Brighton and Hove, actually

Last week I was visiting England, and I took the opportunity of spending a couple of days in Brighton and Hove. I took a lot of photos, so this week’s blog entry (late, I’m sorry) is partly an excuse to share some of them.

I was brought up in Brighton. Well, in Hove actually, but the two towns are now one city “The City of Brighton and Hove”. The amalgamated town was granted city status in England in 2011 and according to the Brighton and Hove page of Wikipedia the new city has a population of 273,400. Which makes it the 18th largest British city in terms of population and, more importantly (in the opinion of residents and old Brightonians), ahead of the City of Westminster and the City of London, Oxford and Cambridge, Canterbury and York.

Conversation on the FrontBrightonian, by the way, is the accepted adjective for residents of Brighton, but what is the equivalent for Hove? Hovian doesn’t seem right (although there is a local blog of that name). tells me: “No exact match found for “Hovian” in British & World English. Did you mean Jovian?” Well, no, that would be someone from Jupiter, wouldn’t it? OK, how about Hover? The definition seems quite appropriate actually: “Remain poised uncertainly in one place or between two states”. That’s Hove.

When “Brighton and Hove” became a thing, many people of Hove feared their distinct urban identity would be swallowed up by Brighton. That does seem rather to have been borne out by events. Even though the new City Hall is what used to be Hove Town Hall, most people now talk about Brighton rather than Brighton-and-Hove. I can’t say it bothers me terribly, but I know Hove residents who are fighting a rearguard action in typically genteel style by, for example, refusing to address letters to the BN3 postcode area with any identifying name other than Hove.

Look - sandy beach! A little patch of sand among the shingleIf you ask someone from Hove if they come from Brighton they will probably say “Hove, actually”. In Hove that counts as a really witty put-down.

I grew up in Hove, first on the border with Portslade, later at the very end of Dyke Road Avenue, up in the hills, and the last school that I attended (the last of eight) was also in Hove — the Cardinal Newman Comprehensive School on the Upper Drive. (Yes, I worked my way through eight schools before going off to university. What of it?)

When I was a kid there was a descriptive phrase in circulation to mark the difference between Brighton and Hove. It was “yobs and snobs” – the Brighton kids were yobs and the Hove kids were snobs. I suppose this reflected a perception of a class difference between Brighton and Hove – Hove was more middle-class, more genteel; Brighton was a larger town with a greater variety of people and, I suppose, more workers of various sorts, though it was also much more vibrant and with a more interesting history as well as a more interesting current existence.

Brighton clock tower (detail)Or perhaps Brighton had more yobs coming down from London. It was certainly true that if you were standing anywhere on Queens Road at about 10 o’clock of a summer’s morning, you would see a tide of people emerge from Brighton railway station to sweep down Queens Road, past the Clock Tower and on to the seafront. The first cheap train from London came in at about ten – the first train for which you could buy a Cheap Day Return ticket – and so the first train that would bring holidaying Londoners to “London by the Sea”, as Brighton was also known.

Not that that meant the people of Hove were all so very much native residents. When I was a kid Hove was a popular place to commute to London from, and of course to retire to. My memory of Hove was of a place with a very high percentage of old people – many of them among the last generation of Imperial civil servants – who spent their days grumbling to one another about how the country had gone to the dogs.

I swore I would never be like that. Consequently (if I am to keep my oath) I can never return to Hove to live because there is a very real danger I would spend my time grumbling to other people of my age about how the country has gone to the dogs.

Brighton centre from Churchill Square car parkAlthough “gone to the dogs” is a bit of an overstatement. The truth is, things have changed – in some ways for the worse but in some ways for the better. That’s very obvious now, though it was less true the previous time I visited.

Fifteen years ago, when it became a city, Brighton and Hove had an unemployment rate over 10%. Even in the town centre, even in the flashy new shopping centre at Churchill Square (well, new and flashy when I was a boy), there seem to be more shops empty and abandoned than open, and among those that were open, charity shops seem to dominate. Now it’s obvious that the economy, if not the British economy then at least the economy of the Brighton and Hove area, is on the rise. There are still empty shops and derelict buildings, but by far the majority are open and doing business.

On the other hand there are large numbers of beggars and homeless people camping out in the doorways of the empty shops and in the shelters on the seafront and you cannot walk the streets without being petitioned: “Spare some change, gov?” And we’re not talking about EU beggars — Brighton’s beggars, the ones I saw last week, are largely white and clearly native speakers of English. (If nothing else, the “gov” is a giveaway.)

Rusting shelter decorationThe weather was cold and damp while I was there, everyone I spoke to told me how I’d just missed the good weather, and I shivered to see the homeless in their torn sleeping bags, dirty blankets or cardboard and newspaper beds. I don’t usually give to beggars — I don’t usually carry change (I’ve been suedified – it’s all done with cards now), but I was on holiday and had cash for small purchases, so I gave some of it away.

If the majority of the shops 15 years ago seemed to be charity shops, now I was struck by the number of estate agents. Property prices are booming and property renovation is going on all over. There’s another reason why I could never move back — I don’t think I could afford it.

Brighton and Hove – especially Hove – was always, as I remember, a bastion of conservatism. Hove and Brighton Pavilion are the two Parliamentary constituencies that embrace central Brighton and Hove. Both returned Tory MPs one after another in all the election of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Then in 1997 the total bankruptcy of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party was revealed when both Hove and Brighton Pavilion were captured by Labour.

I sat up all night at home in Sweden and watched the results come in and when Hove went Labour I knew I was witnessing something historic.

Labour held Brighton Pavilion till 2010 when they lost it again, but not to the Tories. In 2010 Brighton Pavilion returned Britain’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas. A seat she held onto in the recent election now in May. Meanwhile, the Tories clawed Hove back in 2010, but in 2015 have lost it, again to Labour.

Bicycling in the rainMeanwhile the Greens were in (minority) control of Brighton and Hove City council for four years between 2011 and 2015. You can see their legacy in all the cycle lanes and pedestrianised or part-pedestrianised streets.

But regardless of politics and economics, of poverty and affluence, the sea and the seafront (or the Front, as we call it) are much the same as ever. Even the wreck of the West Pier is still there, though looking smaller and tidier now the most dangerous bits of the structure have been removed. The Pier that Wouldn’t Die. A fire burned it out, then explosives failed to destroy it, then a salvage vessel failed to dismantle it. Storms have broken over it for years, but still it stands, a feature and photo opportunity that must be known around the world by now. (My local pride is showing I fear.)

The Angel of PeaceI spent a full day in Brighton and walked along the Front, passed the Angel of Peace. (Who turns out to have nothing to do with a peace treaty between Brighton and Hove as I used to believe. I’m quite disappointed.) On to the beach and across the shingle, down to the breaking waves. Far out to sea the misty shapes of cargo vessels are following the mark of what Kipling called “the Channel’s leaden line” and eager dogs are chasing driftwood while sporty types jog along the promenade or run up and down the shingle banks between the beach and the prom.

Keep off the groynesAs the rain that had held off for my walk started to fall I took myself into Hove Library. It was a pleasure to see the library is still in operation, and clearly well used, but it was also a relief to find the building hasn’t been replaced. I walked into the children’s section and my feet took me automatically to the wall where the good books used to be. No more, the tall book cases I remember have been switched for low ones displaying colourful covers instead of the rather drab institutional bindings the books used to have. But still, here was where I found the Moomins and the Railway Children and Dr Dolittle, where I explored Swallowdale and Coral Island and dived 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, where I stepped across the Wrinkle in Time or listened to the Wolves howling about Willoughby Chase. And then upstairs to the corner of the general library where they used to keep all the history books that were my salvation throughout my O and A Levels. This is a lot more as I remember it, though they have English Literature here now.

When one has read so much about libraries being forced to dumb down or give away or sell stock or simply close, it’s good to see that Hove still has the right idea.

And on that note, as I see I’m pushing 1750 words, I shall close this text that started out as just a vehicle for my photos. There may be more next week!

West Pier across the water
West Pier across the water

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

From “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

Strange maps

All armchair travellers love maps. Even many of us who once in a while also get out and about love them. Maps are where you start when you’re planning your next trip, or where you can go to revisit one of those journeys you made ten or twenty years ago.

With the coming of Google Maps and Street View the armchair traveller has been given an enormous boon. When Mrs SC and I were looking for a place to live in Brussels, we used a property website in conjunction with Google Maps to get a grip on where in Brussels the places we were interested in were to be found, and then used Street View to look around the neighbourhood. Of course it doesn’t fully take the place of seeing the street, the architecture or the population density in real life. Or hearing the noises or smelling the air for that matter, but it does give a much better idea than a paper map.

At the same time, while I can appreciate the advantages of an electronic map, I still feel there’s nothing quite like a real map, printed on paper, that you can carry with you, as we did when we travelled to Brussels. You can mark a paper map in a way you can’t mark an electronic map. You can stick post-its on it, you can use it as a signalling device to attract your partner or the help of random passers-by. You can use it as protection from an unexpected shower, and (if it hasn’t dissolved) you can keep as a souvenir of your adventures.

Travel books and adventure stories – not to mention accounts of fantasy worlds – are complemented and completed by maps. Following the journey of Marco Polo to China and back is made easier with a map. Tracing the voyages of the Vikings and the route of Fletcher Christian and the Bounty mutineers across the seas of the world likewise. And what would Bilbo’s journey to the Misty Mountains – or Frodo’s quest to Mount Doom – be without Tolkien’s spidery maps and dodgy calligraphy? What would Narnia or Earthsea or Westeros be without their maps?

And maps are also handy ways to convey information graphically, whether it’s true information or invented – or an amalgamation of the two.

I love maps, and I love the inventiveness of cartographers and that makes the blog Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities, created, composed and curated by Frank Jacobs, a pleasure to visit. I don’t know how long he’s been publishing the blog, but the most recent article (Watercolours of the War between East and West) is number 746 so it’s certainly been going a while. I don’t go to there weekly, but every so often I take myself there and I binge. I usually read the current post and then follow the links to other related – or often unrelated – posts. Sometimes I’m intrigued enough to go and visit the sources, which Frank Jacobs is always careful to include.

For example, this time around I followed “related links” to read about the Circular Towns of Georgia (in the USA), Planet Voronoi (where the countries of our world have mysteriously changed shape “patterned after some abstruse logic”), Nazi Treasure Maps and Phallic Cartography. Many of the more recent articles have internal links to earlier articles which can also be great fun to follow. The Nazi Treasure Map article links to blog entry 63 – The Lost Dutchman Goldmine – and to entry 88 – Neuschwabenland. (Sadly though some of the internal links seem to be broken or blocked. Number 234 Slumless, smokeless cities, for example, which has a link from the Circular Towns article, comes back empty for me. A pity.)

But generally this is a very good website and well worth a visit. Or three.

I am myself out travelling at present, which explains why this week’s effort is so short and without a recorded version. I’m hoping to return to my regular service next Wednesday.


The Horta Museum

I’m standing outside the town house of Victor Horta on a Sunday afternoon. Even though it’s a Sunday afternoon, there is a small crowd of us waiting to be let in and we’re waiting because the house is full of visitors and the Horta Museum has to limit numbers. It’s a small house and there are a lot of eager visitors.

I tried to visit last week, but the people running the house wanted me to leave my camera in the reception. As I wasn’t prepared to do that, I postponed my visit instead. Now I’m back – no camera, but I have my trusty recording device – except I still haven’t learned how to use it properly and the 30 minutes or so of recording I made in the house is almost unusable. Oh well, better luck next time.

Art nouveau detailsArt Nouveau (or, if you prefer, Jugendstil) – you cannot escape it in Brussels. It’s in the stained glass of door lights and window panels, it’s in the intricate ribbons of balcony railings, it’s in the twisting forms of decorative house numbers and the willowy women featured in fresco facades. You even see it reproduced as graffiti, in the ironwork of some bus shelters and in the transfers decorating the doors of Brussels buses.

The man responsible for this – or at least the man who is credited with first introducing Art Nouveau into Brussels architecture – is Victor Horta. Whose town house I have just got into.

Excuse me while I pay the €8 entrance fee and buy a guidebook – €12.

Letters for HortaVictor Horta was born in 1861 into an artisanal-class family in Ghent. His father was a cobbler – a bespoke shoemaker perhaps, but still a working craftsman. The family must have had aspirations, though, and seen potential in their son. They paid for him first to attend music school to learn to play the violin. He was sent down for bad behaviour. Nothing daunted they tried again. The boy had once expressed an interest in building, so they paid for him to attend the Ghent Académie des Beaux-Arts to study architectural drawing. This time he behaved.

He completed his studies and, when he turned 17, left Ghent for Paris. Here he worked for an architect and designer in Montmartre. In Montmartre he was at the epicentre of modern art, and in 1878 in Paris he must have see the fantastic achievements of modern iron and glass technology on display at the Exposition Universelle. All of this would feed into his work and find an echo in his house, when he came to build it.

The house and Horta’s office and studio were built on adjoining plots in 1898 and Horta lived and worked here for 16 years until the Great War drove him from Belgium. When he returned after the war was over, he sold the house and studio separately and both buildings then seem to have led mundane lives as middle-class homes until 1961 when the municipality of Saint-Gilles bought the house. In 1963 it became the first listed Art Nouveau building in Brussels and in 1969 the first incarnation of the Horta Museum opened here.

Art Nouveau influenced doorSo, past the cash desk and leave the dining room on the right – it’s too full of people at present – and up the stairs to the first floor landing. This is an impressive space. The guidebook tells me it is equal in area to the space taken by the stairwell. It has windows opening on to the street at the front and no back wall separating it from the stairwell so the light from the street fills the space and reaches across to the dining room half a level down and at the back of the house. This space is made possible by using a iron frame – inspiration from the Paris Exhibition perhaps.

To one side are doors leading through to the reception room (with display cabinets) and Horta’s office – furnished now as a drawing room. The reception room and the office are in the studio, the building next door.

When the old studio came up for sale in 1971 it was also bought up by the Saint-Gilles municipality, and in 1989 plans began to be laid to restore the two buildings and turn them into a single museum. Plans that – according to the guide book – “will be completed in 2014”. Well, it’s 2015 now and the restoration is clearly not complete, but it’s pretty good.

Horta Metro graffiti womanI suppose that while some people in Brussels are proud of Victor Horta and his works, other are less impressed – perhaps just because there is so much Art Nouveau (and faux Art Nouveau) in the city. In the same period that Saint-Gilles was buying the Horta home and creating the first Horta Museum, the city of Brussels was undergoing the same rush of modernized brutalism that London, Stockholm and other European cities were also enjoying. Out with the old, in with the new – especially if the new was utilitarian, concrete and dense. Notably, Horta’s first public space, the Maison du Peuple/Volkshuis (commissioned by the Belgian Workers’ Party and opened in 1899), was demolished in 1965.

But the dedicated and determined staff of the Horta Museum and the Amis du Musée Horta (founded 1982) carried on and gradually the tide seems to have turned in their favour.

Most of the furniture in the house appears to have been sourced from other places or collections. Little is original to the house, although they have managed to track down a few pieces. I suppose Victor Horta sold off most of the furniture, or took it with him in 1919, but I’m guessing he didn’t take the fitted wardrobes in the second floor dressing room. Off the dressing room are a bath (with gas fired boiler and shower) and a toilet. I’d like to believe they’re original too. Also, in the bedroom, the urinal hidden in a bedside cupboard.

Art Nouveau house numberOne of the important influences on European Art Nouveau came from the English Arts and Crafts movement, and the Horta Museum includes wallpapers and furniture covering with a distinctly William Morris look about them. Another influence (and on the Arts and Crafts movement too) was oriental art, and the house is decorated with wall hangings, prints and objects from China and Japan, as well as for example modern woven silk wall coverings made to Horta’s original design.

Up the stairs again and we find the bedroom – suit really – designed for Horta’s only child, Simone. Her bedroom opens on to a roof terrace with views over the back garden and way across the roof-tops and gardens of the surrounding houses. The dressing room next door – also at the back of the house – has a sliding door that opens into a small greenhouse (with another door to the terrace).

This was the part of the house I most liked. Bright, light, green. I could live there. Across the stairwell at the front of the house is a guest room. Not bad, but not nearly as attractive.

The guidebook also describes the servants’ quarters. There is a separate servants’ staircase (which I glimpsed through one door left ajar), and there are kitchens and servants’ rooms too, but these were not open on my visit. Nor was Victor Horta’s studio with its high, wide windows which you can see from the street.

It seems the Horta Museum has acquired the building on the other side of Horta’s residence – nothing to do with the architect – and is gutting it preparatory to moving the reception, cloak room and bookshop there – and perhaps adding a lift for disabled visitors. I can’t say, but it seems to involve work on the servants’ area as well. Maybe I’ll pay another visit next year and see how far they’ve come.

There’s a lot more to say about Victor Horta, but I think I’ll draw a line under this piece now. It was fun to visit the Horta Museum – even if I couldn’t see all of it – and I would recommend it to anyone with half an interest in architecture or Art Nouveau. Open Tuesday to Sunday inclusive (except for public holidays) 14.00-17.30. It takes about half an hour. The home page promises “Guided tours by appointment, booked one week in advance… [in] French, English, Dutch, German and, possibly, Italian and Swedish.” But when I asked, buying my ticket, I was told there are guided tours only in French and Dutch. I don’t know how to interpret that.

Apparently you can also hire the dining room for private dinners or cocktails for €2,500. Don’t all rush at once now!

Horta metro station graffiti

Abbe Froidure Park in Autumn

I’m standing on Avenue Bruggmann, just outside the gates to a park which I discovered by sheer accident on Sunday…

Yes, well, clearly I’m not. This was an experiment to see whether I could dictate a text for Stops and Stories while out and about. Unfortunately, most of the time, I forgot that one key element of radio journalism is speaking into the microphone so that one’s potential audience can actually hear what one is saying. There are snatches of my recording I can use, but I think I’d better stick to writing this in the peace and quiet of my study.

However, imagine if you will that we are standing on a moderately busy suburban city street with houses of four or five stories, some with a narrow front, but still comfortable, others broader and quite impressive, almost mansions, but all pressed up against one another in an almost unbroken parade. A tram line runs down the middle of the street, there’s a church squeezed in among the houses over there to the right, and up the road on the left a little way, one of the mansions is doing service as the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba.

Abbe Froidure's Park SignAs you walk down this street towards the city, you pass on your right what appears to be the opening of a driveway leading to garages behind one of the more opulent of the buildings. The pillars of the gateway are a little intimidating, but you get a glimpse of a sanded drive and formally clipped green hedges and then you notice the plaque on the wall well above head height. “Parc Regional Abbe Froidure” it says. “Overture: 8h00.” Beneath are the long list of regulations (in French and Dutch) you have become familiar with seeing at the entrance to other Brussels parks.

And if you walk through the gateway and down the sanded path you come to railings, and past the railings…

you come into this tiny little charming park which is really tucked away and hidden.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Reading the Sunday paperI came across the park on Sunday while I was out taking photos of buildings in the area. It was a warm, sunny autumn day and the park was clearly being used by locals – walking dogs, sitting in the sun, reading a paper. There was a family playing with two small children in the little playground to one side. The colours, a mixture of autumn russet and summer green leaves, contrasted with the startling blue of the park furniture. I took a couple of photos, but then slipped out of the park to continue with my project for the day. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” I thought.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Autumn coloursThat was a mistake. The following day I didn’t get out until late afternoon and the clouds had rolled in and the first shower of the week had fallen. More were to come. Consequently most of my photos from the park are not sunny and cheerful but dull and rain spotted, and my recordings too are a little damp and a little melancholy, but perhaps that suits Abbe Froidure’s park.

Here in the middle of the park — it’s a sort of quadrangle of these cobble stones that are so prevalent all over Brussels. Personally I think they’re horrible to walk on but they are attractive to look at I suppose and, er— It’s an odd combination really. There’s this cobbled surface which looks old, and then there are these blue benches which are very modern. Blue, um, trellises I suppose, fences which are being used to train vines to grow up, and then in the middle there’s this concrete block. Er, I’m going to guess that it’s part of — a — water — feature…

Abbe Froidure's Park - Blue corridor 2Do you hear how my voice slows down there? I could see the phrase “water feature” coming and I really didn’t want to say it and sound like an advert from a House and Garden magazine, but I couldn’t find a synonym quickly enough. Oh dear. Although, if you look at the illustration I think you’ll see — despite the gutter being clogged with fallen leaves and chestnuts — what I was trying to describe probably is intended to have water flowing along it.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Complex of seed headsThe park is completely enclosed within this block by the backs of houses and their garden walls, but just as there is a way in from Avenue Brugmann so there is a second entrance directly opposite into a little triangle of streets around a green space called Square Léon Jacquet.

There were fewer people in the park on my second visit. No doubt the weather played its part, but also it was a weekday. Still there were a couple of dog walkers, a couple of young men on a cigarette break together who left the park soon after I arrived, and a young woman who walked through, using the park as a short cut from Brugmann to Jacquet.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Cobbles and fallen leavesI sat down on one of the blue benches and tried to guess how the Abbe Froidure Park had come to be here. Although there are two or three mature trees – chestnuts and sycamores I think — the park itself is clearly not very old. Ten years, perhaps twenty. At first sight it looks as though it has been created by shaving pieces off the back gardens of the surrounding houses, but the more I looked at it and thought about it, the more I thought it must have existed as an empty space long before it was a park. The cobbles seem old, so perhaps it was a courtyard, perhaps a mews yard serving several of the houses around with stables for horses and carriages.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Rain on roseWhat a temptation there must have been to use the land for building, but instead someone with sense decided to create this little oasis of peace. Beautiful. City planners British, American and Swedish, who advocate “densification” (förtätning), please note!

Later, at home I went searching for Abbe — Father Froidure. Why did he get this lovely little urban park?

Abbe Froidure's Park - Fallen leavesI still don’t know the full story, but I can report that Edouard Froidure was born in or near Ypres in 1899 and died in Brussels in 1971. A refugee and then a soldier in the Belgian army during the First World War, he became a priest in 1925 and in 1931 the vicar of the parish of St. Alène in Forest. (The park is on the very edge of the Brussels municipality of Forest.)

In 1933 he was involved in setting up a movement to enable young children among the urban poor to come out of the slums and spend time in the fresh air (in camps in the city’s larger parks) — “Les Stations de Plein Air”.

Abbe Froidure - photo from the website of the Fédération Froidure
Abbe Froidure – photo from the website of the Fédération Froidure

During the Second World War when Belgium was under occupation, he continued his activities on behalf of the children of Brussels and under cover of this worked with the Belgian resistance including to protect and save the lives of Jewish children. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 he was interned in concentration camps and ended up in Dachau. Liberated in 1945, he returned to Belgium and seems to have picked up where he left off.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Rain on vine leavesHe also worked with (and perhaps helped start) an organisation called “Les Petit Reins” — The Little Nothings — an organisation staffed by the unemployed and running charity shops and collecting, sorting and selling second-hand clothes.

Obviously the Abbe was a much loved man and a little park dedicated to his memory seems entirely appropriate.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Chestnuts

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

All the photos (except the portrait of Abbe Froidure) were made by me on Sunday 4th or Tuesday 6th October. All the ambient sounds used in the background of the recording were made by me in situ on Tuesday 6th. And as for my French pronunciation in the recording – I’m sorry!