Brighton, on the Sussex coast, has been a tourist town for centuries. With the coming of the railways in the 1800s, it became the perfect place for a day out or a weekend at the seaside. The piers, beaches, promenade, restaurants, nightclubs and the ‘Lanes’ attracted everyone from royalty to working people.
The Lanes are the busy narrow alleys filled with neat shops and restaurants in the old part of the city near the waterfront. They’re a ‘must visit’ — but what many visitors miss is North Laine. The word laine is old English for an empty plot of land beside the South Downs. Two hundred years ago, the North Laine filled up with factories, houses and shops. By the mid-20th century, manufacturing had mostly disappeared and it was considered an overcrowded slum.
Developers wanted to tear it all down and build high-rises. In 1977, after a courageous fight, some locals managed to save it and turn it into the ‘bohemian’ part of Brighton. Craftsmen, antique dealers, unique shops, theatres and eateries moved in. A diverse community of people occupied and renovated the tiny 1800s houses. It is now the coolest part of Brighton, and has been rated as one of the best shopping areas in all England.
Our trip through North Laine started one bright and sunny morning when we arrived at Brighton railway station. We popped out of the station, turned a corner onto Trafalgar Street, and a two-minute stroll brought us to the colourful Prince Albert Pub. In 2004 Banksy painted the Kissing Coppers on the pub’s wall. The picture was removed for safekeeping and a copy was put in its place (the original was later sold). Also on the walls of the pub are portraits of dozens of dearly departed rock stars; always good for a picture.
Continuing along Trafalgar Street we passed outdoor coffee shops, restaurants, pubs and vintage clothing stores. Another two minutes later and four streets along, a right turning took us onto Trafalgar Lane. There’s not much to buy down this street, but the walls covered with street art and graffiti made this a must-see, adding to the artistic flavour of the North Laine. At the next corner, Gloucester Road, we turned left past a fascinating architectural salvage shop and through a small pedestrianised area. Here we found a Mexican restaurant and a curios shop. With so much to see, we didn’t know where to look first.
Turning right onto the next road, Upper Gardner Street, was a real surprise. On Saturdays, it’s closed to traffic and becomes a crowded street market. Tables are set up along the road and we found bargains everywhere in this huge flea market. Thank goodness we brought lots of bags and came early. We could not miss the bright pink North Laine Bazaar sign nearby; it’s like a street market but indoors. Over 50 stalls offered antiques, homewares, collectables, garden supplies and so much more.
We came to the corner with North Road where we found a bright yellow music emporium sporting a giant six-string guitar-shaped sign. The original store started as a stall in Kensington Gardens 30 years ago. We wandered through vintage guitars, modern electronics and used equipment. I was absolutely fascinated even if I cannot play anything musical; I have trouble with a record player.
Turning left at the next corner brought us to the heart of North Laine, Kensington Gardens. The narrow lane is lined with tables and outdoor racks from dozens of different shops, bars and restaurants. We found vintage clothing, curios, body piercing practitioners, fur-lined vests, collectables, candies, jewellery, fabrics, vegetarian foods, bakery goods and great coffee… all in one block.
From there, it was only a few steps to Snoopers Paradise. We duly snooped through over 90 stalls of curios, antiques, used clothing, artwork and crafts on two floors. It took nearly two hours to check out everything in there. This market is unique because there’s only one cash register at the entrance but always someone around to help if you need it. The local people we chatted with said that they come every week or two because of the changing array of merchandise and fresh stallholder turnover. You never know what you’ll find.
We ended up back on Gloucester Road in a small pedestrianised area. Turning left on Sydney Street, we couldn’t resist one last stop at an old-fashioned record shop with lots of vinyl at great prices (it’s having a revival you know). We were starting to flag, so headed up Sydney past an international selection of restaurants, bookstores, used clothing and a kaleidoscope of stores that was nearly overwhelming. Though the distance travelled wasn’t great and our itinerary covered a compact area, we felt we’d seen the world through the dazzling selection of offerings along the way.
Returning to Trafalgar Street at last, we started to head back to the railway station. On the way, we stopped at a friendly pub to pick up our spirits and then hauled all our shopping bags over to a Vietnamese restaurant for a slow peaceful meal. Refreshed but tired we hustled to the station in time to catch our train.
What a great day out. We didn’t spend time at the glitzy waterfront or browse the touristy Lanes, but instead headed straight into the heart and soul of Brighton — North Laine.