ROCKING GOOD TIME: The pebbled beach at Brighton seafront with its famous pier
Of course it’s unlikely that Dr Samuel Johnson had the urban seaside soundtrack of carousels and ice cream van melodies playing as he forced himself into Brighton’s choppy waters in the late 18th century.
Inching a couple of toes into the slurping tide was enough for me. Even on a summer’s day, with clouds skidding across the Sussex skies, the chill factor is considerable.
So, like Dr Johnson, I headed into the warren of back streets, Georgian townhouses and bohemian taverns that have been frequented by some of our greatest literary talents.
Local tour guide service Brighton Walks specialises in opening up the town’s stellar roll call of authors who fell in love (or in Dr Johnson’s case, rather disliked) the charms of what was in Victorian Britain, a premier sanatorium destination and a source of inspiration and decadence for authors, idlers, free thinkers and philosophers.
Walking along the seafront with my guide Jacky, the steep bank of pebbled beach below us, we pass the dark red brick, wedding cake frontage of the Metropole Hotel, mentioned by TS Eliot in The Waste Land when Mr Eugenides asks the protagonist: “To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel. Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.”
Eliot’s deft use of Brighton as a location for some of the more gritty, nefarious episodes in his masterpiece poem had precedence even then.
Further along lies the imposing Regency-style Royal Albion Hotel, scene of a chapter in the downfall of Oscar Wilde.
This was where the police found him in a compromising situation with a young man on the seafront.
It was one charge of the many used against him during the trial which resulted in him being confined to a cell in Reading Gaol.
It’s in the centre of the Lanes area however, just back from the seafront, that perhaps Brighton’s greatest literary connection comes to life.
It was here in the late 1930s that Graham Greene spent time in the town’s pubs, creating the characters that would form the nefarious world of Brighton Rock, later taken to the screen starring Richard Attenborough.
The Cricketers, a stout, whitewashed building, has a Greene Room upstairs which has framed letters on the walls penned by the mysterious author who notoriously never gave interviews.
This was his favourite pub in Brighton according to Jacky, though the famous scene where we meet gang leader Pinky at the start of the story is almost certainly the Star and Garter pub which still exists, although it’s now called Dr Brightons.
Greene’s depiction of the city may have been cynical but the man himself appeared to adore the place, once writing that “no city before the war had such a hold on my affections.”
Sipping a pint in Dr Brightons, I was fast becoming a convert to the beguiling atmosphere which still lingers today varying wildly between plush bohemian hotels that sit beside slightly bedraggled fruit machine arcades.
A two-mile taxi ride down the seafront brings us to the village of Rottingdean.
Walking tours of Brighton reveal a rich history of authors
A game of croquet is taking place on the green and an Irish setter bounds after a tennis ball outside a pub festooned with hanging baskets.
The smell of fresh-cut grass makes this the kind of quintessential English rural scene I thought only existed in the fantasies of George Orwell or John Major.
This village was once home for Rudyard Kipling, who lived at a house called The Elms but who moved when his fame meant carriages full of visitors would stop outside his front window and crane their heads over the wall to spy on the novelist at work.
The house is now in private hands but the village remains a focal point of the great man as the place where he began to write his poems and tales of the Raj.
As the shadows on the coiling cobbled lanes back in Brighton lengthened, I made a beeline for English’s, a seafood institution in Brighton and a favoured dining spot of Charlie Chaplin and today of Dame Judi Dench.
The interior, in crisp white linen and with an ice counter full of crustaceans, has the feel of an old vaudeville theatre dressing room.
The food, however, has moved with the times.
A focus on sustainable and local produce runs through the menu which takes in the likes of monkfish cheeks with sourdough bread, oysters from West Mersea and a delectable plate of lobster served with lemon mayo and French fries.
Walking back, I thought of the words of Mrs Pipchin in Dombey And Son, much of which Dickens wrote here: “Brighton has proved beneficial. Very beneficial indeed.”
THE KNOWLEDGE The Hilton Metropole (01273 775432, hilton.com/Brighton) has doubles from £112 (two sharing), B&B. Brighton tourism: visitbrighton.com
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