We arrive in Brighton just before dark. Kate’s decided to take off on her own for a few days, so I find some wifi and head downtown to where most of the hostels are, in the few blocks around the brighton pier. It’s late and chilly when I find a place to stay, but my bed there is wide and warm, the kitchen is fully equipped, and the rest of my evening is a comfortable one.
The next few days are spent in exploration, with some work on the side. Brighton is quite a large city, and quite a young one. The university here means that there’s a cluster of used bookshops and cafes offering wifi and good coffee less than ten minutes’ walk away from my hostel, which is nearly enough by itself to endear me to any town, when I have a lot of work to do.
But the city is also sunny, a nice change from the on-off rain of our last few hitchhiking days, the beach is long and warm, and the Brighton Pier is the constant source of carnival noise and greasy food smells. When I walk past, men on stilts are raising money for some cause or other, and children are pointing excitedly at the fried donut stands and ice-cream shops.
Just into town from the pier you find the Royal Pavilion, a confection of fantastical architecture that looks like it’s taken from the set of a film purportedly about The Mysterious Orient. It was built around the end of the eighteenth century as a summer residence for the Prince of Wales, the man who was later to become King George IV. It’s current appearance, that of some far-eastern dream palace, was largely the work of one John Nash, in the early nineteenth century. At that time the British Empire spanned the world, and some of Britain’s more far-flung holdings in India and China were sometimes used as more fanciful alternatives to the stodgy Greek and Roman styles common in England at the time.
Leave the sea, and you enter the student district. Aside from the cafes and bookshops already mentioned, there are whole walls covered with graffiti murals, and little diners serving full English breakfasts for two quid. I take advantage of these more than once. On the night in the tent before coming down here, I’ve somehow leant on or slept on my Kindle and the screen has cracked clean through, so until I can get a new one I hit the bookshops, finding Simon Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World, a biography of England’s father of Geology, William Smith. I spend more than a few hours sitting at a table outside, sipping tea and learning about how the unique geological features of southern England made the discovery of the age of the Earth — and Darwin’s subsequent theory — possible. More than once over the rest of my journeys through southern England I’ll find myself noticing now, in 2012, the same features Smith wrote about in the nineteenth century.
A few days later, the rain comes back and so does Kate, and we spend a few quiet days working inside as the rain falls, taking a break one night to go see a film at the seaside cinema. But despite the bad weather, Devon and Cornwall are still calling, and though the rain doesn’t make us too keen to hitchhike, we’ve discovered that by buying a county bus pass, for seven or eight quid, you can travel quite a good distance on the local buses. Now, barring any improvement in the weather, that’s our plan for crossing England.