It’s not often that you find yourself sharing an open-sided train carriage with a tiger, a zombie and a pair of Beyoncé-loving air traffic controllers. But this is Brighton, and anything goes.
BY EMMA GREGG
I’ve chosen a warm, bright spring day to test out a theory. My hunch is that you don’t need to travel far from your front door to feel as if you’re on holiday. You just need to get in the zone.
Of course it helps a great deal if, like me, you live by the sea. But almost every urban home beat has something fresh and exciting to offer, whether it’s a pop-up art show, a bus ride to a viewpoint or a late-night gig in a pub.
Most of us are guilty of saving the attractions on our doorstep for those occasions when we have relatives to entertain or friends visiting for the weekend. “We’ve never actually been there”, we say, rather shamefaced, when we suggest an outing, “but we’ve heard it’s really good.” And often, it is. So much so, we end up wondering why we’ve never been before.
For my own home-town micro-adventure, I’ve walked approximately 15 minutes to the terminus of a tiny train. The track follows the Kemptown beach from Brighton Aquarium to Black Rock, from which I’ll have another 15-minute stroll home. It’ll be a holiday in a lunchtime.
The train in question is a Brighton icon, though relatively few Brightonians have ever taken it. Perhaps that’s because the city is a net exporter of commuters; many associate trains with work, at best, and misery, at worst. The mainline station is still grand, as Victorian railway stations often are, but its glory days are long gone. In the late 1800s, steam trains carried fashionably-dressed holidaymakers into town by the carriageload and as late as the 1960s, Laurence Olivier and his entourage would dine on smoked kippers on the Brighton Belle. In comparison, today’s transport providers – Thameslink, Gatwick Express and the delay-stricken Southern – are painfully prosaic.
The tiny train which runs along the beach, Volk’s Electric Railway, is the sole survivor of a time when Brightonians found train travel exhilarating and fun. Named after its designer, local inventor and engineer Magnus Volk, this narrow gauge electric railway opened in 1883, making it the oldest of its type in Britain. With suitably tiny stations at the beginning, middle and end, it’s only a mile and a quarter long.
I board the carriage – a brown and cream wooden contraption, shaped like a toast rack – behind a mother and her young sons, fresh from a family fun day. A face painter has gone to town on both boys. They remain gleefully in character – one roaring like Shere Khan, the other groaning like the undead.
Sharing my wooden bench are two fifty-something men with matching wedding rings. “It’s our anniversary trip”, confides the taller one, beaming. When they met in Brighton fifteen years ago, both were in waning relationships with commitment-phobes. Something clicked, they dumped their partners and moved in together. “We were both, like, if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it”, trills the blonder one in a practised falsetto. In 2006, soon after civil partnerships became legal in the UK, they returned to Brighton to tie the knot.
“Ten years! Congratulations!” I say. “Still going strong?”
“Ooh yes”, says the taller one, lifting his phone for a selfie.
“Crazy right now”, trills the blonder one.
“We’re going to the beach. The naughty beach. No togs!”
“Mum, what’s a naughty beach?” says the zombie, overhearing. But his mother is saved by the driver, who releases the brake and sets us in motion. A frenzy of excited whooping, roaring and groaning ensues.
A quirky summer attraction, Volk’s Electric Railway can carry a couple of dozen people at a time. Leaving the busy beach near the pier behind, it trundles along a quieter stretch where swathes of sea kale, viper’s bugloss, and kiss-me-quick valerian billow like candyfloss. On the seaward side, gulls wheel over the pebbles and the cloud-mottled English Channel. High above the track to the north is a ribbon of grand seafront mansions, as white as the chalk cliff they were built upon.
Magnus Volk, a clockmaker’s son born in 1851, was a true pioneer. In 1883, just three years after Sir Joseph Wilson Swan patented the electric light bulb, Volk installed electric light in the Royal Pavilion. After building his electric railway, he designed a rather gimmicky offshore transport system, nicknamed Daddy Longlegs, which drew a great deal of attention, but turned out to be no match for Brighton’s winter storms.
Keen to appreciate our little journey to the full, I inhale the ozone, snap photos with my phone and join the kids in cheering each time the tiny train whistles at a pedestrian crossing.
After five minutes or so, we pause at Paston Place station, aptly also named Halfway. Here, the track runs close to Volk’s original workshop, embedded in the cliff. The balcony where the inventor used to stand, watching his drivers at work, is still there.
Now run by Brighton and Hove Council staff and volunteers, Volk’s Electric Railway is worryingly expensive to maintain. At just £2.90 a ticket, income from fares is modest, but rescue has recently arrived in the shape of a £1,650,000 Heritage Lottery grant. By spring 2017, the railway will have a new visitor centre, a conservation workshop and three spruced-up carriages.
My loved-up companions are enjoying the ride so much they decide to stay on board and walk back to Brighton’s famous nudist beach from Black Rock rather than alighting at Halfway. As we continue along the second half of the track, we pass the bank of pebbles which discreetly screens early-season naturists from view. “Is it true that this was Britain’s first ever official nudist beach?” asks the taller one.
“Yes, absolutely”, says the blonder one. “And as of this year, Brighton has Britain’s first ever pier in the sky, too, complete with flying saucer.”
“Oh, yes, that. That’s not what I’d call it”, says the taller one. They’re referring to the i360, a new seafront viewing tower, 162 metres high, with a doughnut-shaped glass pod which glides up and down it. The symbology has raised a few eyebrows.
“We have to be polite about it”, says the blonder one, “because it’s sponsored by BA.” They’re both air traffic controllers, they explain, with loads of friends in the airline business.
Cyclists have been pacing us along the seafront and as we roll into Black Rock station, they pass us with ease.
“We’re here”, says the mother in front.
“Let’s go straight back, then do it again, and again, till they tell us we really, really have to get off,” says the zombie. It takes the promise of an ice cream to tempt him out.
I’m a little sad, too, to leave our toast-rack-shaped carriage behind. Our journey has taken just 12 minutes, but with sea views, selfies and cheery conversation along the way, it’s been everything a holiday experience should be.
MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE
Brighton, one of Britain’s greenest cities, is served by rail (nationalrail.co.uk), coach (nationalexpress.com) and bus (buses.co.uk) from London, East Sussex and southern England. Volk’s Electric Railway is just over a mile from the mainline station.
Volk’s Electric Railway (01273 292718; volkselectricrailway.co.uk)
All About Everywhere, May 2016
© Emma Gregg, 2016 • all rights reserved