No-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.
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.
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.
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).
For 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?