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Brighton: Britain’s gay beach retreat

With the Stonewall Equality Walk and Brighton Festival this month, we check out the classic British seaside destination with an alternative, and very gay, edge
Brighton Pier is one of the icons of Britain's gayest seaside city.

The GSN team will be taking to the streets of Brighton this Sunday (6 May) for a 10km charity walk to raise funds for Britain’s leading lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign organization, Stonewall.

The seaside city remains a favorite of London day-trippers, stag and hen parties, families seeking a traditional beach holiday, loved-up couples on a dirty weekend and, of course, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travellers.

Brighton still retains much of the elegance and charm it gained as a fashionable retreat in the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras. But visitors today often have a hazy idea of a more recent past they wish to capture – of post-war British seaside holidays when people still rode donkeys on the beach and bought saucy postcards.

With the Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee propelling Britain into full-throttled nostalgia, it’s an image that has become fashionable again. On the other hand, there’s far more to Brighton than that. Away from the piers and promenades, this is one of the UK’s most modern and youthful cities with a strong student population, a determined alternative streak and a cosmopolitan attitude – more London-by-sea than a forgotten backwater.

There can’t be many in South East England who haven’t been to Brighton enough times to have made up their own mind about the place but those from further afield who don’t know what to expect, here’s our beginners guide.

The Pavilion: The beach-hut palace of the Prince Regent, later George IV, it’s a vulgar or romantic (depending on your point of view) collection of domes, minarets and spires in an Oriental style with Chinese and Indian-inspired interiors. George was the king of bling and the richly decorated banqueting room is one of the campest bits of interior design in the world. The Pavilion was later stripped of its furniture by Queen Victoria, who hated the place, but it’s still worth a visit as 400,000 people a year can attest.

Brighton Pier: The traditional heart of a seaside town, Brighton’s main pier is still a bustling mish-mash of arcades, eateries and funfair rides. Take a pocket-full of change and waste it all on the slots and then use your banknotes to buy rock, ice-cream or candy floss. By contrast the West Pier closed in 1975 and plans for reconstruction were abandoned by two fires. At the mercy of the sea, it’s been rusted by the tide and twisted by storms into a picturesque frame of twisted metal.

The beach: Buckets and spades are, sadly, redundant as this is a pebble beach but on a sunny day it’s a great place to eat fish and chips or lick an ice-cream while you do some people watching – particularly if you bring some padding so the stones don’t dig into your bum. There is even a nudist beach, carefully sheltered from prying eyes by a mound of pebbles though you’d have to be fairly hardy to use it outside of the height of summer.

The Lanes: Still set to the street pattern Brighton had when it was still a fishing village, this series of narrow, partly pedestrianized, alleyways contain a rich diversity of independent and boutique shops. From high fashion to retro second-hand t-shirts you can buy it all here, including a fair amount of rubbish. When it gets too much, there are plenty of funky little cafés where you can rest your feet. And Brighton has a good range of the usual high street shops, making it a fun shopping destination.

The gay scene: Brighton’s LGBT community is lively, active and engaged. And the city has a well-earned reputation as a gay and party capital. The scene is usually described as being focused on St James’s Street but several of the most popular bars including Charles Street, Bar Revenge and Legends are on nearby Marine Parade with a view of the sea. Round the corner on Old Stein is Revenge, the biggest gay club on the South Coast.

Pride: The highlight of the LGBT year is Pride in Brighton and Hove. The annual festival and has regularly attracted tens of thousands of people to a parade through the city and then a party in Preston Park. The numbers got so big that in previous years that all the hotels booked up months ahead and the trains from London sometimes didn’t even have standing room. This year the event has gone through financial trouble and community leaders have bailed it out at short notice but it’s still going ahead on 1 September (later than usual because of the Olympics).

Other events: Brighton is often busy with cultural events and parties. Another highlight is the annual National Student Pride, supported by GSN, which happens in February. But the Brighton Festival, which runs throughout May, is also well worth checking out with event around the city covering everything literature, classical and contemporary music, dance, theatre, visual arts, film, family activities and even circus performance.

Where to stay: Brighton is full of great places to stay – ranging in price from the chic, cool and classic to the comfortable and cheap. But on busy weekends, particularly in summer or when there’s a big event on, getting a room at all, let alone for a reasonable price, can be tricky. That’s when a website like HostelBookers, who we used on our most recent trip, comes in very handy. They set us up at the Kings Hotel on the seafront, with great views of the West Pier and out to sea. It was cosy, affordable and a short walk to all the shops, tourist attractions, restaurants and gay scene. And, despite the HostelBookers’ name, it wasn’t hostel like at all – the site actually provides a range of accommodation.

And beyond: You can see a lot of Brighton in a day-trip from London – perfect for escaping the Olympics or if you are visiting the capital for a few days for World Pride. Better still is to spend at least one night in the city to make the most of the incredible number of restaurants (more for the size of the population than anywhere else other than London) and the vibrant nightlife. But if you can stay two nights or more, it’ll give you a chance to explore further afield with the surrounding countryside boasting some awesome coastline, stunning gardens, spectacular historic houses, quaint pubs and the beautiful South Downs.

Getting there and away: Train access to Brighton is fairly good, particularly from London. But if you wish to explore the surrounding area it may be best to hire a car. Hertz has a depot near the train station and it is pretty easy to park in the city.

And finally, the Stonewall Equality Walk: There’s no time like the present to come to Brighton. Join the GSN team for the 10km Stonewall Equality Walk this Sunday (6 May). With a picnic and party afterwards, it’s a good way to see the sites and have a fun day out, while raising money for a good cause – to tackle homophobia in Britain’s schools. If you can’t make it but still want to donate, why not support to the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow and his TV celeb wife, Sally via their JustGiving page.

The VisitBrighton site gives general tourist information.

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