10 of the Oldest Historical Sites and Landmarks in Brighton
Brighton & Hove, or more commonly Brighton, is well known for its iconic beach, LGBTQ+ culture, and its eccentricity. A quick internet search will produce a number of highlights for visitors such as Brighton Pier and the Royal Pavilion. Whilst these aspects of the city should not be missed, I take a different approach with my suggestions for things to see in Brighton. This list comprises 10 of the oldest things to visit in and around the city.
The recently restored Victorian bandstand on the historic seafront hosts regular events over the summer. The burned out wreckage of the Old Pier can be seen in the background.
Brighton & Hove was an ancient fishing village that transformed into a popular health resort in the 18th century. It has subsequently grown into one of the largest seaside cities in England and is often referred to as ‘London by Sea’. Brighton has been voted as one of the top 10 seaside cities in the UK due to its famous landmarks and fascinating history.
At less than 50 miles from London on the East Sussex coast, Brighton & Hove is the perfect destination for a weekend break for people who enjoy exploring cities with rich history. Not only does the city have a range of museums to visit, having lived there for almost two decades, I feel that the more interesting aspects of Brighton & Hove can be experienced whilst walking through the city. Whether you are interested in historic railways, churches, medieval art, or just a nice pint of ale in a pub steeped in history, Brighton & Hove certainly has something to peak your interests. In the following list of recommendations, I specifically focus on the ‘oldest’ aspects of Brighton & Hove’s history.
See something different at the UK’s oldest purpose-built cinema that is still operating.
Duke of York’s Picturehouse
Founded in 1910, the Duke of York’s Picturehouse is the oldest function-built operating cinema in the UK. During its life, it has gone from being regarded as an Edwardian Picture Palace to a ‘fleapit’ that hosted illegal punk rock concerts. Since 1981 it has operated as an arts cinema and was bought in 1994 by Picturehouse who restored the building to its former glory. In 1991, a 20-foot pair of can-can dancer’s legs were acquired from a theatre in Oxford and have since become an iconic part of Brighton.
The cinema hosts the annual Brighton Film Festival and prides itself on showing an eclectic range of films. It seats 274 people and offers a range of food and drink to be enjoyed. The cinema hosts a variety of special weekly screenings including Monday morning Toddler Time and “Silver Screen” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when tickets are reduced for anyone over 60. The cinema also hosts regular Autism-Friendly and Dementia-Friendly screenings.
The cinema is a short walk or bus ride from the city centre.
Sea Life Centre
The Sea Life Centre in Brighton was opened in 1872 under the name ‘Brighton Aquarium’. It is the oldest aquarium in the world and was designed by Eugenius Birch who is well-known as the architect responsible for the West Pier. The interior incorporates archways, detailed stonework and columns influenced by Gothic and Pompeian design. The roof terrace used to host multiple events and activities such as roller skating, smoking room, and a café.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the aquarium held a music venue called the Florida Rooms. The Who played a show every Wednesday night for an entrance fee of one shilling and sixpence (roughly 15p today!). Many jazz artists filled The Florida Rooms, making the aquarium a popular spot for Brightonians and those visiting.
Between 1970 and 1991, the aquarium held regular dolphin shows which were incredibly popular. As public opinions on animals in captivity changed, the cramped conditions and poor environments for the dolphins came under fire and popularity decreased. In 1991, Sea Life bought the aquarium, rehabilitated and released the dolphins back into the wild, and restored the aquarium to the way we see it today. There are now over 5,500 marine creatures on display including sharks, piranhas, and delicate seahorses!
The Sea Life Centre is at the heart of Brighton beach and a short walk from Brighton Station and Brighton City centre. You can purchase entry tickets in advance, online >>
Take a ride along Brighton’s seafront on the world’s oldest operational electric railway. Photograph © Les Chatfield
Volk’s Electric Railway
Volk’s Electric Railway is a narrow gauge electric railway that runs along a part of Brighton seafront, between Brighton Pier and Brighton Marina. It was built by Magnus Volk, a British inventor and pioneering electrical engineer who is known for installing electricity to the Royal Pavilion and brought the first telephone system to Brighton in 1879.
The railway was built in 1883, making it the oldest operational electric railway in the world. In 1901, the railway was roughly 1.25 miles in total. Today, the railway is 1.02 miles long after it was shortened in 1990. It does not usually run during winter months and service is liable to occasional suspension due to severe weather or maintenance issues.
The station is located next to the Sea Life Centre in the heart of Brighton Beach. It is a great way to see a stretch of Brighton seafront while experiencing the oldest operational electric railway in the world. Be sure to get some fish and chips from the many shops along the promenade – but be careful of the seagulls!
Two 400 year old elm trees grace the north end of Preston Park, behind Preston Manor. They have stood in Preston Park since the reign of King James I and add to the rich history of Preston Park and Preston Manor. The elm trees, known locally as The Preston Twins, are two of the oldest and largest surviving English elm trees in Europe, and possible the world. Dutch Elm Disease arrived in the UK in the 1960s and has had devastating effects of English elms, resulting in elms being rarely found as a large tree, making The Preston Twins even more impressive.
Preston Manor is the former manor house of the Sussex village of Preston, now part of Brighton & Hove. The present building is predominantly dated to 1738 when the Lord of the manor rebuilt the original 13th century structure. Since 1932, Preston Manor has been a museum and exhibition venue showing the upper-class life of the Edwardian era. The elegant reception rooms and functional servants’ quarters reveal the distinction between the upper and lower classes of Edwardian Brighton. It is rumoured to be one of the most haunted buildings in Britain and a wide range of ghostly sightings have been reported!
The manor house is a great place to visit when exploring Brighton as it is rich in history and has a beautiful walled garden, a small pet graveyard, and The Preston Twins. Preston Manor is roughly a 20 minute walk from the centre of Brighton or a short bus journey.
Search out the ‘Preston Twins’, Europe’s oldest and largest English Elm trees. And then see the oldest art work in Brighton, a 13th century fresco in St Peter’s church.
St Peter’s Church, Preston Park
St Peter’s Church is a former Anglican church located next to Preston Manor, in Preston Park. The church dates back to the 13th century and was restored in the late 19th century, and again after a serious fire in 1906. This church is of architectural and historical importance and has Grade II* listed status.
The main features of this church are the series of frescoes around the chancel arch and the nave, which depict scenes such as the Nativity of Jesus and Saint Michael weighing the souls of the dead at the Last Judgement. The most iconic scene is the medieval wall painting depicting the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. This fresco was dated to roughly 1270 and is the second oldest depiction of this event in the country, and likely to be the oldest artwork in Brighton. The wall paintings miraculously survived the fire of 1906 and are one of the many interesting things this church has to offer.
St Peter’s Church is roughly a 20 minute walk from the centre of Brighton or a short bus journey.
Build up an appetite by doing a turn on the UK’s oldest velodrome track in Preston Park. Photograph © Nicola/Wikimedia
Preston Park Velodrome
Preston Park Velodrome is located in the north-east corner of Preston Park in Brighton. It was opened on 12th May 1877 and is the oldest velodrome in the UK and the oldest, working velodrome in the world! As well as being the oldest velodrome in the UK, it is also the longest at 579m. It has an unusual shape comprising of four straights and two slightly banked corners, whereas a normal velodrome is an oval shape. The velodrome is listed as a Grade II Park and Garden and is protected by Historic England.
This velodrome is used by many cycling lovers, including the Preston Park Youth Cycling Club, Geraint Thomas (a double Olympic champion, triple World Champion and 2018 Tour de France champion), and Laura Kenny (four times Olympic champion and seven times World Champion).
The velodrome is roughly a 20 minute walk from the centre of Brighton or a short bus journey.
The Cricketers Pub
The Cricketers pub is in the heart of the Brighton Lanes which have been built up from the original medieval street plan and are roughly 400 years old. The Cricketers pub sells itself as the oldest pub in Brighton, dated to 1547, although there is some argument against this (see the Black Lion pub below).
The Cricketers has an interesting background which is evident throughout the pub. The author Graham Greene reportedly names this pub as his favourite in Brighton and famously writes about it in his novel – Brighton Rock. The Greene Room which is now used to host many events and was subsequently named after him. The pub was also frequented by Robert Donston Stephenson, who many claim was the true identity of the infamous Jack the Ripper. The interior of the pub sets the scene for this pub being the oldest in Brighton with rich décor that makes you feel like you have stepped back in time to the Victorian era.
The wide range of lagers, ales, ciders and spirits makes it the perfect pitstop when exploring Brighton and the menu changes seasonally to offer the best food all year round. Whether you stop here for the rich history, or just for a quick pint on a tour of Brighton, it is certainly not a pub to miss!
The Black Lion Pub
Right next door to The Cricketers is the Black Lion pub. For many years, these pubs have been squabbling over which is the oldest. It is argued that the Black Lion has had a pub on the site since 1455, however this is not an official claim that has been backed up. Undeniably though, the Black Lion was a brewery that was purchased in the 1540s by a Flemish man named Deryk Carver who had fled religious prosecution in his home country.
Deryk Carver, a Protestant, acted as a lay preacher in his house in Brighton, and was arrested in October 1554 after Queen Mary I revived a series of heresy laws that outlawed Protestant practices. Carter refused to recant his Protestant practices and was found guilty and burnt at the stake in Lewes on July 22nd 1555. As a way of mocking his profession as a brewer, he was placed in a barrel prior to his execution.
Although no official dates can be given, it seems like the Black Lion and The Cricketers both have strong claims to being the oldest pub in Brighton. Both offer a range of food and beverages and no matter which pub you pick to visit (or if you visit both), the history will not disappoint.
Visit one of the oldest churches in England, certainly the oldest building in Brighton and Hove.
St Helen’s Church, Hangleton
St Helen’s Church, located in the Hangleton area of Hove is the oldest surviving building in Brighton & Hove. The first known reference to the church is in 1093 when William de Warenne, the 2nd Earl of Surrey put it under the control of Lewes Priory. The church stood between a manor house and the cottages and houses of Hangleton Village. The nave dates to the 12th century, with the square tower added in the 13th century. The original roof was thatched, which was replaced during the time the square tower was added. The church went through periods of decline, however it never became unusable and never experienced a period without services. St Helen’s was granted Grade II* listed status in 1950.
Although this church is a 30 minute bus journey outside of the main city centre of Brighton & Hove, the history and beauty of this church is a must.
Brighton Nudist Beach
In August 1979, Brighton decided to open a nudist beach. It was the first place in Britain to agree to allow naked bathing, which at first was a very divisive idea, and caused outrage among some of the locals. It was argued that the beach will attract “perverts and voyeurs” and would be an “offensive” smear on Brighton’s seafront. Councillor John Blackman stated that opening a nudist beach is “going too far” and is just a “flagrant exhibition of mammary glands”. On the other hand, Councillor Jakes, a 47-year-old grandmother argued that the beach would bring tourism to the town and attempted to persuade other councillors to agree to the scheme by passing round photographs of her bathing topless in Ibiza.
After much debating, the nudist beach was opened on a fairly secluded stretch of the seafront between Brighton Pier and Brighton Marina. The area if screened off from the nearby road by a wall of shingle and a row of signs that warn other bathers and tourists that they are approaching a nudist area.
Located close to the city centre, the nudist beach can be accessed by a short walk along the seafront from Brighton Pier.
An interactive map of England, showing the historical places, sites and landmarks mentioned above.
Guided Tours of Brighton
The 10 historic places listed above are included on our Interactive Map of England. Locate them and many other places of interest to create your own self-guided tour of Brighton. One thing that might come in handy is a ticket for the City Sightseeing Brighton Hop-On Hop-Off Bus.
For those who prefer guided tours, there are a number of options available to you. Of course there is the usual small group walking tour – the Brighton Story Tour. Alternatively you could hire a local for a few hours and have your own guided tour seeing the sites and places that interest you. You can hire a local for 2 hours, 4 hours or 6 hours depending on your time and level of interest.
Brighton is also known for some quirky restaurants and pubs. You could then combine your sightseeing with sampling the culinary delights and history of the city. On offer is a 2/3 hour Walking Food Tour of Brighton, and there are tour options for both Vegetarians and Vegans.
If you are looking for something a bit more energetic, you could always sign up for a 2.5 Hour Bike Tour of Brighton.
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