For my last full day in England, I wanted to finally travel out and see the coast of the country. Whenever I asked anyone in London about this, they all decided that while it would be nice to see a place like Cornwall, that was probably a little too far off of the beaten path for me. That sounded like a challenge I wanted to take on, but given how much I’ve already spent here, I eventually assented. “You’ll like Brighton,” they told me. And though it definitely wasn’t the rustic English coast I was looking for, I did.
Brighton is about an hour south of London — it’s the more or less traditional day trip for Londoners looking to take a break. Just like I found at the Tower of London, even London’s tourism is historic: People have been coming to Brighton to enjoy the beach since the 1800s, and even before that, the royalty came and stayed on the coast as well.
To get there, I got to ride London’s National Rail service, a very impressive series of trains that runs all over the southern half of England. I presume they run over the Northern half as well, but probably not as frequently — most Londoners consider the north of England (unfairly, of course) to be a little backwards, just like lots of urban folks in the US tend to look down on the backwoods South. At any rate, I had been checking prices for the tickets online for the past few days or so, and I was somewhat distraught to see that as I checked them, ticket prices had gone up. First, it was 10 pounds for a day trip either way, then 15 pounds each ticket, and then 20 and even higher than that. Maybe a normal person would have just bought a ticket online right away, but I was curious. It couldn’t be that high for an hour train trip, could it?
So I waited, and planned to just show up at the ticket station, credit card in hand, ready to just ask for the best price. I did, and they gave it to me: I got a two-way ticket for just £15, cheaper than I’d ever seen it online. Feeling good about myself, I checked in for the train, and right on time, we pulled out of the station and headed off to Brighton.
The countryside by train looks exactly as you’d imagine: First, you’re in the dingy, dirty parts of London, with huge skyscrapers looming overhead, and then you start to clear out to the suburbs, with lots of neat townhouses and the occasional big grocery stores and markets. Finally, you hit the country, with big green pastures, rolling hills, and dots of sheep here and there. There are a few tunnels on the way down, and you speed past stations too little for a stop, with commuters patiently waiting on the platforms for their trains.
And then you reach Brighton — it’s bigger than you expect, with lots of cream-colored houses on the hills before you reach the center of town. The train pulls into a huge covered station, and it’s pretty classic: People pour out of the trains, go through the turnstiles into the (luckily sunny — I had good weather for my trip down to Brighton) entry area, and there’s a flurry of greetings from old friends, of excitement for a day out, of being away from the city and out near the beach, near the fun.
There’s about a 20 minute walk down to the coast itself, and Brighton is definitely a tourist town — all the way down, you’re tempted by various stores and deals meant specifically for travelers. It used to be a fishing town (with, in my opinion, the far better moniker of “Brighthelmstone”), and all of the little fishing streets of the original town have been turned into “The Lanes,” a series of little shops and vendors with all kinds of retail products for sale. It wasn’t quite as impressive as the Camden Market I saw (and it was much more mainstream and permanent), but there were a lot of wonderful places to wander in and explore.
My goal was the channel, though, so I walked down to the beach and then out on to the pebbles. Brighton has a lot of similarities to Santa Monica, actually, though of course it’s not nearly as tropical. There’s a carousel on the beach, little bars and ice cream shops lining the waterfront, and there’s even a pier with a sort of Las Vegas feel — there are lots of little arcades and an amusement park to lose a lot of silly money in. The channel itself is much greener than the water I’ve seen in California. But the waves were nicer as well. They satisfyingly crashed in one-by-one, while scads of seagulls flew and cawed overhead. I stood and just appreciated the scene for a while. I was disappointed that I didn’t (though I knew I wouldn’t) see France across the way. But I’ll be there tomorrow, and for a good week after.
Later on, I walked back through Brighton and explored a little bit. There’s a palace there called the Royal Pavilion, built in the late 1700s for King George IV. George liked the Indian style, apparently, and the Pavilion, with lots of minnarets and onion domes, cuts a strange figure in the middle of a bunch of old English buildings. But it did look great. And it was yet another example of something I’ve seen over and over here in Britain: A place literally built for a king, that’s later been handed down into (and used by) the hands of the public. Britain may not put much power into the hands of their monarchs these days, but they’ve definitely taken back a lot of the land.
After the Pavilion, I walked through the many shops, and the narrow market streets in Brighton. There was a candy shop full of sweets of all kinds — Britons definitely love their sweets, I’ve found on this trip. There was an armory, unfortunately closed, but with a window full of various guns and swords from different periods in history. There were bookshops and used clothing stores aplenty. I kind of wanted to buy a hat (I didn’t bring one on the trip at all), and I was on the hunt for maybe an extra shirt or two, but I never pulled the trigger. I’ve heard that things are cheaper in France and Germany, so I decided to wait until then.
There was also a new commercial mall nearby, so I walked over there and through that. Brighton is pretty unique in the places I’ve been in England so far, in that most of the people I heard and saw there were actually English. London is full of Americans and other foreigners — I heard all kinds of accents in the hostel and hotel where I stayed, and even the people out and about are ludicrously familiar to me. One girl I talked to, working as a bartender at yet another pub, was actually from Boston, and here in London studying psychology. And even on the street, just overhearing people go past, I would say that 40% of the people I saw weren’t English at all. Disappointing, almost.
But in Brighton, I heard English accents everywhere. Apparently this was they’d all been hiding out. I stopped by a video game store, a Lego store, and a “99 pence store,” and everywhere I had the annoyingly American thought that it was just like walking around America, except that everybody talked like Hugh Grant.
Finally, for my last dinner in England, I decided to do it up right. The one thing I’d not yet had was bangers and mash (well, I hadn’t had jaffa cakes yet either, so I picked some of those up at the 99p store for the train ride to Paris tomorrow), so I stopped at a Pret for the wi-fi, and looked up a place on Yelp that served some good bangers. The Victory Inn was the pub I found — it was gorgeous, and I just so happened to be there during happy hour, with pints flowing for just £1.50. I ordered a pint and waited for my bangers to come.
And ladies and gentlemen, that dish has saved the whole week of cuisine here. I’ve had some great food in England — a really amazing venison pie, some terrific Indian food, some great homemade Morrocan lamb, and even a presentable fish and chips. But this bangers and mash dish tops the list — the sausages were pork, locally grown, and just bursted with tasty flavor. They were put on a cheddar potato mash mound, and the whole thing was drowned in this red gravy that I wanted to spoon up and finish completely. Everything was topped with what they called “onion shrapnel” as well, little fried onions that were perfectly crunchy. The bartender handed me some Tesco horseradish to go with it, and I was doubtful, but a little sauce on the sausages made the whole thing better. Just amazing. I wanted three more of those dishes, but settled for one more happy hour pint, of a local Sussex ale.
I walked back to the train station full of good food and good memories. On the way home, I had a whole seat to myself, and looked out the window listening to tunes on my iPod. England’s been a whirlwind for me, so much so that I don’t quite know what I think of it yet. And with Paris coming up tomorrow, and Berlin for a week after that, I don’t have much time to decompress. It may be a while before I can really digest everything I’ve seen here.
But I’ve definitely enjoyed it. This is a country built on tradition, a country that trusts its past, and in most cases, for excellent reason. England’s set the standard for so much over the years, and walking the streets of London, you can’t help but come across something classic on every block. The people have been great, in the city and the country, the sights have been awe-inspiring, and the food and the ales have been terrific. I really appreciate my stay here. Though I don’t understand her, I’m sold: God save the queen.
Tomorrow, I get on the train to Paris. God can save me next.
Posted on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 at 3:46 am. Filed under general.