Channel Shore

Channel Shore by Tom Fort Page B

Book: Channel Shore by Tom Fort Read Free Book Online
Authors: Tom Fort
Albert objected to the ‘semi-Chinese monstrosities’ on display in the Pavilion, and much more strongly to the vulgar curiosity of the hordes of overdressed and immodest social butterflies flitting along the promenade. ‘The people are very indiscreet and troublesome here which makes this place quite a prison,’ she complained. They much preferred the understated charms of the Isle of Wight, and once Osborne House was built and fitted out appropriately, they kept away from Brighton altogether.
    Brighton did not miss them overmuch. It was too occupied in providing for a clientele much increased and democratised by the opening of the railway line from London in the 1840s. Under challenge from Eastbourne and Bournemouth, its reputation as resort of first choice for the top tier of society declined somewhat. But the start of the winter season in November still witnessed a remarkable influx of titled personages, British and foreign, whose comings and goings were faithfully recorded in the ‘Local Fashionable Intelligence’ column of the
Brighton Gazette
. In 1870 it announced in successive weeks the presence of, among others, the Duke of Newcastle, Baron Rothschild, Lord and Lady Monson, the Duc de Persigny, the Earl and Countess of Shannon, the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, the Duke of Rutland, the Duchess of Cambridge, Baroness de Clifford and the Bishop of Chichester.
    The routine was leisurely. In fine weather there was ageneral saunter along the promenade from noon to one o’clock, followed by lunch. Between three and five in the afternoon came the ‘carriage airing’, in which an enormous cavalcade of barouches, landaus, broughams, phaetons, waggonettes, flys, tandems, and dog-carts processed up and down the seafront, permitting the mob of the quality to take the air, incline their noble brows, doff their hats and exchange titbits of gossip.
    In 1866 perhaps the most glorious of the pleasure piers that became an indispensable feature of Victorian seaside resorts was opened opposite Regency Square. The West Pier, with its ornamental houses, minarets and pinnacles and serpent-entwined gas lamps, was designed by Eugenius Birch to mimic the Oriental extravagance of the Royal Pavilion. It is tempting to see its fortunes and final fate as a barometer of the fortunes of Brighton itself.
    Subsequent additions to the West Pier included a pavilion (later converted into a theatre), a winter gardens and a concert hall. In 1919–20 two million people paid to enjoy its attractions. But within ten years attendances were falling steeply as a result of competition from the Palace Pier and the proliferation of other diversions along the seafront. The days when dukes and duchesses and marquises strolled along the promenade were long gone, and Brighton – like other resorts – was forced down-market. The seedy side of Brighton life, always present but generally kept out of sight, asserted itself.
    When Graham Greene’s
Brighton Rock
was published in 1938, councillors were appalled by its focus on gangland viciousness and small-time crime at the expense of visitor attractions. The film version of 1946, starring Richard Attenborough as thepsychopath Pinkie, was even more dismaying. Its climax saw Pinkie throwing himself off a gaunt, rusted and dismally unloved Palace Pier into a heaving grey sea that no one in his or her right mind would want to swim in. By then both Brighton’s piers were in a sad state, as was most of the seafront. The decline of the Palace Pier was halted, but that of the West Pier continued. By the time Richard Attenborough returned to film scenes for his anti-war satire
Oh! What A Lovely War
it was literally on its last legs.
    The West Pier’s recognition as a Victorian masterpiece came far too late to save it. It was given Grade One status in 1979, but it had closed four years earlier and was derelict and becoming hazardous. Storm and fire eventually completed the job of reducing it to the dismembered,

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