Graham Chainey: Skylight extension proposal cocks a snook at history

editorial image

It is one of the oldest parts of town, dating from the 12th century. As you turn from East Street into Bartholomews (the name itself a ghost), you pass through the phantom of the parsonage barn, and on your right is Mockbeggars’ Croft, the phantom of a phantom, since nothing whatever is known about it, except that Mockbeggars were Franciscans. When you reach the Market Street corner, you pass through phantom ruined walls into the old Cluniac priory’s garden, and maybe you will smell the scent of medieval flowers.

To your left now, ghosting behind a branch of Subway, is the priory chapel, while across Prince Albert Street stretches the ghost of the prior’s lodge, later converted into Brighton’s first vicarage. Somewhere in front of the present town hall, back in 1774, when workmen were digging foundations for a new market, they struck a cemetery where the monks had been buried, and reverently refused to continue – until the vicar came and informed them those buried there were “nothing but rank papists” – at which the workmen “took up their spades and went on digging”.

Somewhere around here was the eccentric Escallop House of Jenkins the coppersmith, its towering cupola covered with scallop shells, which stood in the way of the profitable new thoroughfare which Isaac Bass, a developer, wished to drive through. Jenkins wouldn’t sell for all the tea in China – but Brighton developers, then as now, had ways. So Bass one day drove up in a splendid coach and four and invited Jenkins to come for a spin. “Overwhelmed with the honour, the honest coppersmith got inside, and drove in state to London.” By the time he got home, his scallop-shell home had vanished.

And somewhere here have been various open-air or covered markets – Market Street once extended to the sea – and if you listen carefully you may hear the shouts of ghostly costermongers, the rumbling of barrows. Along here stood the Jolly Fisherman, where in 1866 one John Leigh, a bad lot, shot dead the landlady, his sister-in-law Harriet Harton, escaping down Market Street, where a courageous police officer, John Barnden, grappling with him, was also shot, the bullet luckily passing through his coat and trouser leg. And over there stood the town stocks and pillory (last used 1828), and somewhere in the far corner, where a dismal entry – curiously echoing with recorded bird twitter – now takes you through to Black Lion Street, stood the Thatched House inn, which pedestrians had the ancient right to walk through, as part of a back-alley route stretching from the Steine to West Street.

There have been many erasures of this historic locality, of which the French burning of the priory in 1514 was the first, while the removal of market and Market Street and the creation of the present monolithic Bartholomew Square in the 1980s was the most recent. Why did they block up the seafront outlet? Why the brutal destruction of half Black Lion Street in the name of parking? Why didn’t they lay out this civic heart of Brighton with grass, fountains, statues, ornate lampposts – instead of sticking an eatery in its middle? Of which eatery Moshimo, which opened in 2000, is the current successor.

Moshimo, a quirky sushi restaurant, is not unattractive, though in the wrong place; but its proposed £4 million Skylight extension, 85 ft high, which has just, incomprehensibly, gained planning permission, is both inappropriate and hideous. (The Brighton Society’s chairman calls it “one of the worst planning decisions in recent years”; their outgoing secretary, Selma Montford, calls it “the ugliest construction I have ever seen”.) This ludicrous gimmick of a structure cocks a fresh snook at 900 years of history, at civic dignity, at design decency.