Archive for April, 2011

Brunswick Town in Bloom

I find urban gardens so much more special than their suburban and rural counterparts. What they lack in size, town centre gardens more than make up for in the way that they surprise and delight. Urban gardens have enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in Brighton & Hove over the past few years and, for the time being at least, Brunswick Town stands out to me as the area making the greatest contribution locally.

The City in Bloom competition, run by Brighton & Hove City Council, has certainly provided residents with the impetus to get together and make the best use of outside areas. Last year, Brunswick residents picked up prizes in a number of categories including Most Attractive Urban Area ,which went to Farman Street. This year, City in Bloom focuses on community efforts and the closing date for entries is 30th June.

In the past, I have visited the Waterloo Street Community Garden which lies to the east of Brunswick Town and, of course, the garden of Brunswick Square in the centre. On this occasion, therefore, it made sense to focus on the Lansdowne area to the west.

Lansdowne Square is a short cul-de-sac just off Lansdowne Place consisting of nine houses without front gardens. As a self-contained mini-community, it lends itself well to community planting. I have no idea who, if anyone, co-ordinates efforts but the various hanging baskets, window boxes and pots are a real treat.

Just around the corner on Lansdowne Place itself, the residents of two neighbouring townhouses have taken different approaches to creating wonderful front gardens. The first is a ‘cottage garden’ with a nucleus of shrubs interspersed with yellow wallflowers, Artemisia, purple heather, forget-me-nots and white tulips. The second is equally striking but requires less maintenance. The Mediterranean-style garden includes a hydrangea, a lancewood, a laurel and bamboo.

Last year, Brunswick residents got together as ‘Brunswick Town in Bloom’ to enter the South & South East in Bloom competition and won a Silver Gilt Prize in the Best Urban Area category. The group includes members of various residents’ associations including Friends of Adelaide & Palmeira Association, Friends of Brunswick Square & Terrace, Lansdowne Area Residents’ Association, East Brunswick Residents’ Association, Brunswick Street West/Dudley Mews Residents, and Brunswick Place Residents’ Association.

Many examples of fine urban gardens exist in Brunswick Town. I’m sure that the area will do bloomin’ great in the two competitions.

Preston Manor Behind the Scenes

‘Basement to Bottle’ was the name of an extremely revealing behind the scenes tour of the Royal Pavilion that I was lucky enough to experience several years ago. It included a tour of the Pavilion’s extensive cellars along with a viewing of the dusty innards of the palace’s main dome.

Such tours of hidden areas in grand buildings are not about gleaming state rooms or sweeping staircases. They are about the areas that were originally inhabited by the servants who kept these stately homes in good order. In the case of Preston Manor, a new tour has been announced. I met up with local tour guide Sarah Tobias and Brighton & Hove City Council’s Museum Learning Officer Paula Wrightson for a sneak preview.

Preston Manor itself is somewhat of an enigma. Its exterior gives little away as to its age. Parts of the building actually date back to around 1600 and there has been a house on the site since at least the time of the Norman Conquest. The central portion dates from 1738, the year that the building was rebuilt by the then Lord of the Manor, Thomas Western (as in Western Road). Wings were added to the west and east in 1750. A large extension was added in 1905 and it was in this part of the building, at the end of the north-west corridor in particular, that my tour began.

A small brass bell marked ‘PRIVATE’ offers some clue as to what lies beyond. The rooms behind the tour currently serve as administrative areas. There is an office, store, toilet, kitchen and access to the basement. These areas are not glamorous but they are fascinating nevertheless.

The basement is extensive and contains all manner of treasures including an array of servants’ bells and stone door surrounds which are clearly very old. The best bit, however, is the cellar below which includes several huge vaulted areas. One of the rooms has been reinforced with heavy iron joists which may be explained that it was used as a communications centre during the Second World War. Secret stairs lead up to the very top of the house where a number of obscure spaces – boiling in the summer, freezing in the winter – were once home to the female servants.

One of these special tours will be taking place each month. To book a place, call the museum team on 03000 290900.

West Pier Fragments Sales

The story of the Dome’s chandelier has always intrigued me.

The huge glass chandelier was certainly removed during the 1930s when the building’s famous Art Deco interior was added. It is said though that pieces of the chandelier were divided up as souvenirs amongst the builders that were carrying out the work. I would think that the story is true but I have no idea of the whereabouts of any of the bits and whether or not they can easily be identified.

Another fascinating tale, not local this time, is that of the Baltic Exchange which was severely damaged by the IRA. For years, its marble and granite façade was strewn around the English countryside awaiting a buyer. It was eventually bought and shipped to Tallin by an Estonian businessman hoping to reconstruct the grand structure in its spiritual homeland.

A pile of pieces of West Pier steadily grew over a number of years in the compound beneath the shore end of the iconic structure. No doubt the plan was to reconstruct the pier one day but fires in 2003 and a storm in 2004 dashed all hopes of that ever happening. The compound will need to be cleared anyway in the event of the i360 being built so a decision was taken by the West Pier Trust last year to sell the many fragments.

I met the trust’s Chief Executive, Rachel Clark, in February at one of the sales. All sorts of treasures were being sold. Seat backs and kiosk windows from 1866 were available for £150. I would have loved to buy an iron arch but decided against it in the end, probably because I was on foot that day. Many smaller items were for sale too including pieces of gutter at £40. A staggering number of relics were on display in the cavernous compound and much still remains despite 65% having been sold already.

Some of the most important pieces have been set aside for the West Pier Heritage Centre which is planned as part of the i360 development. In the meantime, an impressive exhibition on the West Pier is being held at Brighton Fishing Museum.

So many of the pieces of the West Pier are instantly recognisable and I have no doubt that I will be spotting fragments in use as outdoor ornaments in Brighton gardens for the rest of my life. Now where’s that chandelier?

Open Market

It is rare in Brighton & Hove for a planning application to really excite.

More often than not, schemes are approved because “they are better than what is there currently” or the powers that be are simply not powerful enough to stop them. In the case of the Open Market, a site which holds the key to transforming a large chunk of central Brighton, it would be hard to dream up a more favourable proposition than that which was approved by the Planning Committee in February.

The Open Market began in 1919 as a collection of barrows owned by ex-servicemen on Oxford Street beside London Road. The traders moved to the Level for a brief period and then, in 1926, settled on the gardens of the cottages of Marshalls Row. The cottages were demolished in 1938 though it was not until 1960 that the enlarged Open Market was opened by the Duke of Norfolk. Even after years of neglect, it still holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Brighton.

The layout of the Open Market is to change and a saw-toothed roof is to be added. Rather than an island of stalls in the middle, a market square is to be created with stalls around the outside. Although the square promises to be a useful public space in its own right, I am particularly keen on the idea that it will now be possible to see right through from one entrance to the other. The market will become an obvious thoroughfare between London Road and Ditchling Road.

This project brings together a number of organisations including the market traders themselves, Hyde Housing Association, Brighton & Hove City Council and LCE Architects. I am already a fan of LCE for that firm’s work on the Jubilee Library. I am now won over even more.

A fair amount of housing is being put on the site to make this development work financially. Francis Street is going to change dramatically as large buildings will be springing up along its length. They are attractive buildings though and very appropriate for the area.

I have not been at all impressed with corporate property companies in recent years but, on this occasion anyway, Hyde Housing deserves major recognition for some excellent work in pushing through a tremendously complicated multi-layered project to a tight deadline. Why can’t all planning applications be this exciting?