The origins of Brighton to the Neolithic Age

We all love the seaside and the sense of freedom it brings, but Brighton has a reputation above all other resorts in Britain for the ‘edgy’ pleasures it offers to visitors from all over the world. It’s not a bucket-and-spade kind of place, but a sophisticated ‘melting pot’ for a wide variety of people who relish the idea of having a good time in their own way. In fact sometimes it feels like a place for grown-ups who haven’t quite grown up at all.

It took a long time for a proper town to develop here and Brighton only discovered its true purpose in life only about 250 years ago. That purpose has been to attract visitors in their droves, parting them from their cash – and sometimes from their common sense, too – in return for an endless, and colourfully varied, range of entertainments. Of course, the people who live here care very much about things like schools, hospitals and rubbish collections, but that’s certainly not what Brighton means to everyone else.

As far as the wider world is concerned it isn’t really owned by its inhabitants at all – or not in the way that matters. It’s always been a place for other people to pass through on their way to somewhere else, or to pause in for a little fun before going away again. This has given it a very peculiar history. The obsession with having a good time began with George, the Prince Regent, and his extravagant friends (can you imagine the gaudy Royal Pavilion being built in any other seaside town?), and it hasn’t stopped since. In many ways this has been very useful for Brighton. The rich folk who came here during the 18th century for the ‘sea-water cure’ helped to revive a town that was very much down on its luck.

It wasn’t until 1810 that the authorities decided officially to call their town Brighton. Before that it was known as something like Brighthelmston, although more than 40 variations on the theme have been recorded. (In the Domesday Book it was Bristelmestune.) The ‘tun’ bit signifies a homestead, and the best guess is that someone called Beorthelm (which means ‘bright helmet’) was the bigwig here in Saxon times – but, if so, the poor chap’s been completely forgotten.

But the influx of so many outsiders can cause problems, too. Once the railway had arrived in the 1840s, Brighton grew faster than any other town in Britain, and during the later Victorian period many areas were horribly overcrowded, with foul-smelling slums that were a terrible health hazard because people drank water raised in buckets from wells that lay right next to their cesspits.

During the 1930s, day-trippers arrived here in their thousands, but some of them weren’t the kind of people you’d want as next-door neighbours. There were razor-wielding gangs who frequented the racecourse, and for a time the town had a very bad reputation indeed. Fortunately, Brighton has always found ways to rise above its problems, knowing that unless it puts on a good show for its visitors it can’t hope to be prosperous. Today it’s a bright and cheerful city, but – just like some of the characters who like to have their fun here – it has a colourful and occasionally disreputable past.

The first thing you need to know about Brighton is that the land it sits on wasn’t always there. Let’s go back a hundred million years to a Sussex that wasn’t the attractive jumble of hills and valleys we know today, but a flat expanse of nothing, covered by water. At one period this was a swampy region, criss-crossed by meandering rivulets and inhabited by iguanodons and other dinosaurs. Later it was flooded by the sea. The bands of sediment that built up on the bottom hardened to become the eventual rocks and soils of Sussex: sandstones, clay, shales, limestone and chalk.

During all these vast aeons they lay in an orderly fashion, one on top of the other, quietly minding their own business. The chalk, on top of everything else, was created from minute calcite crystals secreted by planktonic algae when the land was under the sea, and it built up at the rate of a metre every 100,000 years for all of 30 million years to form layers some 300 metres thick.

So why isn’t the landscape flat today? Because once, another very long time ago, there was a gradual but violent grinding of the tectonic plates (sections of the earth’s crust) that lie beneath our continent. It lifted, twisted and buckled the rocks to form the Alps in northern Europe and create the huge, if less dramatic, dome that eventually became today’s Sussex. Geologists call it the Wealden anticline – and Brighton sits on the southern edge of it.

Once rivers had cut through the rocks on their way to the sea, and once rain, frost and ice had scoured and weathered the surface over millions more years, Sussex was left with the broad bands of soils which make up our Downs and Weald today. (You might think that our chalk slopes should be called the Ups rather than the Downs, but the word comes from the Old English dun, which means ‘hill’.)

Don’t imagine, though, that the beach we walk the dog on today is where the earliest inhabitants of Sussex found it half a million years ago. The fickle sea was sometimes 40 metres higher than it is now, and sometimes all of 100 metres lower. In the cliffs at Black Rock, near Brighton Marina, you can see evidence of an ancient beach 8 metres above the current sea level and dating from about 200,000 years ago. It wasn’t until 5,000 years ago that the sea arrived at something like the present coastline, and another 2,000 years before it reached roughly the height we know today – although it has kept ebbing and flowing ever since, and at present threatens to wash away houses all around the south-east coast of England.

Let’s introduce you to a man called Roger. He’s very old – probably half a million years old – but unfortunately we can only guess what he looked like. That’s because all that remains of him is a single fragment of shin-bone. The archaeologists who affectionately gave him his daft name (no, of course nobody was called Roger then) were exploring an ancient raised beach at Boxgrove, 32 km (20 miles) west of Brighton, near Chichester. They also found a couple of teeth, but these probably belonged to someone else.

The Boxgrove people were members of a species we know as Homo heidelbergensis – their descendants being Neanderthal man (now extinct) and possibly ourselves (not yet) – and they lived in a climate similar to our own. They collected flints from the base of the cliffs and chipped away at them to fashion razor-sharp hand-axes. With these they hunted and butchered rhinoceroses, bears, bison, horses and large deer. But there were chilly times to come. Some 14,000 years ago, with glaciers forming further north, the Downs were covered by snowfields and the chalk was permanently frozen. The snow melted when the last ice age ended, and rivers cut through the hills, scouring out the valley north of Brighton which we know as Devil’s Dyke.

As the temperature rose, life became easier for the nomadic hunter-gatherers and hunter-fishers who foraged along the coast and in the dense oak forests of Sussex, which teemed with wild cattle, deer and pigs. Their rock-shelters have been excavated in the Sussex Weald, especially on the high ground to the north of Brighton, but scatterings of their worked flints have been found in the Brighton area, too.

Come the New Stone Age, Brighton at last finds a definite place on the prehistoric map. During this period settlers used polished stone tools, domesticated animals, practised weaving, made pottery and sank flint mines deep into the chalk – walk on the Downs above the Long Man of Wilmington chalk figure to the east of Brighton, and the indentations you see in the turf are the tops of those ancient mineshafts.

These settlers also left permanent marks on the landscape in the form of long and oval ‘barrows’, or burial mounds, and a series of large ‘causewayed camps’ on high points of the Downs. One of these camps can still be seen – although it’s been knocked about more than a bit – 130 metres above sea level, up by Brighton Racecourse at Whitehawk Hill. Probably built between 4000 and 3000 BC, and extended over several centuries, it comprises four concentric earthworks with crossing points, or causeways, over the ditches.

Nobody really knows what these structures were for. They weren’t sufficiently protected to have been fortifications, and the best guess is that they were centres for communal rituals of some sort.

The Bevendean Road Neighbourhood

Did you know the Bevendean neighbourhood can be traced back to the last millenium? The Domesday Book of 1086 recorded the manor of Bevendean, ‘Beofa’s valley’, to be worth £6 and held by one Walter from William de Warrenne.

It was eventually divided between two estates, Lower and Upper Bevendean, which were acquired by the corporation in November 1913 and January 1940 respectively; the whole Bevendean area was annexed by the county borough from Falmer parish on April 1 1928.

Lower Bevendean Farm was originally accessed from Bear Rd by a trackway now known as Bevendean Rd and had an 18th-century farmhouse, but the buildings were later demolished to provide the open space now known as Farm Green between Auckland Drive and Bevendean School. However, Upper Bevendean Farm survives, and has a late 19th-century farmhouse approached from Warren Avenue, Woodingdean.

The first development of the Lower Bevendean estate came in the early 1930s, when the corporation extended its housing from South Moulsecoomb up the valley onto Bevendean land: thus 85-123 and 110-120 The Avenue (eastwards from the cross roads at the western end of Manton Rd), plus Lower Bevendean Avenue, Upper Bevendean Avenue and Manton Rd, are now a part of Bevendean.

At about the same time, the Widdicombe Way/Bevendean Crescent area was developed privately and was also known as part of the Bevendean estate, but it is now normally counted as part of the Moulsecoomb district. With a pressing need for new homes in the post-war period, the greater part of the Bevendean housing estate was rapidly developed higher up the valley from 1948 by the corporation, which named the roads after English castles.

Bevendean Barn, at the corner of Auckland Drive and Heath Hill Avenue, was used as a chapel for the estate from 1953, but was replaced in 1963 by the Church of the Holy Nativity, a Modern-style building in brick, mottled knapped-flint and cobbles by Richard Melhuish.

The Hyde Business Park was developed from 1955; the first factory was Elizabeth English shoes, followed by Hibberd Furniture, Brighton Sheet Metal Works, Redifon and Canada Dry; current businesses include Big Box Storage and West Instruments. Bevendean is a relatively deprived ward within the city — more than three quarters of its population are on a low income — and has been the recipient of Neighbourhood Renewal funding. It has a relatively high percentage of residents living in council accommodation — 24% — while 13% live in housing association homes.

Bear Road Neighbourhood and the Bedford Hotel

Bear Rd has an average gradient of 1:11 and a maximum of 1:8, and formed part of the boundary between Brighton and Preston until 1928. It took its name from the Bear Inn, a centre for bear and badger-baiting in the late 18th century; bear-baiting was legal until 1835.

On Bear Hill to the north of Bear Rd once stood the Bear Mill and, at the top of Bear Rd, stood the Race Hill Mill. The area to the north of Bear Rd, sometimes known as East Preston as it formed the easternmost part of that parish, was developed from the early 1900s and many of the road names have Boer War connections — e.g. Ladysmith and Mafeking roads. Most of the housing — 58% — is terraced and a high proportion of it (26%) is rented out as student accommodation — to the chagrin of owner-occupiers, who regularly complain about a variety of nuisances caused by this, including rubbish in the street and noise.

The parish church of the area, St Alban’s in Coombe Rd, was built in 1910-14 by Lacy W Ridge, in Early English style; on May 15 1974, the parish was merged into the new parish of the Resurrection. The parish room at the corner of Bear Rd and Riley Rd was built in 1902-3.

The lower part of Coombe Rd was dominated by two large factories on either side of the road. The southern one (Tyreco Ltd) was erected in 1917 for National Diamond Factories (Bernard Oppenheimer) Ltd, and ex-WWI servicemen who had lost limbs were employed there. The building was eventually occupied by Allen West and Schweppes in 1927 and, in 1945, by CVA Tools; this company was taken over by Kearney & Trecker in 1966 and the Coombe Rd factory closed in 1973.

In October 2000, the building was converted into deco flats; prices then were £87,500 for a 1- bedroom flat, £164,950 for 2-bedroom; in late 2009, a 1-bed flat cost £146,000. The impressive building opposite, now the Big Yellow Storage Company, was erected in 1918 as another diamond factory, and then became the home of Dentsply, one of Europe’s largest false teeth manufacturers, which closed in 1991.

Other businesses in the area included artificial limb makers Pedestros Ltd at 18 Coombe Rd Ltd and, at no.16, Brighton Asbestos Manufacturing Co Ltd. Nowadays, the Bear Rd area is dominated its cemeteries and crematoria, including the historic Extra-Mural Cemetery. Bevendean Hospital in Bevendean Rd closed in April 1989; it was demolished and the Sussex Beacon was erected, along with some housing.

The Bedford Hotel, 137 King’s Rd, was designed by Thomas Cooper and opened in 1835. It was considered the most distinguished late-Georgian building in Brighton after the Royal Pavilion. It had five storeys with two recessed Ionic porticoes facing south and west above the entrances, while the west wing was built back from the road and was decorated with giant pilasters. Inside was a Grecian hall with Ionic columns and a glazed dome.

The original Bedford Hotel was opened in October 1829 for William Manfield who, in 1835, leased it to the designer, Thomas Cooper; Manfield bought the lease back the following year and ran the hotel himself until 1844, when he leased it to Joseph Ellis.

In 1855, Ellis purchased the Bedford outright, and established it as the town’s leading hotel for the accommodation of royalty, the fashionable and the famous. Its guests included French Emperor Louis-Philippe, Louis Napoleon, Jenny Lind and Lord Palmerston. In 1963, the hotel was bought by AVP Industries Ltd, who said they wanted to replace it with a modern 14-storey tower block. On April 1 1964 — just two months after Brighton Council refused to make a preservation order on the hotel — the building was partly destroyed by fire. Two people lost their lives: guest Mrs Elizabeth Reed and hotel worker, Mrs Montserrat Gorriz. The hotel’s manager, John Ratcliffe, had the presence of mind to rescue a display for letters, written by Charles Dickens during his visits to the hotel, from a display cabinet on the ground floor.

A replacement Bedford Hotel — rather different in character to its predecessor — opened on September 16 1967. Designed by R Seifert and Partners, the 17-storey, 168 feet tall building was the first major new hotel development in the town for over half a century. It became the Hilton West Pier and Bedford Towers, and is now the Holiday Inn.