A Brief History and Geography of Brighton

Brighton (once Bristelmestune, then Brighthelmstone) was originally a fishing village, and was wiped out by a French raiding force in 1514 before being rebuilt.

The beachfront was originally lower, further back, and nearer to the Town Hall, but the town was vulnerable to erosion during storms, and a new brick seafront was built, creating a more stable, level piece of land for new buildings, followed by a sudden drop to beach level. As a result, much of the artificial beachfront is now riddled with underground tunnels and spaces.

The Prince Regent (later George IV) installed himself in a large farmhouse and converted it into the Marine Pavilion, which was then extensively converted by John Nash to become the current Royal Pavilion, through an ongoing programme of lavish spending, transforming most of the building into a fake Eastern/Oriental-styled folly.

The Pavilion is alongside Grand Parade, which is at the end of London Road, the was the main entranceway into Brighton. Grand Parade turns into Old Steine as it nears the sea, with the Town Hall to the immediate West. The region to the East of this was developed by Thomas Kemp, who named the resulting estate "Kemp Town". Many of Brighton's characteristic pale yellow Regency buildings with bowed fronts were built around the Brighton/Hove border to the West of the town, as part of the Brunswick Estate. This was another of Kemp's projects, but since he'd already named Kemptown after himself, this time he chose to name the enterprise after the Brunswick family, perhaps to capitalise on the local popularity of Caroline of Brunswick, the Queen Consort to George IV. George was widely loathed (both as a monarch and as a human being), and the fact that he tried repeatedly to blacken Caroline's name in order to divorce her seemed to be taken a recommendation of sorts – in the eyes of the public, if George hated her that much, she couldn't be all bad.

Brighton Station was built in 1841 as the terminus for the new London-Brighton line, and although it might have been more convenient to place it at the end of Grand Parade, the need to also put in branch lines to the sides to connect with other coastal destinations, and the need for those lines to have a reasonable gradient, meant that the station instead had to be put up on the hill, in a cutting gouged out of the hillside, and attached to a large curved viaduct that spanned London Road. 

Up until this time, most of the rest of Brighton was still open fields, but with the building of the London to Brighton railway line, Brighton suddenly boomed, and the valley below the London Road Viaduct, which had been green space when it was built, rapidly filled in with new buildings. Alongside Brighton Station was Brighton Locomotive Works, which built over a thousand steam locomotives for the country's new rail system.    

Down by the seafront, inventor Magnus Volk built the world's first commercial electric railway, which ran from the Chain Pier to Black Rock. The "Volks" is still running today in summer months as a tourist attraction. 

A pleasure pier was built to the West in 1866. The West Pier, designed by Eugenius Birch  (who also designed the Brighton Aquarium) was said to be the most beautiful pier in England and eventually got a "Grade 1" listing, but suffered a series of mishaps and fires, and now only exists as a blackened steel skeleton just out to sea.  

The more utilitarian Chain Pier had originally been designed as a landing platform for packet steamships, but the new rail network made other ports such as Dover more attractive for sea traffic, and a new purpose-built leisure pier (the Palace Pier, 1899-) was designed as a replacement, to stand right at the bottom of Grand Parade / Old Steine. A short-lived seagoing electric railway on stilts (nicknamed the Daddy Long-Legs) was also built to extend the Volks out to Rottingdean, but this only lasted a few years. As a defence against erosion, Brighton built a series of groynes that instersected and destroyed the track of the seagoing railway, and these groynes also acted to collect stones, dramatically raising the beach level and burying the original sandy beach underneath a newer, pebbly one. 

With the town's booming growth, the fields below the hillside (referred to as a "laine") were built on, and the North Laine area quickly became a slum area. Some of the area was demolished and redeveloped (and is now the Prince Regent swimming complex and Jubilee Library), but the low rents and wild range of quirky building styles eventually encouraged a proliferation of small specialist shops similar to London's Camden Town. Down towards the seafront, "The Lanes" is a rare example of an old surviving pre-car streetplan, and is now full of jewelery shops and other specialist businesses, and the eclectic range of shopping in North Laine and The Lanes is now one of the most significant attractions for visitors to Brighton.

Brighton and Hove, which had already effectively merged into a single conurbation, were officially unified in 1997, and declared a city in 2000.