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Brighton Beach in England

Martin Morrell

Photo: Martin Morrell

Engravings in Brighton's Fishing Museum show neurasthenic young ladies being "dipped" by brawny local fisherwomen from wheeled bathing machines. The young women are most assuredly not swimming—their passive, fearful faces rise above the chilly waves; their look of panic and surrender comparable to that on the face of a novice skier hurtling out of control on a black-diamond run.

And bathing was only part of the regimen. Invalids were advised to drink three pints of seawater a day—mixed with crushed crab's eyes, coral, burnt sponge, viper's flesh, cuttlefish bones, snails, tar, and wood lice—to stimulate their digestive systems. A pint of hot seawater, Dr. Russell counseled, was "commonly sufficient, in grown persons, to give three or four sharp stools."

Amazingly (or not, given the current popularity of only slightly less disgusting tonics like wheat-grass juice), the treatments were not just fashionable, they won the highest celebrity endorsement of the day. George, the Prince of Wales who later became King George IV, was a well-known gormandizer who underwent the cure. Russell's revolting drafts may well have done him some good since he suffered from goiter, caused by a lack of iodine and easily remedied with a few pints of hot seawater.

George set up a household in Brighton in 1786, but the bracing sea air and morning dips were only part of the reason. Brighton, now less than an hour from London's Victoria Station by train, was then far enough from the critical eye of George's father, King George III, for the prince to be able to conduct his complicated love life free of parental interference. The prince married his Catholic paramour in secret here and began to construct a holiday home—the Royal Pavilion, an Arabian Nights—inspired folly that is still one of the most lovely and unlikely buildings in England.

ALL THE INGREDIENTS THAT DRAW PEOPLE to modern Brighton were already in place at the beginning of the 19th century: healthful sea air, loose morals, and a flavorful dash of eccentricity.

The sun works its alchemy throughout the British Isles, but seaside towns are the recipients of the biggest miracles. On an overcast day in Brighton the horizon begins about 10 feet from shore, and the sea—or what's visible of it—seethes like boiling lead. People say English skies are often gray, but the truth is that they are usually white, the color of a canvas awaiting paint. When the sun arrives, it can illuminate the entire sky, or just ignite a corner. The Regency architects who built the fashionable resort town in the decades after the prince had made it popular were connoisseurs of light. The pale colors of their graceful terraces are every shade of off-white—almond, bone, ivory, butter yellow—designed to reflect and enhance sunlight when it's bright out or to prevent the town from looking dour when it's cloudy.

The skies were overcast after my swim, so I headed toward Prince George's Royal Pavilion. It is a building far ahead of its time: 150 years before Las Vegas invented high-rise hotels disguised as castles, with receptionists dressed as medieval wenches, the Pavilion united luxury and frivolity in a witty antecedent of themed resort architecture.

The exterior evokes the Persia of children's storybooks, with its domes, minarets that double as chimneys, and elaborate stone carvings resembling fretwork screens in a harem. As if this weren't weird enough, the interior is largely Chinese-influenced, decorated with hand-painted wallpaper and an enormous dragon chandelier in the banqueting room. The prince regent's taste makes Graceland look restrained. Everywhere there are illusions, gimmicks, and extravagances: nodding busts in the gallery, kitchens with automated spits, high-tech (for 1820) gas-lighting effects, gilded iceboxes to keep champagne cold. You get a sense of the character of George himself: vain, witty, and very fond of his food.

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