Archive for July, 2009

Piers of Sussex

What has St. Leonards lost which Brighton, Eastbourne, Worthing, Bognor, Hastings and Littlehampton each still has? Clue: Brighton had three and now has one and a bit. I’m talking about piers of course.

Sussex can’t claim to have had the first pier (that’s Ryde Pier on the Isle of Wight) but it probably did have the first to be used as a fashionable promenade (Brighton’s Royal Chain Pier). It shames to say that of the piers outside Brighton, I’m only familiar with Worthing’s just because it has a variety of Art Deco elements which I adore.

The Royal Chain Pier opened in 1823 as a landing stage but quickly became a popular place for the wealthy to stroll. What must have been an amazing spectacle, the Brighton & Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, was completed in 1896 and soon afterwards used the Chain Pier as a terminus. Long legs raised its single car, Pioneer, high above the submerged track which led to the nickname ‘Daddy-long-legs’.  It was nearly finished off in 1896 by the same gale that destroyed the Chain Pier (and the Palace Pier during construction).

The West Pier was designed by Eugenius Birch, that famous pier engineer, and opened in 1866. It went downhill from 1975 and is now little more than a twisted wreck in the sea. Its fate apparently lies with the success of the i360 viewing tower which should have been built months ago. On the upside, the Birdcage Bandstand nearby is close to completion following, again, years of neglect. The Palace Pier (now quite ridiculously named the Brighton Pier by its current shady owners) will always have a special place in my heart as the pier on which I lost my money on school trips down from London.

Martin Easdown’s Piers of Sussex was recently published and is, as one would hope given the fascinating subject matter, an excellent read. The book reminded me just how impressive our local piers are and how important it is that something is done about the West Pier.

Incidentally, St Leonards’ Pier was destroyed by fire in 1944; a common end for piers. Along with tales of construction and destruction, the book contains many fascinating – almost unimaginable – photographs. One shows Brighton with three piers simultaneously. Another shows the Graf Zeppelin eerily hovering over the West Pier in 1936.

Piers of Sussex is available from City Books on Western Road.

10 Downing Street

How many Prime Ministers have there been? How many were Labour? What was the age of the youngest Prime Minister? These were the sorts of questions that were asked of me whilst researching the most famous house in the country.

10 Downing Street was offered to the First Lord of the Treasury, Sir Robert Walpole, as a personal gift by King George II in 1732 but was only accepted on the basis that it be a home for all future holders of the office as well. Although the term Prime Minister wasn’t in use at the time, Walpole is regarded as the first. It was originally called No. 5 and was built along with other buildings on the street by the developer Sir George Downing in 1682-84. The gift from the King actually consisted of three separate buildings – No. 10 itself, a mansion behind and a cottage next-door. The complex, created for Walpole by William Kent, is a fascinating TARDIS-like warren of flexible interconnecting rooms of different shapes, sizes and styles.

There’s a story behind every room within No. 10 and it’s of course impossible to recount every one here. The standard of decoration is extremely high and my favourite room is probably the Cabinet Room with its large table, views over the gardens and ornamental sword from Kuwait. Around the famous staircase, which has no visible supports, is a collection of pictures of all previous Prime Ministers – most recent at the top.

No. 10 came extremely close to demolition one more than one occasion. Ultimately, it was built badly on inappropriate foundations so problems were inevitable. During the 1960s, it was rebuilt at a cost of £3 million with as much of the fabric of the building being retained as possible. The seemingly black bricks were found to be yellow so black paint now replaces what was previously soot. The trademark front door is made from steel following an attack by the IRA in 1991. Clearly displayed on its brass letterbox is the inscription FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY – one of the offices currently held by Gordon Brown.

I was able to see around 10 Downing Street due to a resourceful Parliamentary colleague arranging a group tour. Incidentally, I didn’t answer any of the questions correctly but, for those who are wondering, the answers are 52, 6 and 24* (Pitt The Yonger).

* Figures correct at time of writing.


11 Powis Square

With 24 houses divided into over 100 units, the chances of finding a complete house in Powis Square seem slim. Seven actually remain whole and I was lucky enough to be shown around one of them, No. 11, the home of my friend Ann Smith and her husband, Tony Bailey.

Powis Square isn’t that square really; it’s more of an open-topped crescent. The early Victorian development was built away from the sea and is right at the heart of the Montpelier & Clifton Hill Conservation Area. The houses have both either four or five storeys as some have rooms within a mansard roof; seemingly an original feature as confirmed by the chimneys – the number of pots matches the number of floors in each case.

Powis Square got its name from its developer, John Yearlsey, who hailed from Welshpool in Powys, Wales. All of the houses are Grade II Listed and most have bow fronts in a similar style to those at the top of Brunswick Square. Nos. 12 and 13 don’t have bow fronts and aren’t so deep but are double-fronted.

No. 11 is particularly quirky due to its position on a sweeping external corner. It is made up of a rectangular section containing the principal rooms and a triangular section with the landings and winding staircase. On the ground floor, a folding early 20th century coromandel screen from Shanghai slides and folds as a partition between the dining room and kitchen. Above, the drawing room’s tall windows open straight out onto what must be an immensely heavy stone balcony with stunning views across the little green and its pair of proper red telephone boxes.

Whoever divided up the land for gardens was particularly generous to the owners of No. 11. The large plot has been put to great use too and reminded me about how much more I should know about plants. The building’s bungaroosh rear wall is mostly exposed and it’s clear that a (quite essential) toilet block spanning the floors was added as an afterthought.

Ann probably thinks I’m mad but the most interesting feature for me is at the top. The front of the house has its own pitched roof as does the rear; like a camel’s back. Water is then directed from the middle of the house to the back along a lead-lined gulley – which runs uncovered right through the centre of the loft floor.