I may not have liked 'The History Boys', but ‘Landscape by Lamplight’, a 2-hour, 2-mile guided walk around Brighton City Centre on a cold February evening was much more my cup of tea. And not just because it was free. It's how history should be done - creeping down alleyways in the dark with a bloke who tells anecdotes about sex shops. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, that was due in part to my having the foresight to wear gloves, thermal socks and a woolly hat, unlike my girlfriend, who found it hard to concentrate on the history due to being more concerned that she might be dying from hypothermia. I offered her my hat, but apparently frostbite is preferable to looking stupid.
Having congregated by the gates of the Royal Pavilion at 7pm, we were met by local historian Geoffrey Mead, a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Brighton and the enthusiasm of a hyperactive puppy, who was leading the walk on behalf of the council’s Countryside Service.
The first, and most important, piece of knowledge Geoffrey imparted was that the Pavilion Gardens Café sells "rock cakes to die for". I plan to research that particular nugget of information extensively. From there we made our way past the Lesbian & Gay AA meeting and into North Street where Geoffrey informed us that a hundred years ago Costa Coffee was a Strict Baptist Church, until the Baptists sold the building to a company who promptly turned it into Brighton's first ever sex shop. Which caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth. And not just from the sex shop customers.
We also learnt that the oldest building in North Street is Timpsons the shoe-menders. I say cobblers to that. But apparently it dates from 1780.
As we climbed the hill, Geoff told us that the former beadle of Brighton was nicknamed 'Billygoat' because he once shot a goat after mistaking it for a stray dog. That was in the days before Specsavers opened at number 49. After that we proved there's safety in numbers by venturing down an alley behind the multi-storey car park and loitering in the shadows for five minutes without getting mugged, before emerging by the stage door of the Theatre Royal which, it was pointed out, is the width of a normal door, but twice as high to enable them to get the scenery in. And possibly the actors’ egos.
Geoffrey then gave the tour a personal edge by revealing that his grandfather was Mr Mead of Mead & Co, formerly Brighton's leading antiques dealer, who would be turning in his grave to hear that his old office is now Riki Tik's cocktail bar. Although that's still preferable to the antiques business being sold to a man named Crook. Another ironic conversion turned out to be The Brighton Buddhist Centre, which prior to becoming a focal point for vegetarianism and those who believe in the sanctity of life, was the Co-op butcher's warehouse.
A quick jaunt around North Laine, and we crossed over to Carlton Hill, where a passer-by looked at our ragtag band of two dozen pensioners, three blokes in hats, and a woman with frostbite, and asked "Are you the Jesus Army?". He obviously knew you need a lot of faith to venture up Carlton Hill after dark. But as we proceeded through the violent gangland of Graham Greene's 'Brighton Rock', my girlfriend added to the atmosphere by spotting a nearby clinic and declaring "Oh, that's where I had my first smear test!". That was one fact Geoffrey didn't know.
Picking our way through the notorious Kingswood Flats and passing the all-night cafe where you can get a Double Gutbuster at 3am, we made our way back to the Pavilion where Geoff informed us that any donations would go towards the building of bat boxes in Hollingbury Woods. I gave £1.50 and asked them to build a bird box for Robin.
All in all it was the best night out I've had in Brighton for a long time. If Geoffrey Mead took over from Simon Schama, I might actually watch some BBC history programmes. He's doing a walk around Hove on March 4th, and needless to say I'll be there. Unlike my girlfriend, who'll be tucked up in bed with the central heating on.