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A different kind of magic

Friday, May 04, 2018

Brighton and Hove was recently named the world’s most hipster city, surprising nobody who lives there, says Damini Kane

When I first came to Brighton, it was for a Masters’ degree, and I couldn’t help the vague disappointment I felt when I laid eyes on the city.

Like every child raised with a mythologised ideal of England—the vaulting ceilings of thousand-year-old churches, thick, mysterious woodlands, haunted castles on lonely hills, misty moors, and darkened pubs where wizards make deals with the devil to take over the kingdom—I expected my city of residence for a year to be slightly more…eerie. I wanted to feel like I was a side-character in an English fantasy novel.

Brighton, however, is nothing like that. For one, it’s right by the sea. Second, the city doesn’t have that classic English oldworld vibe; if anything Brighton is young, it’s modern, and it doesn’t even have a haunted castle on a lonely hill. What it does have is the Royal Pavilion, a pleasure palace for Prince Regent George IV, that looks like the poorest man’s Taj Mahal. The sight of it grated on my nerves. What was this place that didn’t look like the England I had dreamed of?

Walking down North Street, one of the city’s main shopping districts, you see pastel-hued buildings huddled together— pale pinks and yellows, lilac, white, blue—with tiny balconies and decorated window frames (they look like cakes, I remember thinking. Pretty. Edible. But not English.)

There was a lot I soon discovered about the city. For a start, in polite company, you are to call it Brighton and Hove, for it’s actually two towns that came under one administrative authority in 1997 and was recognised as a city only in 2001. Although locals do tend to make a distinction between the two towns, you, the intrepid traveller, can get away with just calling it “Bry-ton” (not, as I learnt the hard way, Brig-ton.) Hove is also the final resting place of George Everest, the Surveyor General of India from 1830 to 1843, and also the guy Mount Everest is named after.

I spent one of my first evenings in the city at the Brighton Palace Pier, a whimsical, LED-studded array of sounds and colours that looks like the answer to the question, “What if a pier was designed after a circus?” This is the best place to spend time with the family. There are food stalls where you can get everything from cappuccino to hot dogs, an arcade, amusement park rides, shops selling souvenirs and jewellery, and benches from where to admire the English Channel. And entry is free.

Brighton also has a pebble beach. Not the best place to build a sandcastle, but I didn’t mind because sand is like maida that hates you. I walked from the Brighton Pier to the British Airways i360 Tower, which will etch itself into every photograph you will take of the skyline. It’s Brighton’s newest attraction, a slender, shockingly tall tower with what looks like a giant glass doughnut around it. You can pay to enter said doughnut, buy a drink at the bar, and find a free spot by the window and just watch. The doughnut rises about 450 feet into the sky, giving you spectacular views of the entire city.

From the tower, my eyes fixated on a ghostly, skeletal structure in the sea. I knew what it was, and I’d seen it up close, but somehow my eyes always went to it. Even now, I simply cannot look away.

I am talking about the West Pier. This was a cast iron structure opened in 1866, with a concert hall and a theatre built later for visitors, both fine examples of Victorian and Edwardian entertainment buildings. Then, in 2003, disaster struck. Already damaged by a storm in the year prior, an arson ravaged the pier, and its restoration became impossible after funds were withdrawn. Now, the skeletal remains are a jarring sight on the horizon, a beautiful, tragic ruin. You can’t enter the water where the pier stands, but you can admire it from the shore.

Not far from the beach is the previously mentioned Royal Pavilion, George IV’s pleasure palace. George IV had a reputation for liking,well, pleasure, and gave the task of designing the Royal Pavilion to architect John Nash. The reason this structure struck me as a sad replica of the Taj Mahal is because it’s been built in the Indo-Saracenic style, which borrows heavily from Mughal architectural aesthetics. You can pay to enter and visit the Pavilion, or you can enjoy the gardens for free.

I quickly developed a hobby. I’d take the bus to the Old Steine where the Royal Pavilion sat, walk up to North Street, and find the tiny opening between two buildings with a small, sneaky sign above that read, The Lanes, and slip down that path.

As the name suggests, the Lanes are a narrow set of cobweb-like alleyways filled with the most extraordinary collection of stores, from antiques, to pawn shops, cafes, boutiques, and a chocolaterie. It took me multiple visits to finally learn my way around them, but this historic quarter of the city is the nicest place to be lost. (Here’s the England I was looking for, I thought, look at how magical this feels!)

“What’s the point of being in England and not finding even one haunted castle?” I told one of my friends a month after arriving in Brighton. “We need to see a castle, dude.” Luckily, Brighton did have one close at hand. It’s called Arundel, and you can get there by train.We made a day-trip out of it. Arundel Castle has the distinction of being one of the longest-inhabited country homes in England, with some utterly magnificent gardens. If you visit between mid-April and mid-May, you’ll even get to witness their Tulip Festival.

It took me longer than it should have to like Brighton, but that is on me. I came to the city expecting it to be something it was just not, and that is one thing you must never do to this city. Brighton defies expectation. Always.

Relocation specialist Movehub recently came out with a poll ranking Brighton and Hove as the world’s most hipster city, surprising nobody who lives there. Its laissez-faire reputation, endless supply of independent shops and boutiques, and artsy, relaxed atmosphere make it unlike any place I’ve ever been to before. Brighton is one of those rare cities where one feels a sense of total freedom. You can dress the way you want, eat what you want, and do what you want.
Nobody will judge you. And, as a special bonus, Brighton has a reputation for being quite LGBTQ+ friendly. As early as the 1930s, gay and lesbian bars had appeared in Brighton, and the city is widely regarded as the UK’s LGBTQ capital.

So I’ve come to be quite fond of my temporary home. I love the endless greenery of the South Downs National Park so close to Brighton. I love the sound of the waves hitting the pebble beach. I love the whimsy of the Lanes. Brighton and Hove doesn’t make me feel like I’m a side-character in an English fantasy novel, but look me in the eye and tell me that watching the sun set behind the gaunt ruins of the West Pier while sipping an Oreo milkshake isn’t breathtakingly magical.

Damini Kane is a 22-year-old student at the University of Sussex, and the author of the novel, A Sunlight Plane.

Getting there

Trains Regular rail connections run between London Victoria Station, Gatwick Airport, and Brighton for a journey that usually takes around 50 minutes. Southern Railway ( and Gatwick Express (  are two services with regular and frequent connections to Brighton. Remember to book in advance for best rates.

Buses National Express ( coaches serve Brighton from Gatwick, Heathrow, and Stansted airports in London, and are a cost-effective option though they take slightly longer. Coaches to Brighton will stop at Pool Valley Station, which is central and right by the beach. Remember to book your tickets in advance for the best rates.

Getting around
Bus: Brighton has excellent bus connections, with routes taking you to virtually every part of the city. You can buy a standard fare ticket on the bus for £2.60, or you can download the mobile app “Brighton & Hove M-Tickets”. The app offers various types of tickets at different prices. Find out more at the Brighton and Hove Buses website (

Taxi The two main taxi companies in Brighton are Brighton & Hove City Cabs ( and Brighton & Hove Radio Cabs (

Brighton has an excellent food scene with hundreds of restaurants offering several kinds of cuisine, including abundant vegetarian and vegan options.

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