Brighton is a place of celebration, parties, indulgence and fun, but also a place that’s very close to my heart: my now-fiancée, Dre, did her surgical training at the hospital here, and we even got her engagement ring from an antique shop in the Lanes.
There was nowhere else we wanted to be for the reopening of Britain’s pubs, hotels and restaurants, but the weather didn’t receive the memo: as we drove along an unusually quiet A23, it seemed that the drizzle and wind had put most people off.
We were staying in Room With A View, a classic seafront hotel rambling over five floors of a Georgian townhouse. They’ve used lockdown to their advantage, freshening up the décor and replacing carpets. Covid-19 means a hand-sanitising station in the foyer, and key cards are attentively wiped down before being handed over.
“We have time-slots for breakfast to limit numbers in the dining room,” said Vicky, the manager. “Room changeover is a bit more thorough, of course, and we are constantly cleaning the public spaces and handrails. But it’s great to be looking after guests again, and to have a sense of purpose.”
Brighton has a handy BikeShare scheme, that works with a passcode and account number, and we cycled along the seafront to the British Airways i360, a glass viewing pod that glides up a 450ft tower for views across the English Channel.
An actual pint of beer! This is a very exciting moment. pic.twitter.com/zIqfJ9CzUE— Ash Bhardwaj (@AshBhardwaj) July 4, 2020
“We’ve had to reduce capacity from 200 to 80,” said Laura, from the tower’s operating team. “And marked out standing room on the floor. That way people can walk all around the pod whilst remaining aware of social distancing space.”
Our temperature was checked as part of the usual security process, then we sanitised our hands and headed into the pod, where video screens explain that the air is constantly circulated in from outside. Low-level cloud meant the pod didn’t quite reach the top of the tower, but the view up and down the coast was still lovely.
A stretch of the Brighton seafront has been a building site for several years, but the fruits of that labour are finally starting to show. The old Shelter Hall has been completely reconstructed and its interior is now home to a food hall, known as Shelter Hall Raw, with pop-ups from some of Brighton’s best-known restaurants.
“We’ve had to change the concept a bit,” explained Dan Warne, the CEO. “We’ve opened early and only spent a quarter of the initial investment. The décor is un-polished, we haven’t had time to install kitchens for every food stand and we haven’t opened the upper floor, hence the ‘Raw’ moniker for now.”
The Shelter Hall has a one-way traffic system and hand sanitisers at the entrance, but the main adaptations are screens between tables (which have been integrated with the décor) and ordering from one's seat. We scanned a QR code and paid on our phone, and a waitress brought our beers over within a couple of minutes. Not every Covid adaptation is negative: I found this much better than standing at a crowded bar, trying to grab the attention of the staff.
We had planned a stand-up paddleboard trip on the lagoon, but with winds gusting up to 30mph, and the rain starting to come in sideways, we visited the Palace Pier instead. Our luck on the 2p coin-slots hadn’t improved since our last visit, and the House of Horrors was still reassuringly un-scary, but everything was up and running.
English’s, in the heart of Brighton’s Lanes, has been serving seafood since 1890. They’ve had to reduce their indoor capacity by around 40 per cent, but every table was full of loyal locals, celebrating the reopening of their favourite restaurant.
“It’s gone smoother than we could have hoped,” said Jonathan Speirs, English’s legendary oyster aficionado. “A few sticking points, of course, but only one supplier found it tricky to get us what we needed in time. Everyone is excited to be doing business again.”
I was surprised to see that many of Brighton’s pubs and bars remained closed, and it felt more like a busy Wednesday night than the New Year’s Eve vibe we’d expected. We were even able to get a table at The White Rabbit (one of my favourite pubs in The Lanes) without booking in advance, and a waitress explained how to register our contact details as part of the track-and-trace system.
As we walked back to the seafront via the Pavilion Gardens, the mood was festive, even as revellers started to head home. I asked Dre if she’d had a good day, despite the weather.
“My cheeks hurt from smiling so much,” she said.
The Great Escape had been a great success.
Room With A View
Number of rooms: 9
Cost: from £60 per night
41 Marine Parade, Brighton, East Sussex, BN2 1PE
01273 682885; roomwithaviewbrighton.com
Shelter Hall Raw
Opening times: Mon-Thurs, 11am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-midnight; Sun, 11am-9pm
Kings Road Arches, Brighton BN1 1NB
Lagoon Watersports, Hove
Prices vary depending on activity
Hove Lagoon, Kingsway, Hove, East Sussex, BN3 4LX
01273 424842; lagoon.co.uk/hove-lagoon-watersports-centre
English’s of Brighton
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 12pm-10pm
29-31 East Street, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 1HL
01273 327980; englishs.co.uk
BTN Bike Share
01273 978 096; btnbikeshare.com
Riddle and Finns on the Beach
Opening times: Mon-Sun, 12pm-10pm
139 Kings Road Arches, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 2FN
01273 821218; riddleandfinns.co.uk