I worry about my life sometimes. Over the past year I’ve confessed to being a rap fan, mingled with nudists, and been tempted to take break-dancing lessons. Now I’m becoming a stalker. But whilst other, more sensible, people stalk film stars and models, I seem to be stalking a middle-aged man from Brighton University. And what’s more, my girlfriend doesn’t seem to mind.
The object of my dubious desires is Geoff Mead, lecturer in Landscape Studies, who does for history what David Blaine does for magic. Only without being a twat. Geoff’s approach is to take history onto the streets and impart his knowledge by running across busy roads without looking. I think he’s also teaching survival of the fittest. But it’s an approach that suits me. I’m aiming to become an expert on local history without ever reading a book.
I’ve already joined Geoff on three of his jaywalking tours around the city, and on Sunday the 2nd it was time for number four: a jaunt around West Brighton entitled 'Bricks, Barley & Boatmen'. The starting point for this one was Norfolk Square, a pretty little square off Western Road which is popular amongst alcoholics and street drinkers. They’ve got good taste, although personally I'm more at home in Churchill Square than Norfolk Square. Mainly because it’s got a McDonalds.
That whole area used to be known as the 'Blacklands', due to its association with 19th century brick-making. The attractive-sounding Golden Lane was in fact home to one of the blackest, dirtiest brickworks in Brighton. In those days, roads were named as inappropriately as possible, in order to mask the nightmarish reality of life on the street, hence Mount Pleasant is always a city's biggest dive, and Sun Street the darkest, most depressing place on earth. So if someone tries to sell you a house in Lovely Road, just say no.
Crossing the boundary into Hove, we walked around the back of the The Old Market, which was the main shopping centre of the 1830s, but now hosts literary evenings and classical concerts. I’m sure the Chilingirian Quartet, who perform there this month, would be pleased to know they’re actually playing the local shopping mall.
Passing ‘The Conqueror’ next door, which apparently used to advertise itself as "the cheapest pub in Brighton", we ducked down an alleyway and headed towards Embassy Court on the seafront. Opinion seems to be divided on Embassy Court, but personally I like it. It’s not every block of flats which has its own website (www.embassycourt.org). You can even buy a ‘Friends of Embassy Court’ t-shirt, emblazoned with the acronym ‘FOEC’. I’m not sure how they’re pronouncing that, but I think it’s a bit too close for comfort. Personally I’d get the FOEC out of there.
Past residents of Embassy Court include Laurence Olivier, Rex Harrison, Diana Dors and Graham Greene, but by the 1990s it was home to the largest Sudanese community outside of the Sudan. No wonder they called it the Blacklands.
Deciding not to walk along the seafront, which Geoff described as "mostly Victorian tat", we headed inland via the bed-sit rabbit warren of Norfolk Street, passing a sunken alleyway which Geoff said he always imagines should be home to a gangster wielding a sock full of wet sand. It makes you wonder why he took us there.
Next stop was Oriental Place, which sounds like a Chinese takeaway, but is in fact a street of Grade II listed buildings intended as an approach to a new exotic garden which was planned for the area in the 1820s. Sadly the project had to be abandoned due to lack of money, and the fact that Charlie Dimmock hadn't been born yet. Though I’m sure Alan Titchmarsh was around then.
Making our way through Regency Square, we encountered number 1, Queensbury Mews, a former garage which was featured in 'The West Pier', a novel by Patrick Hamilton, who was also responsible for Hitchcock’s film ‘Rope’. That wasn't the only cinematic connection, as the nearby twitten at the side of the Regency Tavern appears in the opening scene of ‘Brighton Rock’. That was before they built Sussex Heights behind it and ruined the chance of a remake.
Heading into Preston Street, the street of a thousand restaurants (though Geoff said it's closer to seventy-five), we passed ‘The Royal Sovereign’, which was once home to James Lillywhite, the first ever captain of the England cricket team. It’s a wonder he could bowl straight if he lived in a pub.
From there it was back into Western Road to admire Mitre House, one of the biggest buildings in Brighton, which now has the honour of housing JJB Sports and a branch of Sainsburys Local. Apparently the area near Waitrose used to be an orchard, which might explain the people sitting outside drinking cider, and the fact that Geoff kept darting across the road as though he was out scrumping. Frankly it’s a miracle we weren’t all hit by a bus. Next time I go stalking, I’m taking out life insurance.