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Pleasure by the sea

Brighton's memorable attractions endure

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They say in his schoolboy days, Winston Churchill used to swim in the sea at Brighton. No wonder he faced down the Nazis. It is a brisk dip, even in the summer, let alone on the fine bright October weekend when we visited.

For hundreds of years, the English have been making the trip to the Brighton seashore for renewal and play. The 18th-century physician Richard Russell prescribed the water for both bathing and drinking. We sampled neither.

But this fabled resort city offers many attractions that do not require either bone-chilling swims or salty cocktails.

Since we moved to London in 2011, friends have recommended Brighton for a quick getaway, given the frequent trains and the travel time of just over an hour.

Finally, with a bit of support and advice from the local tourism people, we 'gave it a go,' as the Brits like to say. On a rainy Friday night, my wife and daughter and I made our way to Victoria Station and boarded a train jammed with Londoners, most staring vacantly into space after the stresses of the week.

By the time we pulled into Brighton, the crowds had thinned and those getting off the train were now mostly wearing smiles, despite a driving rain and a lineup for taxis.

We were set up with a room with a view at the Hilton Metropole, one of the landmark grand hotels on the seaside.

In an earlier day, the Metropole hosted the likes of Oscar Wilde and his dangerous paramour Lord Alfred Douglas, one of many notable couples to have frequented this city. Brighton's nickname is London by the Sea, because of the large numbers of residents of the capital -- rich, famous and otherwise, who have made it their second home over its long history.

On our weekend, the hotel was teeming with competitors in town for an international taekwondo competition. The Russian team offered free entertainment as they practised their routines in the hallway.

By Saturday morning, the skies had cleared, and when we opened the curtains of our room, we were rewarded with a fine view of both the promenade and the remains of the West Pier -- a landmark long the subject of restoration plans, but in the meantime an evocative ruin.

As we made our way along the promenade, we wondered why our previous home base of Toronto could not open its arms to the waterfront in the way Brighton has. The path was lined with craft shops, bars and restaurants.

First stop was the Brighton Wheel, a recent arrival on the scene, which lifted us 50 metres into the air for a panoramic view of the seashore, a view accompanied by recorded witty commentary.

My wife split to explore the Lanes, a labyrinth of narrow streets, which follow the pattern of the medieval town -- a neighbourhood replete with pubs, shops and galleries.

Seven-year-old Julia and I headed to the Sea Life Centre, the world's oldest aquarium, recently renovated and restored. She enjoyed the chance to feed cabbage to Jersey the Loggerhead turtle, and to walk through a glass tunnel at the bottom of the tank, with sharks swimming above.

"Kids would like this," she advised, making her contribution to this article.

After lunch, we met her mom at the Painting Pottery Café, where my wife and daughter spent a couple of hours designing their own vases and egg holders. The place was packed with parents and kids on this Saturday afternoon, an observation I made to our host, Rosie.

"It's great to bring the children when it rains, which is often," she said.

Leaving my family to explore their artistic visions, I made my way to the Royal Pavilion for a solo exploration of one of the wackier expressions of royal taste.

From the outside, it looks like some kind of Indian palace. Within, it is a riot of Chinese-inspired scenes. I stared for some time at the giant chandelier in the banquet room, held aloft by a dragon clinging to the ceiling.

The recorded guide explained it was a style dubbed chinoiserie, all executed by British designers who never came within eight time zones of the Middle Kingdom.

Construction was started in the late 18th century by George, Prince of Wales -- the future King George IV. Facing criticism in the capital for excessive spending, and also suffering from a bout of gout, he came to Brighton to take in the waters and escape the brickbats.

The pavilion began modestly, but over three building periods grew into an eloquent statement of excess -- a fine place for the prince and later king to entertain friends, politicians and his longtime companion Mrs. Fitzherbert.

We waited until Sunday for our visit to the city's signature attraction: the Brighton Pier, the midway stretching out over the waters. Getting into the spirit of the place, we dropped our share of coinage in the games, got ourselves spun around on one of the rides and sat eating fish and chips on the free deck chairs.

As we got on the train back to the capital, we decided that London by the Sea would be worth another visit.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 D3

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