Marek Kohn

Down Town (The Brighton Moment)

Local interest! This was written for a 2005 Brighton Festival Fringe event, The Brighton Moment, in which local writers read pieces about moments that seemed to them to capture something special about our home town.

My Brighton moment is one you can share, by walking down North Street towards the Steine and turning left by the bank into Bond Street, preferably on a sunny day.

Bond Street is a place where different visions of Brighton rub along happily. It has the upmarket labels, the high retailers’ margins, the air of smartness to gladden the hearts of those whose vision of the city’s future revolves around branding and enterprise. At the same time it has the qualities cherished by those who don’t want progress to spoil Brighton’s peculiar character. It’s cheerful, it’s colourful, it’s homely, and it doesn’t look like anywhere else. Chic sits comfortably with quirkiness. The tool shop and the latest fashion boutique complement each other, even though the former has been going strong since 1880 and the latter has been there five minutes.

All this is what you see around you. But a curious thing happens if you look beyond where you’re going. Look straight ahead – the effect is best on the left-hand side of the street – and you will see the Downs. It’s just a small rectangle of hillside, partly framed by St Bartholomew’s Church: it looks almost like a trick of the eye, cut from the country and pasted into the town.

For those of us whose hearts are lifted in summer by the Downland arcs of green hill against sheer blue sky, this little cameo is like a lark’s song hovering above the street. More than that , though, it’s a reminder that Brighton is not just surrounded by the Downs but is part of them. We think of it as a seaside town, or the dominant half of a city by the sea, but we take for granted the ground beneath our feet. Although it’s impossible to be unaware that the streets roll over hills, behind the blinkers of everyday routine this may seem no more than an inconvenience, or if you prefer, an opportunity for exercise.

But hills bring more than toil to everyday life. They bring change, and energy, and visions. Above all, they shape the townscape. Brighton’s beauty, taken as a whole, lies not in the age or details of its buildings but in their relationship to the hills they are built on. By a fortunate historical accident, the way the Victorians built happened to harmonise perfectly with the hillsides upon which they transformed Brighton from a fishing village with Regency pretensions into the kernel of a city. The terraces and the railway station’s canopies follow the contours of the Downs; the viaduct adds its own expansive curve, joining the two great hills of east and west Brighton across the valley where a river should run, but never has. Brighton is urban downland, contours and curves, human and intimate but with moments of glory.

Nature provides many of those moments, sometimes many in the course of a single day. I can look out of my window on the western hill and see a storm approaching over the eastern slope. Sometimes I can’t see the eastern slope at all, for the sea-mist. ‘Fog on the Level: Hanover Isolated.’ Nature rebuts the cliché about Brighton being ‘London by the sea’. In London you can’t see the weather coming, nor the land on which the city is built. You never really know where you are.

Here in Brighton, not only do the Downs let us know where we are, but they also provide us with changes of perspective, corners turned and clouds passing, new sights and ways of seeing, like the wooded hillside at the far, far end of Bond Street. They open moments for that characteristically Brighton activity: gazing into the distance.