Photograph by John Kernick
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Lights show off the Brighton Pier's vintage silhouette.

Photograph by John Kernick

Now Leaving London: Brighton and the South Downs

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

One hour from Victoria Station

No British city embodies full-blown English eccentricity better than Brighton. Blame it on George IV. He built the loopy, orientalist-inspired Royal Pavilion here as his seaside escape, helping to transform the relatively sedate fishing village of Brighthelmston into a fashionable Regency-era retreat. Yet Brighton is also the gateway to the South Downs and that quintessentially English ritual of the country walk. You can experience both the peculiar and the pastoral sides of the British personality after a quick trip south from London.

“Brighton is where kitsch meets sassy glamour,” says club promoter Ruth Allsop. “You can literally feel the buzz of the city as soon as you step off the train. Even the colors seem brighter.”

Allsop should know. As the planner of Margot’s Parties—open to the public (about $15 for advance tickets) and held regularly at various local clubs—she has hosted themed bashes including an “ice queen and hot Cossack Christmas party that was awash in silver hot pants and fur-trimmed boots.”

If you miss one of her gatherings, Allsop suggests heading to the Concorde, “a spit-and-sawdust venue for live bands right on the beach.” Local DJ and artist Jacqueline Hammond recommends the Brighton Ballroom, a historic glass-domed building in the bohemian gay enclave of Kemptown that presents burlesque, cabaret, and speakeasies. For DJ Boogaloo Stu, nothing tops the Ballroom’s monthly Pop Kraft events: “On any given night you might find a hair salon, sock-puppet master classes, flash mob dances, fortune-telling, balloon modeling, and life drawing classes—all set to a pulsing party sound track.”

Traditionalists, though, will appreciate the Brighton Bandstand, just beyond the romantically decaying West Pier, where brass bands and dance troupes perform in the briny ocean air. The newest seaside attraction is the 164-foot-high Brighton Wheel, which provides aerial views of Brighton Pier’s old-fashioned funfair rides, arcade games, henna tattoo artists, and kiosks selling colorful sticks of Brighton’s signature candy rock.

By day, Brighton’s anything-goes vibe infuses North Laine, a maze of cafés and indie boutiques such as Get Cutie, specializing in handmade dresses and tops in bold retro prints (think skulls-and-roses or cartoony toadstools).

To check out the vibrant local art scene, stroll down to the waterfront, where the Jag Gallery opens its working studios to visitors. Browse the collection of paintings and prints for sale or commission work directly from the sociable artists on-site.

Not surprisingly, Brighton claims the best vegetarian restaurant in the country. Terre à Terre, on East Street, serves inventive meatless fare such as halloumi cheese marinated in tandoori spice, or red onion, mustard seed, and cumin crumpets with gingerroot chili jam.

Hotel Pelirocco matches the city’s Mad Hatter zeal with guest suites decorated in motifs ranging from Dolly Parton (Smoky Mountains mural) to Muhammad Ali (boxing ring).

Make a final Brighton pilgrimage to the grave of one Phoebe Hessel (1713-1821) in the cemetery of St. Nicholas’s Church. Hessel cross-dressed as a man for 17 years to make her living as an active soldier, escaped from a workhouse at the spry age of 93, and became a local celebrity supported by the Prince Regent. Call her the unstoppable patron saint of Brighton.

Then trade glow sticks and go-go boots for walking sticks and Wellingtons on the South Downs Way, a 99-mile trail that winds from the beech woods of Hampshire to the chalk ridges of East Sussex.

Following the path east from Brighton, stop at Alfriston, the type of quaint English village in which Miss Marple might live. The Bloomsbury artists (Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, among them) roosted at nearby Charleston Farmhouse, a country home bursting with their murals, textiles, and sculptures.

The walk’s real climax, though, lies toward the finish line, at the Seven Sisters. This undulating series of chalk cliffs, topped by a green tuft of meadow, looks as bleached as an iceberg. In its own way, it’s as flamboyantly dramatic as any rousing Saturday night out in Brighton.