On liking London Road – Brighton

veg2No-one writes about London Road other than to reinforce its rough reputation and it’s time to set the record straight. As the one way route out of town visitors don’t linger either. Not everyone wants cappuccino chain store chic, and while North Laine bohemian boutiques have their trend setting charms, you can’t beat London Road for friendly service and basic stuff at bargain prices.

Shunned by some for grubby facades, choking traffic and low life lingerers, dare dip into the shops and you’ll get a friendly reception. Unlike the thrusting business and tourist town down the road, here people have time to talk.  If you prefer cheeky chat to a clinical check-out it’s the place to go for authentic shopping and eating.

In the seventies it even boasted Marks and Spencer, but the days of mid market chains are long gone. With the winding up of Woolworths and lamented loss of the palatial co-op department store, London Road has suffered some very lean years. However, in a bid to cheer things up Brighton and Hove City Council, nearby City College, traders and residents’ groups teamed up in a bid for Portas Pilot funding – and won. A manager is being appointed to initiate development of the area – and while officials discuss lifting the place back into life, it is growing a momentum of its own.

pigs trotter and camel burger at M & B meats
pigs trotter and camel burger at M & B meats

We have Iceland, the Co-op, Aldi, a parade of poundshops and Peacocks. But what’s wrong with that? They all sell things people need without the hassle of fighting crowds in town. On London Road everything is available if you’re not on the lookout for labels. While charity shops have their critics, on a Saturday they are crammed with customers browsing ‘pre-loved’ products. The London Road Station Community Garden (which is not in London Road, being a good ten minutes walk away) has developed a shady garden, prettily populated with pound shop plants – keeping it local. Other shops include independent purveyors of (mostly) useful things.

jason's june 13
Bacon and banter is served at Jason’s

For now diminished, the Open Market is undergoing a massive makeover. But stalwart stallholders still hold out behind hoardings while builders bang about. Among them, Jason’s Egg and Cheese stall is a great place to go for fresh, locally sourced eggs, bacon and cheese (what else?) way below supermarket prices. Whether served by Jason, or his mum or Margret, cheeky gossip is guaranteed. Next door is the haberdashery store – a frilly cave for rummaging ribbons and buttons. Fruit,veg and plants are also on sale, and Andrew’s fish shop sells far fresher fish than can be found down town – along with posh seafood and scraps for lucky cats.

For those who think of London Road as old fashioned, M & B meats are a traditional butchers ahead of the game. The only adornment in this shed of a shop might be a stack of Britannia Lard –but eschewing English mores they don’t shy away from the exotic – horse, camel and kangaroo burgers can be bought.

While the North Laine and Fiveways take fussy pride in new farmers’ markets – London Road has always had apples and pears a plenty. Tasteables and Open Market stalls have purveyed produce for years.  Relative newcomers – the self proclaimed ‘handsomes’ – in the Turkish shop, boast a burst of colour and taste, with their stunning display of known and lesser known fruit and veg. Fresh baked Turkish chewy bread, slices of dried fruits and bunches of spinach beat anything that comes in a plastic bag from Waitrose.

dose of dosa at Eastern Eye
dose of dosa at Eastern Eye

Eating out here is also a cheap(ish) treat. During the day the market cafe offers English breakfasts popular with pensioners and students. Independent Mocksha at the southern end of the road (officially York Place), is the award winning second best coffee shop in Brighton.  At the northern end Poppys’ paninis are popular with local workers looking for lunch.

For evening eating authentic Indian, Thai and fish and chips are all in reach. The greying glass frontage of Eastern Eye may look uninviting, but its dosas have a devoted following. Traditionally a southern Indian breakfast dish, pancakes of ground rice and lentils are served filled with spicy meat or vegetables and fragrant chutneys that inspire addiction. The Bangkok Express, equally aesthetically unremarkable, is a Thai cafe and take away, serving delectable dishes. And, although not quite on London Road, Bardsley’s of Baker Street is a fish and chip institution in the area – and beyond. Generations of fryers have battered cod pieces here since 1926, and while cheaper chips are available, you’d be hard pushed to find better quality and quantity of seafood (and deep fried spud).

emporium2For entertainment, the area has never been marked as a cultural hub. But it has, for over a hundred years, been home to the oldest and comfiest cinema in the country. The Duke of York’s is a Grade II listed baroque building – in true cheeky Brighton style topped with a pair of stockinged legs.  Inside it is red and plush and comforting, with a balcony bar ideal for peering over a Pinot at Preston Circus.

Now, it seems, arts are escaping the Cultural Quarter and creeping up London Road. The Emporium is former Methodist church turned shabby chic theatre space. Waiting on a full license, it opened in time for performance during Brighton Festival, with a mission to revive the tradition of regional rep. In the day it’s a cafe, providing cool quiet chat away from traffic.  The coffee, cake and space have already drawn yummy mummies and their buggies onto London Road – a sign of things to come?

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Wandering the wilder side of Brighton – Woodvale to Rottingdean

???????????????????????????????The early summer centre of Brighton might be bursting with half term hordes, but a short stride out of the city reveals its wilder side. A walk from Woodvale Crematorium over the Downs to Rottingdean grazes gravestones, verdant verges and blue/grey horizons, passing through probably the quietest and loveliest landscape within the city boundary.

Guarded by gothic gates (that annoyingly shut in late afternoon), the graveyard provides a gorgeous semi-kempt pocket of peace. The entrance to Woodvale, and starting point for this well trod walk is the Vogue Gyratory System. A chaotic accident and pollution hotspot is enough to drive anyone into a nearby garden of rest (voluntarily or otherwise). Forming a strip between busy Bear Road and hillsides of not quite Hanover houses, it’s a tranquil space inspiring musing among  memorials.

Although ghosts of bluebells are fading in the shade, now, in early summer, the mood is more wedding white than funereal. Seeds from surrounding trees congregate like confetti on the kerb before the Coroners’ office.  Armless angels poke heads through growing grass, and the A27 drone is subdued by a chorus of birds. New modes of mowing leaves margins wild so should be sombre tombs are laced with stems of cow parsley and time is marked by dandelion clocks.  It’s the perfect resting place for quietening minds as well as buried Brightonians.

Winding steeply up the hill it’s easy to immerse in imaginings of people passed. Enormous anchors mark many graves – a reminder that this was a sea-faring town. Twin flint chapels are the  marker  that the  meander through memorials is almost through – and a final push leads us back to the land of the all too lively.

Cars growl up Bear Road grinding gears, and it’s a short sharp hike to the top past Tenantry Down. Looking west beyond allotments and city skyline, the Isle of Wight is in sight on a very clear day. Heading on along the eastern ridge, past horses grazing brilliant fields of buttercups, we reach the muddy track of medieval Drove Road. Formerly the fishwives’ route to Lewes, this smuggles behind Woodingdean’s  bungalows. Views expand  –  below Bevendean bends round contours of hills and ahead a mast marks the highest point of today’s trail – Newmarket Hill – nearly 200 metres above the sea.

???????????????????????????????Busy Falmer Road transects this drove now and a constant stream of cars heading for coast or country can only be crossed with courtesy from a sympathetic driver. Once safely back on track, we are nearly in the country – although still within Brighton’s boundaries.  Heading in the direction of Lewes, to the north the Amex Stadium, roost of Seagulls (the Brighton and Hove Albion species) crowns a crease in the hills. Staring south east, the white cliffs of Seaford Head and the Cuckmere Valley hover before the milky bluish horizon of the English Channel.

For a short stretch we walk the South Downs Way (SDW), a sky lark serenade slightly suppressing traffic noise. On a fine day the SDW is the M25 of down land paths, with columns of walkers, cyclists and riders intent on following the branded track. Many miss Castle Hill Nature Reserve, one of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest at the heart of the Brighton Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere bid. This partnership hopes UNESCO will recognise the  unique environment of the downs, towns and seas between the river Adur at Shoreham and the Ouse in Newhaven

The descent into Castle Hill valley is steep, surrounded by scrub. It opens out on reaching  ‘Bottoms’ – Newmarket and Falmer Bottom to be precise. Shielded from external city sounds, scuffle of boots on chalk, and bleating sheep are the sole soundtrack. Chalk grassland here is a quiet riot of colour through summer. Early in a chilly season, recent rains have left lush growth of grey green grasses. For now on the floral front a cruise through a corridor of cowslips slightly past their best brings some satisfaction. By July clouds of blue butterflies should be sharing pale pink scabious, bright yellow trefoil and purple orchids.

Striding straight through the winding valley shaved sheep are looking sheepish, and planted fields starting to shoot. An uphill tarmac OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAslog is fringed by more curls of cow parsley, and by-passing Balsdean Farm and reservoir the final high is reached. Here the steely sea rises up to meet us, and the draw of seashore and thoughts of food pull us down.

Gentile Rottingdean greets with bowls politely rolled on the green by villagers in pristine whites. Posters by the pretty pond pronounce flower shows, fetes and collectables with flint pubs and tea shops to tempt. For the hungry hearty home  cooked lunch  at bargain prices can be enjoyed in the lovely Grange Gardens Cafe (in the local library). For a creative cuppa, the Open Art Cafe boasts crafts, exquisite egg florentine and a toilet full of poems. Beer and banter is on the menu at the Coach House on the seafront, which pulls perfect pints of Sussex ales (Harveys and Hepworths).  Today we don’t have time to dally, so head straight for the top deck delight of the bus back to Brighton. A good decision, as another diversion appears – the ‘improbably nimble’ Brighton Morris Men have capered their way along the coast and are jangling between pubs … maybe there’s time for a pint after all.

… and, as a special treat –

A poignant poetical pontification by former Brightonian Cuttlewoman on an August re-visit to the valley Bottoms