Archive for August, 2007

Royal Pavilion’s Secret Passageways

Despite writing columns on architecture for Latest Homes for well over two years, I have not written about the Royal Pavilion once – possibly due to holding out for the right moment. And now, three moments have arrived at once.

The Royal Pavilion is the world famous jewel in Brighton’s Regency crown. Lovingly built by the Prince Regent (later King George IV) as his hedonistic palace of pleasure, it never fails to amaze visitors and locals alike. The main routes on the public tours offer much but now, as an even bigger treat, it is possible to see some of the hidden areas on two tours called ‘Basement to Bottle’ (more of the ‘Bottle’ later) and ‘Behind the Scenes’.

It’s fairly safe to say that Louise Hume has one of the most desirable jobs in Brighton. With passion and knowledge, she began my private tour with a walk along the servants’ tunnels by the Great Kitchen. Running along the length of the building, the tunnels allowed servants, up to 200 at a time at banquets, to carry out their duties efficiently, quietly and, perhaps most importantly, out of sight. I then learnt that a door, invisible to the casual eye, opens between the famous Music Room and a musicians’ room behind. Similarly, a door hidden in the ornately-painted walls beside the bed in the King’s Apartments leads to a staircase and on to the floors above. The door, again, is completely invisible. Much work went on out of view in the Pavilion of yesteryear – much as it does today.

My own interest in the subterranean is no secret to regular readers so I was particularly looking forward to the tunnel to the nearby Dome (which was originally the Pavilion’s stables). The tunnel was built in around 1822 and allowed the King to travel easily and discretely to his horses. The secret passages and tunnel were fascinating enough but there’s more to come – overt the coming weeks I will be writing about the inside of the main dome along with my walk over the Pavilion’s magnificent roof.

I’m still amazed at how many locals have not seen around the Royal Pavilion. There’s no logical reason for this and that’s before even considering the discounts for locals during the winter. I’m digressing though! For information on the special tours go to www.royalpavilion.org.uk, e-mail visitor.services@brighton-hove.gov.uk or call 01273 292820. No excuses!


New England House

Generally thought of an eyesore, New England House receives some pretty bad press. But, as the home of Latest Homes, it at least dishes out a fair amount of good press in return.

There are several monumental structures in the vicinity of New England House which deserve a mention to set the scene. Brighton Station, to the west, opened in 1840 and so began the railway era. The gargantuan London Road Viaduct, to the north, was complete by 1846. It is made up of around 10 million bricks which were amazingly laid in under a year. The enormous St. Bartholomew’s Church, to the south, opened in 1874 to the dimensions of Noah’s Ark and boasts the tallest nave of all parish churches in the country. The area around London Road has been run-down for some time now but there’s no point in making excuses. New England House was never a pretty building – but it could be.

In 1963, New England House opened when much of the area was undergoing massive transformation. Wholes street between London Road and Brighton Station were being swept away for redevelopment. Brighton Goods-Yard closed soon afterwards and remained as a car park until its recent development commenced. Originally, there were 18 firms in residence at New England House. Today, along just a single utilitarian corridor on my tour, I saw several record labels, a ceramicist, five artists and a textile designer! In response to criticism over the building’s appearance, some would say that it’s what’s inside that counts. However, those people aren’t usually architecturally-obsessed like me.

There is no doubt that New England House contains a bewildering amount of creative talent. But, at eight storeys in height, it is prominent. And, it is owned by Brighton & Hove City Council. If Brighton is to be taken seriously, important buildings like this must look the part; especially as the adjacent New England Quarter development is now taking shape. Just by complete coincidence, I came across Alan Phillips Architects on the same corridor as the Latest Homes offices and discovered that ambitious plans have already been drawn up for a complete refurbishment and the addition of a roof garden.

A serious external revamp should take place with a possible increase in height. Internal changes could be left to a minimum though. Costs, and therefore rents, should be kept low. Latest Homes has columnists to pay after all!


Palace of Westminster

Despite working there for some time now, this is the first occasion on which I’ve mentioned the building in which I spend more time than anywhere else. Clue: it’s our country’s most famous landmark and the namesake of HP Sauce!

Since at least Saxon times, there have been buildings on the site which is today home to the Palace of Westminster, or the Houses of Parliament as it is more commonly known. A mediaeval palace and its various additions were destroyed in a massive fire in 1834 though the eerily tranquil Westminster Hall which dates from 1097 did survive. Work began on the present Gothic style Palace in 1840 after a design by Charles Barry (1795-1860) was chosen by the Royal Commission following a public competition. Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52) assisted Barry on, in particular, the Gothic elements. The project took around thirty years to complete.

Now’s a good time to clear up a common mistake. What is generally known as ‘Big Ben’ is in fact called the Clock Tower. Big Ben is the largest (and loudest!) of the Tower’s five bells. Also, the Victoria Tower on the opposite end of the building is much larger than the Clock Tower. It is only slightly taller at 98.5m compared to 96.3m but is almost double the width. The cavernous Westminster Hall was incorporated into Barry’s design as were the remains of St. Stephen’s Chapel and the Cloisters which also both survived the fire. There are said to be over 1,200 rooms, 100 staircases and well over 2 miles of corridors. I can quite believe it.

Barry became Sir Charles when he was knighted in 1852. Closer to home, he also designed St. Peter’s Church, the Attree Villa and the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton along with St. Andrew’s Church in Hove. The Attree Villa was tragically demolished in 1972 despite being Grade II* Listed. My favourite room in Parliament, incidentally, is the Royal Gallery and it also happens to have a Brighton connection – a large picture of George IV hangs prominently therein.

It’s gone midnight and I still have much work to do before I can sleep. It’s likely to be raining in the morning and the train to work is always packed. But, it doesn’t matter. As soon as the Clock Tower comes into view as I walk along Victoria Street, it’ll be impossible not to feel happy.


Old Steine

Look up the Old Steine on Brighton & Hove City Council’s directory of Listed Buildings and its importance is immediately clear. Not only is its entry long, it also contains perhaps the City’s two most significant buildings; both Grade I Listed.

Dr Richard Russell played a large role in transforming Brighton from a washed-out fishing village into a Georgian playground. He published famously published his ‘Dissertation Concerning the Use of Sea Water in Diseases of the Glands’ in 1750 and soon afterwards built a house on the south side of what was then simply known as ‘The Steine’. The gentry flocked to Brighton for his seawater cures and The Steine, due to both its location and being flat, was a perfect place for them to stroll. The fishermen, who used it as an area to dry their nets, weren’t too happy though. The Steine became the ‘Old Steine’ when the New Steine was developed to the east in the 1790s.

The Royal Pavilion, one of Britain’s finest palaces, was built on The Steine in various stages from 1787 to 1821. Marlborough House, often said to be Brighton’s second most important building, was built on the west side of The Steine in 1765. These two great buildings along with Steine House and Blenheim House in-between form quite a parade. The Victoria Fountain was designed by Amon Henry Wilds, my favourite architect. The fountain itself sits on a base of sarsen stones which is appropriate as the word ‘Steine’ may be derived from the Flemish word for stone. The Palace Pier (I refuse to call it ‘Brighton Pier’ as the owners now want us to – what rubbish!) has sat at the base of the Old Steine for over one hundred years.

There are many buildings and monuments that I could mention but, instead, I’d prefer to constructively criticise the road layout. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for me to put my thoughts into polite terms! The Old Steine along with the Victoria Gardens and the Level should simply be combined, where possible, into something much more impressive. Until roads are removed and pedestrians given priority, Bournemouth’s Lower Gardens are way ahead in terms of safety, beauty and accessibility.

For a unique view of the Old Steine, be sure to book a place on Southern Water’s enlightening sewer tour. Without giving too much away, the tour’s point of exit is quite a surprise.