England's venerable seaside resort has gone through hard times and come back shining—and very much in vogue

Martin Morrell
| Credit: Martin Morrell

On an overcast day in early March I shed my clothes on Brighton's beach and slithered down the wet pebbles toward the sea, muttering to myself: This is madness. The air was cold and the water was grayish green—imagine the color of a caffè latte that has somehow been lost among the papers on your desk for a week or so. At least, I consoled myself, I didn't have to drink it. But was it clean?

"Oh, no, it's filthy," my companion Brian Behan said cheerily. "It's full of rubbish." Behan is 74 and has swum here naked every morning, rain or shine, for three decades. A playwright, controversialist, mayoral candidate, and the younger brother of the Irish literary hero Brendan Behan, he is typical of Brightonians inasmuch as he's not typical of anything.

"Do I have to put my head under?" I asked, wincing as the water reached my toes.

"Oh, you can't escape that. It's obligatory," he said. "Article One of the faith."

I counted to five, launched myself into the sea, took two strokes, and raised my head above the waves to scream. I think in that moment I relived part of my birth trauma. As I struggled back to shore, ice seemed to be congealing in my veins. I rubbed myself with a towel, and then I was filled with an unexpected sensation of well-being. I felt energized—as though I'd drunk six or seven shots of espresso.

After his swim, Behan's mane of white hair seemed curiously dry considering that he had been advocating total immersion. I didn't point this out. Instead I asked where he finds the motivation to keep swimming. "It sounds crazy," he said, "but I feel that if I stop swimming every day I'll die."

There may be something to this, I thought as we cycled back to town. Brian flirted with every woman we passed, with an energy that belied his age. "Why didn't you take a dip with us, sweetheart?The water was lovely." But the reason I'd wanted to go swimming with Brian is that his morning ritual is a link to the craze that brought Brighton into the modern age, and founded its reputation as a pleasure resort.

BRIGHTON IS UNDERGOING A RENAISSANCE. With something like 400 restaurants, it supposedly has the best food in England outside London. It is newly fashionable to live here, and last year Brighton and Hove (the new, official name) was awarded city status. It's a triumph and a vindication for a place that has been through hard times.

The Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock portrays the city in the 1930's, when rival gangs had made it a sinister and occasionally violent location. Even after it avoided domination by organized crime, Brighton could easily have fallen victim to a less glamorous but perhaps equally pernicious fate: that of being overshadowed by London, only 50 miles away. But the town has always had a robust identity. Cheaper than the capital, less sprawling, sunnier, more tolerant, and energized by its proximity to the sea, Brighton attracts eccentric and strong-minded people—like Behan. Its citizens also have something of a reputation for vanity and self-absorption. It's hard to convince Brightonians that their city of 250,000 is not in fact the center of the known world.

But London's louche seaside cousin, city of scandals, trysts, and intrigues, patron saint of the bohemian, was nothing but a tiny fishing village of no more than a thousand people until the 18th century—and it might have remained one if it hadn't been for sea bathing. If Behan and I had been swimming in the same spot 250 years earlier, we would have had no shortage of company. Bathing in the sea was the health craze of late-18th-century England. It was sparked by the quack doctor (and Brighton resident) Richard Russell, who in 1753 wrote a treatise extolling the health benefits of seawater. It's hard to imagine a modern analogue of Russell's cure (which was generally carried out in the cold winter months). Water as an element was more foreign to our underwashed ancestors than it is to us. You have to picture a modern health guru advancing the case for skydiving to understand how strange sea bathing must have seemed to Russell's contemporaries.

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.

The early 19th century was a rather permissive phase in British history, and Brighton epitomized it. In turn, the period was the making of Brighton. The enduring legacy of those times is Brighton's reputation as a place dedicated to fun. The prince gathered smart and entertaining people around him. The royal circle was known for its profligacy and absurd bets: two of George's associates once had a wager over who could eat more. Being true nobles, they didn't deign to compete themselves, but laid money on the eating abilities of two servants. One of the gentry was not even present at the match; he received a message informing him of the outcome: "Your man beat his antagonist by a pig and an apple pie."

They were also known for their style. One of the prince's favorites was Beau Brummell, the brightest of the Regency dandies. Brummell was said to be so fastidious about the cut of his clothes that he had one specialist make the fingers of his gloves and another do the thumbs.

AS IT HAPPENED, A NEW PLAY ABOUT BRUMMELL was being performed at Brighton's Theatre Royal the day I visited the pavilion. I bought a ticket and went, a little uncertainly. The omens were mixed. Brighton has a good reputation for the quality of its entertainment, and its arts festival, held each May, is the biggest in England. But I had heard nothing about the play. The auditorium was half-full. Worse, I was trapped in the middle of a row, with all avenues of escape cut off before the intermission. I needn't have worried. I was drawn into a funny and haunting drama that depicted Brummell as a curiously modern figure, famous above all for being famous, whose bequests to the sartorial world—starched neckcloths, foot straps to prevent trousers from creasing—were as influential as they were trivial. His fate was sealed when he slighted the prince after a falling-out. Pretending not to recognize the regent, Brummell asked one of the prince's companions, "Who's your fat friend?" The prince was very sensitive about his weight and never forgave Brummell, who died penniless in France in exile from his many creditors.

Coming out of the theater, I saw the domes and minarets of the pavilion illuminated against the night sky—and a couple of nearby palm trees struggling to survive the British spring. I walked back to my hotel along the waterfront, inhaling the sea air, glad that my bathing experiment was behind me. Two piers demarcate either end of Brighton's seafront—one is Palace Pier, the other the beautiful West Pier, which has been closed since 1970 and is crumbling into the waves as Brightonians figure out what to do with it. An electrical fault meant that the red fluorescent letters at the entrance to the pier spelled out WEST PIE.

The derelict pier has long been a symbol of the town's decay. While some feel its successful regeneration would complete the resurrection of Brighton, others have grown to love the pier just as it is: a giant model of Miss Havisham's mouse-infested wedding cake.

Brummell's heirs are the mods who have made the city their spiritual home. They first emerged in the 1960's, working-class youths with a penchant for flashy scooters and custom-made clothes. Today they are a small but visible presence in the city. At Jump the Gun, a shop on Gardner Street, the manager, Dizzi, continues to live by mod principles. He has an obsessive eye for fine tailoring and detail that would have made Brummell proud. Dizzi grows lyrical as he describes the side vents on a three-button suit.

"I can tell a good suit right away," he said. "I look at how it fits: if it's not cut right, the trousers are a bit baggy, the way it folds on the chest, then it's a high-street off-the-peg number. With a bespoke suit, the trousers are made to fit, the size of the lapels is perfect, the length of the side vents is just right, and the trousers ride like jeans over the thighs and kick out slightly so you can wear them with boots."

Dizzi still travels up to London, his hometown, to visit his tailor, but he'll never leave Brighton. "London has had its day," he said. "The individuality's not there any more. There's more individuality in Brighton."

BRIGHTON'S INDIVIDUALISTS TEND TO CONGREGATE around the narrow and atmospheric streets of the Lanes and North Laine, which follow the old medieval street patterns. Here, there are antiques shops and clothes shops a-go-go. You can find—according to your whim—a suit of armor (Lanes Armoury on Meeting House Lane), leather-free footwear (Vegetarian Shoes on Gardner Street), or a belly-dancing outfit (Mystique on Union Street).

Chris Eubank, Brighton's most famous and recognizable celebrity, can often be spotted shopping or posing in the vicinity. His clothing contradicts Brummell's celebrated maxim that the cut of your suit should not draw attention to itself—Eubank favors spats and a monocle. His pronounced lisp doesn't prevent him from quoting Kipling at length at every opportunity. But don't tease him about it—he was middleweight boxing champion of the world in 1990.

Wandering around Brighton by day, I was struck by the thought that a town, like a person, is known by its enemies as well as its friends. Queen Victoria hated Brighton and sold the pavilion, after clearing out most of its contents (many of which have since been returned). Both in Victorian times and more recently, Brighton has accepted tastes that were outside the mainstream. Gays have always had an affinity for Brighton: Oscar Wilde and Bosie came here for trysts, and there are supposedly people in the pubs of Kemptown who still know Polari, a secret gay slang that began as a Neapolitan sailors' dialect. Under the surface of Brighton, there are plenty of people who came to find refuge here in less tolerant times.

One eye-catching figure who may pass you on a bicycle on the seafront is Drako Zarhazar. In some parts of the world, his appearance alone would spark riots. Drako is in his sixties. His shaved head has a blue tattooed triangle on the top; he sports a waxed Salvador Dalí mustache, facial piercings, and bright blue eyebrows.

I visited him in a run-down housing estate on the fringes of the city. Drako (born Anthony Banwell) took his name from a man who shared an Italian prison cell with him. "That's my arm, that's me," Drako said, pointing out fragments of his anatomy on a postcard of a Dalí painting. A dancer, Drako once modeled for the Surrealist painter.

Drako's short-term memory was damaged as the result of two serious car accidents. "The tape recorder in my head has been broken since my second coma," he told me. "I love saying that: 'My second coma.' " He leaves notes around the flat reminding himself to carry out routine tasks, such as feeding his cat, Sado. The most important thing he must remember has been tattooed on his arm. TRUST UNCONDITIONAL ABSOLUTE, it reads—words he said came to him as he emerged from the second coma. Because of his remarkable appearance and his damaged memory, I suspect it would be impossible for him to live by any other code.

"Drako turns heads in Brighton," said one of his friends. "But he's safe here. He'd be stoned to death in small-town England."

In a sense, this is Brighton's perfect moment. The city is striking a temporary and almost ideal balance between its bohemian identity and the tendency toward gentrification that brings better restaurants and hotels in its wake.

LIKE ALL SEASIDE TOWNS IN BRITAIN, Brighton is awash with indistinguishable bed-and-breakfasts, but the fruits of its current boom are sleek new town-house hotels such as Nineteen, and ingenious, witty establishments like the Hotel Pelirocco. With its themed rooms, the Pelirocco continues the town's enduring motifs of humor, sexual license, and frivolity—I stayed in Lenny Beige's Love Palace, designed by a spoof lounge crooner. It had a velveteen bedspread and a copy of The Joy of Sex placed thoughtfully on the bedside table. Another room, Betty's Boudoir, comes complete with a leopard-skin bedspread and a tub built for two.

Brightonians wince when you say "dirty weekend," but the phrase is as much a part of the city's folklore as Greene's novel or the pavilion, evoking the image of an adulterous couple signing false names in a hotel ledger for a seaside rendezvous. In fact, Brighton's tawdry side is playful and unserious. There's a long resort tradition of "naughty" postcards, which usually involve double entendres and cartoons of buxom women.

Playful sexuality, individualism, and fanatical concern with appearance are all elements at Vavavoom!, a Brighton burlesque show that performs at different spots around the city. Its founder, Stella Starr, organizes events based on camp subjects like Voodoo or James Bond. "For the Biblical Epic evening I did the dance of the seven veils with a papier-mâché head of John the Baptist on a plate," Stella told me with a tinkling laugh. At another event, she danced on a life-sized model of King Kong's palm and concluded the set by playing the bongos with her breasts. But the ingenuity of the organizers is consistently matched by that of the clubbers who turn up in costume. At an Undersea World event, a woman dressed as a mermaid was carried in by six bearers, swishing her mechanical tail. "I've no idea who she was!" Stella said. "She didn't stand up the whole evening."

Brightonians worry that true bohemians are being priced out as the city grows more and more fashionable. I don't think they should panic just yet. At one Vavavoom! night, a taxi driver dropped off his fare and liked what he saw so much that he went home, got changed, and came back. "He had on a dress with puffy sleeves, fluffy slippers, and a flower in his hair," Stella said, bemused. "I can't imagine where he got it all from."

The express train to Brighton from London's Victoria Station takes about 50 minutes. Brighton is close to Gatwick Airport and makes a great base for visiting southern England.

Hotel Pelirocco 10 Regency Square; 44-1273/327-055, fax 44-1273/733-845; doubles from $115. Quirky themed rooms. The hotel is so popular with Londoners that it can be hard to get into on weekends.
Nineteen 19 Broad St.; 44-1273/675-529, fax 44-1273/675-531; doubles from $136. Minimalist décor and close to Palace Pier. Some of the beds are perched on lighted glass bricks. Why?This is Brighton, silly.
Blanch House 17 Atlingworth St.; 44-1273/603-504, fax 44-1273/689-813; doubles from $130. An inn with an ultra-stylish restaurant. Choose your room—Rose, Renaissance, Indian, Moroccan, Boogie Nights.
Grand Hotel Kings Rd.; 44-1273/321-188, fax 44-1273/224-321; doubles from $315. One of Brighton's most expensive hotels, with a great cocktail bar.

English's 29—31 East St.; 44-1273/327-980; dinner for two $85. Back when it was known as Cheeseman's Oyster Bar, the owners made Edward VII extinguish his cigar before entering. Charming furnishings and good seafood.
The Gingerman 21A Norfolk Square; 44-1273/326-688; dinner for two $60. Highly praised eclectic cuisine by local chef Ben McKellar.
Saucy British Restaurant 8 Church Rd.; 44-1273/324-080; dinner for two $72. Updated British fare with attitude.
One Paston Place 1 Paston Place; 44-1273/606-933; dinner for two $115. This haute cuisine establishment is one of Brighton's best restaurants. Book in advance.
Terre à Terre 71 East St.; 44-1273/729-051; dinner for two $100. Fine vegetarian selections. Can only grow in popularity as pyres of burning animals scare carnivores away from these shores.
Mock Turtle Tea-Shop 4 Pool Valley; 44-1273/327-380; tea for two $9. Tucked away on a side street near the Palace Pier, this is the place for tea and freshly baked cakes.

Brighton's nightlife is complex enough to require special elucidation. I recommend The Cheeky Guide to Brighton (Cheekyguides) to steer you round it.

For a drink . . .
Regency Tavern 32 Russell Square; 44-1273/325-652. A charming and idiosyncratic pub with a friendly crowd of straight and gay regulars.
Riki Tik 18A Bond St.; 44-1273/683-844. Have a cocktail or three before hitting the clubs; happy hour from 4 to 8 p.m.
The Geese 16 Southover St.; 44-1273/607-755. Go there on Tuesday, the pub's Irish music night.

For a dance . . .
The Honeyclub 214 Kings Rd. Arches; 44-1273/202-807. Open every night. On weekends, you need to dress up to get past Lady Laverne, the fearsome drag queen—door person.
Zap Club 188—192 Kings Rd. Arches; 44-1273/202-407. One of the clubs that earned Brighton its reputation for nightlife. Friday's Pussycat Club is devoted to uplifting house music.
Vavavoom! Currently on hiatus while Stella takes her dancers to the world burlesque festival in New Orleans. But check the local press in case they make a return appearance soon.

Choccywoccydoodah 27 Middle St.; 44-1273/381-999. Wedding cakes, handmade truffles, and chocolates shaped like everything from ladybugs to soccer balls.
Jump the Gun 36 Gardner St.; 44-1273/626-777. Pins of the Who, three-button suits, and all your mod needs.
Pussy 3A Kensington Gardens; 44-1273/604-861. Clothes and accessories by the latest British designers.

Royal Pavilion 44-1273/290-900; open daily 10:30—4:30 October—May, 10:30—5 June—Sept.
Palace Pier 44-1273/609-361; open daily 9 a.m.—2 a.m. in summer, 10 a.m.—midnight in winter. Now officially known as Brighton Pier. You haven't really visited Brighton until you've eaten some cotton candy, gone on a ride, and had your handwriting analyzed.