Archive for February, 2011

Mike Robins

It was five years and three months ago that I visited St Andrew’s Church on Waterloo Street for the first time. I recall photographing the exterior and then heading inside for a tour with the building’s charismatic custodian, Mike Robins.

Mike passed away last month and a special funeral was held at St Andrew’s in his honour. So it turned out that the place that I first met my good friend was the place that I was able to say goodbye.

Many people knew Mike as the energetic tour guide of Brunswick Town. Indeed, a huge image of Mike working found its way onto the side of a local bus. His trademarks were a Russian hat and a willingness at all times to stop for refreshments. Both were regular features whenever we met to discuss ideas for this very column and, if it wasn’t for Mike, I would never have investigated the hidden parts of Clifton Hill, the basement of the Freemason’s Tavern, the secret garden of 33 Brunswick Square or, indeed, Mike’s own ‘undiscovered Constable’.

Mike had hoped that an ink drawing of the Western Pavilion which he had found amongst his possessions was by the great John Constable. That drawing is now in the possession of the Regency Town House on Brunswick Square. As the energetic promoter of Brunswick Town that Mike was, he wouldn’t have minded me mentioning another drawing which has recently found its way into the museum – one of the most important surviving drawings by the architect of Brunswick Town, Charles Augustin Busby.

The 1826 coloured plan and elevation of a Brunswick Square house took pride of place in the private collection of the late Anthony Dale, founder of the Regency Society, and is in fact the only known drawing of a Brunswick town house by Busby. It was recently acquired at auction for over £7,000 by the Regency Town House and prints are now being sold on to support the purchase.

One of my more gruesome DIY disasters was a foot injury. I jumped off a ladder straight onto a particularly thick 4” screw which had to actually be unwound from my foot. After hopping around for some time, it was Mike who came to the rescue with food and stories. I’ll never forget that kind deed.

Brunswick Town just doesn’t feel the same following the loss of one of its greatest sons.

Royal Sussex County Hospital Redevelopment

A planning application looms on the horizon for an immense redevelopment of the Royal Sussex County Hospital.

The first hospital building on the site was built from 1826-28 to the designs of Charles Barry, before he became Sir Charles following his work on the Houses of Parliament. His building and its various ugly extensions are today known as the Barry Building. The site includes a number of other structures including the Thomas Kemp Tower of 1969 and the charming new Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital of 2007.

The proposal is to demolish all of the buildings on the south side of the main site, including the Barry Building, and build a single new structure in their place. The idea brings with it a number of opportunities architecturally and there is no doubt that a chance is being presented to do something amazing.

I am sad to say that the ongoing ‘consultation’ has so far left me feeling frustrated and helpless. An immense structure is planned for the site which is to be as tall as, and attached to, the Thomas Kemp Tower behind. The proposed building is simply too bulky and its style has no respect for its surroundings. Charles Barry’s work, somewhat tainted by its condition and the quality of its extensions, is to be demolished.

I have my own dream scheme for the site that involves extending the Thomas Kemp Tower to accommodate the helipad and building two distinct new buildings across the foot of the site. But my fellow Conservation Advisory Group member, Duncan Cameron, has proposed an interesting alternative with a specific focus on the retention of Charles Barry’s work (essentially, the central portion of the Barry Building).

Some say that Barry’s contribution is not important, that it cannot be saved or that it cannot be incorporated into a modern scheme. Duncan’s work, in conjunction with architect Chris Cage, dispels these myths.

In 1830, two years after the completion of Barry’s hospital, the Attree Villa was built on the edge of what became Queen’s Park. It was to be the first in a series of grand houses around the park but the scheme was never fully realised. The demolition of the villa in 1972 was an enormously sad moment.

Barry’s work on the hospital is almost unrecognisable in its current guise. It is in bad condition and has been insensitively extended. But should it really be demolished?

Brighton Toy & Model Museum

I have walked down Trafalgar Street from Brighton Station on countless occasions without stopping to have a look inside the Brighton Toy & Model Museum. But a new wall mural depicting the iconic Brighton Belle made me make up my mind to find out more.

The first Belle to greet visitors inside the museum is in fact Belle the dog (real, not a toy). I was shown around by volunteer Eric Baird and met Chris Littledale along the way. Chris founded the museum in 1990 and there are now somewhere in the region of 10,000 exhibits (and that is not counting all of the pieces of Meccano separately).

I was looking out more for local history connections than toys and models generally but there were many overlaps. One such example is a delightful model of ‘Pioneer’ (nicknamed ‘Daddy Longlegs’), the long-legged passenger car of the Brighton & Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway. Although there is no Brighton connection whatsoever, I particularly loved a Dan Dare spaceship dating from around 1953 and a number of sizeable mechanical boats with huge keys for winding them up.

The museum occupies four arches directly below the hard-standing in front of Brighton Station. Behind, a hidden cavity provides storage space but, most interestingly, gives access to the lowest section of the front wall of the station itself. A fascinating network of mysterious tunnels exists beneath the station and the location of the toy museum just adds to the intrigue. The arches themselves are thought to have once served as a beer store and the Bass Red Triangle, the first registered trademark in the UK, may clearly be seen from the pavement.

The museum is dominated by two large model train sets; an intricate 0 gauge set in the centre and a less complicated set at the back using the smaller 00 gauge. Each is marvellous but I was more taken with the 00 set due to intricate models (‘approximations’ says Chris) of the Balcombe Viaduct, Clayton Tunnel north portico and Hastings cable car cliff lift.

The connection between model railways and their larger counterparts continues in the form of a close working relationship between the museum and the 5 Bel Trust, the body responsible for the ongoing restoration of the Brighton Belle. The Art Deco Brighton Belle was the world’s only all electric Pullman
train – and it is set to grace the tracks once again in 2012.


Cockpit Arts in Holborn provided inspiration for Richard Ainsworth, the driving force behind Rodhus Art & Design on Hollingdean Road in Brighton.

Until 2010, Horsell Electrics was based within a medium-sized factory on the north side of Hollingdean Road, between the Vogue Gyratory and the railway bridge above. Horsell is a lighting manufacturer and was founded by Richard’s grandfather, Harold Ainsworth. Following the sale of the business to Drallim Industries last year, manufacturing now takes place in Shoreham which has left the Hollingdean Road premises empty. A less ambitious man may well have sold the site to a property developer, but Richard is passionate about manufacturing and is keen to see the site retained as a creative hub

Cockpit Arts provides artists and designers with workshop areas, gallery space and business assistance. That combination of services has proved to be extremely successful and, following discussions with Cockpit, Richard has put in place a similar model in Brighton under the banner ‘Rodhus’, named after a holiday complex in Denmark where he spent time with his family.

Rodhus occupies the entirety of the former lighting factory which offers around 20,000 sq ft of space. The workshop area takes up much of the ground floor where there is also parking and a loading bay. The gallery is on the ground floor too, below a reception area and design library. There are many different spaces dotted around the complex including a single huge room above the workshop area which has sparked interest from the organisers of the Brighton Roller Derby.

Hollingdean began as one of the laines (fields) of the parish of Preston and was developed from the 1890s. It is well known for the council depot and controversial waste transfer station beside railway bridge. Most interesting of all was the municipal abattoir on the same site that operated from 1894 to 1986. The abattoir was formerly the site of the Union Hunt’s kennels which is why Hollingdean Road was originally known as Dog Kennel Road.

Rodhus is due to be officially launched on Thursday 3rd February. All are welcome to attend but the event will be of particular interest to artists and designers who are looking to be part of this new and exciting venture. Momentum is building quickly and Sir Terence Conran has just given his backing – I can’t imagine that there will be spaces left for long. See for details.