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Monday, February 04, 2008

It's exactly one year ago today that Lisa and I spent an evening skulking in the shadows of Brighton's first sex shop with a History teacher and a handful of pensioners. It was one of the highlights of my year. Which says a lot about the kind of 2007 I had. Anyhoo, I was naturally keen to do it all again, and as luck would have it, Geoff Mead was leading another rag-tag band of history-seekers around the city centre last night. Lisa still hasn't recovered from last year's frostbite, so she was reluctant to repeat the experience, but I'm not above standing around in sub-zero temperatures with a stupid hat on, and it's always wise to burn off a few calories before Pancake Day, so I was straight down there.

A lot's changed since last year. For a start, my photography of the Royal Pavilion has improved...

Back in the Pavilion
... which is more than I can say for the event's title. Last year it was 'Landscape by Lamplight', which scores about an 8 on the dullness scale. This year they went with 'Brighton's Hidden Farmlands'. Frankly it's a miracle anyone turned up.

Which is a shame, because the actual experience is hugely entertaining. Where else can you hear about the local shepherd who was locked up in 1882 for being drunk in charge of a flock of sheep? Nowhere, that's where.

With the exception of the story about the blind beadle who mistook a goat for a dog and shot it (which is always worth repeating), Geoff had all-new material this year, and took us on an entirely different route. I learnt that 200 years ago, pigs had to be tethered on the Old Steine (which is another blow to Lisa's goat theory) after they developed a taste for fishermen's nets, and started eating away the entire Brighton fishing industry. I also learnt that Prince Albert Street is the youngest road in the Lanes, and having been built a mere 160 years ago is officially "not old". I've love to see Geoff explain that to an American.

Prince Albert Street is home to The Cricketers pub, which is where the alcoholic shepherd was impounded, sheep and all, in the nineteenth century. Sadly he couldn't get a drink as it was just the town pound in those days. Drugs of a different kind might have been on offer though, as that area was known as the 'Hemp Shares', after it was divided up into plots to grow hemp for making sails. Nothing changes around those parts. Apart from the making sails bit.

Ducking down an alleyway, Geoff pointed out a fig tree in somebody's garden which has been there for so long that it was known as 'The Old Fig Tree' a hundred years ago. It's now the even older fig tree. The house next door is currently on the market for £350,000 so I'd be tempted to buy it and then complain that the tree's overhanging my property, and I don't give a fig how old it is. Incidentally, this is nothing to do with anything, but have a look at the floor plan for that house. You actually have to go through someone's bedroom to get to the toilet.

Heading up towards the shopping centre, we were told that 200 years ago the area was known as Bunker's Hill, and was described in the 1770s as being "a refuge for gypsies and vagabonds". Anyone who's walked down West Street on a Friday night will know that it still is.

The area near the clock tower was once home to one of Brighton's worst slums, known as 'Petite France', presumably because everyone smelled. We didn't stay there long, and having stood outside the clothes shop 'Cult', looking like some kind of religious gathering, we moved on past Boots to Sports World, which is built on the site of the old town cow-house. Geoff milked that story for all it was worth, before leading us towards North Laine and the Brighthelm Centre, the basement of which was apparently one of the great punk rock venues of the 1970s until it burned down (if it's possible to burn down a basement) in what Geoff called "a mysterious fire". It's now a church, so God clearly does move in mysterious ways.

My HouseWalking past my house in Gardner Street, Geoffrey mentioned that until 1932 it was a branch of Marks & Spencer's, which is nice to know. I'd rather have shopped there than the prize-winning Nectarine Orchard in Gloucester Street, which in 1826 was situated directly opposite the belching smoke of Brighton's biggest foundry. It's what gave the fruit its prize-winning flavour.

Heading back via Jubilee Street, so called because of the huge bun fight (Geoff's words, not mine) held there by Thomas Read Kemp (who built my flat) to celebrate George III's Golden Jubilee in 1809, we arrived back at the Pavilion for a short history of the Pavilion Gardens Café, which used to be on the seafront, until the Nazis threatened to fight us on the beaches, and it had to be moved inland. Geoff finished by imparting the most important information of the night: that the café's rock cakes are "to die for". He said that last year. I think the man's on commission.