Brighton as a city has long been associated with gay and lesbian communities, and is often referred to as the ‘gay capital’ of the UK. Visit Brighton, the official tourist guide to the city puts this down to its “laid back, bohemian atmosphere and reputation for cheeky, free thinking”. Just as Brighton’s present is very much associated with gay and lesbian life, highlighted with its annual Pride march every August, the history of same-sex sexuality is also tied up in its very landscape and atmosphere. When I started to think about heritage trails as public history, the three places I instantly thought of and knew I would visit to tour and walk around were London, Manchester and Brighton. Last week I jumped on a very early train to Brighton and had a very brisk day by the sea following trails I had found in my research.
I found two different heritage trails that explore the gay and lesbian past of Brighton, each of which uses a different form of communication and style to represent a similar history. The first one was a podcast/map combination – the coming together of old and new ways of creating heritage trails! The Brighton Gay & Lesbian History Trail was created by Visit Brighton, and is available free here. This trail doesn’t require a smart phone (unless like me you can’t find your way around without GPRS tracking even with a map) – though it does require a device that can play an iTunes file. The map also available isn’t really detailed enough to follow that alone, but it’s a good accompaniment with some details on places of interest. The tour only really concentrates on a small area of the city (sometimes referred to as the ‘gay village’ of Brighton), around St. James’s Street and Marine Parade but it does go into a great amount of detail about the places described.
The tour starts on St. James’s Street, and the podcast starts by explaining that Brighton is known for two things: its Pavilion and as the lesbian and gay capital of Britain. The presenter (Simon Fanshawe) also claims that it has been “one of the places that lesbians and gays have always come to”. The 30 minute long podcast is an exploration of the idea of Brighton as that place, in contemporary society and in history. There’s a particular focus on changes since the early 1970s, especially on St. James’s Street within the context of the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) by University of Sussex students and rapid political changes at this time.
As you walk along St. James’s Street, mostly taking in bars, pubs and shops along the way, Simon discusses both his experience of being a young gay man in the mid-seventies and his views on why Brighton became a place for gay and lesbian people to go to. For Simon this is down to several reasons: its location on the coast, its eccentricity, its history as a place of pleasure, its architecture – very much a combination of all. In talking about the history of this, the case of Colonel Victor Barker is brought up and Al Start, a local Brighton singer, explains the story and how it inspired her to write a song called ‘More of a Man’ (from the brilliantly titled album ‘I Heart History‘). A case of female-husbandry from the early twentieth-century that shocked Brighton, the the story of Colonel Victor Barker is unfortunately the only example of lesbian history discussed in the podcast.
The podcast then continues by taking you along St. James’s Street and talking about gay bars along the way and how their clientèle has changed or stayed the same over recent decades. Next the wonderfully named ‘Bona Foodie’ is mentioned and discussed within the context of polari, the ‘gay language’ that was used as code between gay men especially in the mid-twentieth century. Bona Foodie means good food in polari, and is an excellent example of how gay heritage is a part of the landscape of Brighton. Dr. Paul Barker discusses the history of polari and why it was used on the podcast at this point, giving the listener a really in-depth explanation of the significance of the language and the way it was used in speech and by businesses such as Bona Foodie.
The trail then veers of St. James’s Street towards the sea-front and turns to the history of a gay-owned hotel on New Steine Square. Opposite the hotel is New Steine Gardens, which contains the only AIDs memorial statue in the UK. ‘Tay’ by Romany Mark Bruce (see image above) is not mentioned in the podcast but is highlighted on the map. It’s hugely disappointing that it wasn’t included in the podcast, especially as the listener walks past it and it is the only one in the country. The podcast discussion instead moves onto the impact and history of Pride in Brighton, taking the listener down to the seafront on Madeira Drive. It finishes here with a brief discussion on Brighton as a place, taking the conversation back to Simon’s original point that gay and lesbian people have always been drawn to Brighton. The biggest disappointment with the podcast and accompanying map is the focus on gay male history, with very little even relating to lesbian history. It’s less of a trail and more of a chat about where gay men have socialised in this small area of Brighton in the past few decades.
Hugely different in style, content, length and detail to Visit Brighton’s trail, I went straight on to the next set of trails: Brighton’s Pink Plaques app. This one does require an iPhone and costs £1.49. It presents three different trails – of hotels , pubs and clubs, and shops and cafes. All 75 (!) of the locations can be found on a general map and they don’t have to be followed in any particular order. The descriptions of each location vary in length from a few lines to several paragraphs but they are generally very detailed. The histories told span a much greater time period than Visit Brighton’s histories, and fairly evenly cover both gay and lesbian histories.
The hotels tour in particular is very detailed as the histories told are based on people who stayed there and explain why they are significant to gay and lesbian history through a narrative of their life. For example, significant guests at The Grand were Colonel Victor Barker and Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). The page for The Grand thus details the history of the place as a building, the details of when Wilde and Bosie stayed there and the impact it had on their relationship, and a full story of the scandal of Colonel Barker.
The pubs and clubs and shops and cafes tours are less detailed as they simply tell the histories of the locations rather than the people who frequented them. Overall it reads as a social history of gay and lesbian life in Brighton, and the hotels tour shows how, as Simon suggested in the podcast trail, gay and lesbian people have been drawn to Brighton for many years (Anne Lister had even stayed there in August 1826 with her then lover Marianne Lawton!) It would take a whole day to walk to every location and read about the history, and is a great local history resource as well as a significant contribution to the public history of gay and lesbian people and community in Brighton. The heritage and history of the lesbian and gay community of Brighton is a significant part of the history and identity of the whole city itself, which the Pink Plaque trail particularly serves to highlight. Now, if only non-virtual ‘pink’ plaques like English Heritage’s blue plaque scheme could become reality..!