. You will be too. There are very, very few manmade places that can astonish travelista moil But this OTT edifice of Indian-Moghul exterior and Chinese interiors will delight the campest of gay queens. Originally a farmhouse, architect Henry Holland created a neoclassical villa on the site in 1787. It was later transformed into its current Indian style by John Nash between 1815 and 1822. For two centuries it’s been a fantasy world filled with mythical creatures, astonishing colours and superb craftsmanship. I gaped at the domed ceiling of gilded scallop-shaped shells and hand-knotted carpet of the Music Room. Bright blues, pinks, lavenders and purples testify that King William IV was no shrinking violet when it came to hosting flamboyant parties. Lavish menus were created in the Great Kitchen, with its cast iron palm trees and superb collection of copper ware, and then served in the rich opulence of the Banqueting Room a setting dominated by its spectacular central chandelier held by a silvered dragon. Another Indian connection? It served as a hospital for Indian troops wounded on the western front during the first world war.
Five minutes away from the Pavilion is a veritable maze of streets that form a pedestrian only, open-air shopping zone. From being farming lots in the Middle Ages, the Laines is today a bohemian area popular with eccentric locals and tourists. In the space of five minutes I saw mods, rockers, Goths, hippies, punks, jugglers, musicians, dancers, singers, stand-up comedians. Art, antiques, second-hand books, CDs, musical instruments stocked in boutique style shops alongside bars, cafes and restaurants. What a buzz! The world-famous Body Shop was born here two decades ago.
It’s one of Europe’s largest marinas. All along the waterfront you can shop, eat, drink, sail, dive, fish, go bowling, place your bet in casinos and generally just have fun on the pier which is a mini amusement park.
The memorial now known as the Chattri was erected after the war, and unveiled by the Prince of Wales on February 21, 1921. It was built on the exact spot where the bodies of Indian soldiers had been cremated. The Chattri bears the following inscription, in Urdu, Hindi and English: “To the memory of all Indian soldiers who gave their lives for their King-Emperor in the Great War, this monument, erected on the site of the funeral pyre where the Hindus and Sikhs who died in hospital at Brighton passed through the fire, is in grateful admiration and brotherly affection dedicated.”
Just 20 minutes drive out of Brighton, follow the coastline to the famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs that form part of the Sussex Heritage Coast. The trail follows the valley floor down to the shingle beach and the mouth of the River Cuckmere. The views are spectacular. At the Seven Sisters Country Park I saw a wide variety of very different habitats, from steeply sloping chalk downland with its myriad of wild flowers and insects to the windswept coastline with rare and wonderful shingle plants and sheer chalk cliffs.
Rudyard Kipling’s father was an English art teacher in Byculla, Bombay back in 1865. But Rudyard’s internationally acclaimed writings were done here, his home from 1902. The interior of this beautiful 17th century Jacobean house reflects the author’s strong associations with India. There are many oriental rugs and artifacts, and most of the rooms — including his booklined study — are much as Kipling left them. The delightful grounds run down to the small River Dudwell with its watermill and contain roses, wild flowers, fruits and herbs. Kipling’s Rolls Royce is also on display. His nickname? Gigs!
No visit to Brighton is complete without taking this 40 minute drive out. You will marvel at this vast garden with plants from around the world. WP is internationally renowned for its combination of formal botanic gardens and its vital plant conservation work. Its tree collections are extensive and picked from all over the world, including India (Himalayas) China and Japan. The Millennium Seed bank is a globally important project. It has more than a billion seeds collected so far for future preservation.
You can go more gourmand than gourmet. I couldn’t resist the ubiquitous fish and chips seven times out of ten! Oily, mayonnaisey and yummy. Ploughman’s lunch, sausages, oysters, mussels, scallops too. Loads of Chinese and Indian eateries ensure you will never go hungry and stay within your budget.
If you are lucky enough to have more time on your hands, you must visit this outstand-ing 10th century garden set around a romantic house and ruins, in beautiful woodland. Theatrically designed with plants from around the world, Nymans is internationally renowned for its garden de-sign, rare plant collection and intimacy. Visit the Messel fam-ily rooms in the house and see the dramatic ruins, which form a magnificent backdrop to the main lawn. It is the childhood home of Anthony Armstrong-Jones, popularly known as Lord Snowdon, internationally renowned photographer and first husband of the late Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister.