New book explores Brighton and Hove’s unusual treasures off the beaten track

Racehill Community Orchard, Whitehawk (Credit: Lynsey Haskell)
Racehill Community Orchard, Whitehawk (Credit: Lynsey Haskell)

A new book tells the stories behind hidden gems in the city that visitors and even residents may not have noticed before.

Ellie Seymour, the author behind ‘Secret Brighton’, started out writing a blog about the discoveries she had made walking around Brighton. When she started to explore the stories behind different discoveries, Ellie said more would follow.

The time ball at The Clock Tower (Credit: Lucy Sharpe)

The time ball at The Clock Tower (Credit: Lucy Sharpe)

“People seem really excited and enthusiastic about it so people were forthcoming with their ideas. I might find one thing and it would lead to something else. It’s a never ending thing.”

In her book she has compiled 170 hidden treasures in the city and the stories behind them, and here, we feature just a few.

Time Ball, Central Brighton 

Brighton’s Grade II-listed clock tower is a popular city landmark, yet few people notice its remarkable feature known as a ‘time ball’ – a gilded copper ball on a stick which rises hydraulically up the mast as every hour approaches and then drops down again as the hour is struck. Originally, it was designed so that passing ships could set their chronometers by it. It was created by the mad-cap German inventor Magnus Volk, of Volk’s Electric Railway. It was turned off soon after its inauguration in 1888 because nearby residents complained about the sound it made when the wind whistled through the slots up which the ball rose – this apparently scared the horses. When the clock was refurbished in 2002, the mast and ball were redesigned and the slots filled in to stop the noise.

Inside the mysterious Sussex Masonic Centre on Queen's Road (Credit: Emma Croman)

Inside the mysterious Sussex Masonic Centre on Queen's Road (Credit: Emma Croman)

Little Fridge Library, Kemptown

Hidden up a little-known alleyway off the main high street in Kemptown is a small white fridge sitting beneath a cottage window. The words painted in black on the front read “Little Fridge Library”. Open it up, and sure enough the shelves are stocked with books, which are free to take and pass on. It’s inspired by the Little Free Library scheme and was started by Laura Honeker, a self-confessed book magpie, who always has a stack of books to give away to charity. She started it as a way to help create a sense of community along the alleyway in which she lives, and anyone is free to take a book. “There’s no need to sign up,” says Laura. “You can just come along, have a browse and take what you want. I also really love the idea that people will share the books with everyone when they’re finished.”

Sussex Masonic Centre, Central Brighton 

Most people walk past the gigantic building spread across one block that houses the Sussex Masonic Centre. However, behind its Regency façade is an Art Deco interior masterpiece designed by Brighton architect Samuel Denman. You can see inside on a tour with curator Reg Barrow. A visit starts in the original part of the building, which is still used as a social clubhouse today. However, the architectural magic arguably happens in the newer part of the building, starting at the entrance with its black-and-white chequerboard floor (found in all Masonic temples) and magnificent staircase, centred around an enormous brass and green-glass chandelier hanging from a stunning stained-glass skylight four floors above. The tour also takes you into a huge dining room with space to host over 200 people, featuring original wood panelling and a beautiful minstrels’ gallery. However, it’s the main lodge room that’s the most impressive, complete with an unusual domed ceiling with a sun motif radiating out to signs of the zodiac.

Backstage at the Booth Museum (Credit: Lynsey Haskell)

Backstage at the Booth Museum (Credit: Lynsey Haskell)

Daddy Longs Legs Remains, Rottingdean

When Volk realised he couldn’t extend his successful Volk’s Electric Railway further than Paston Place to Rottingdean, he turned his attention to a new venture: a new railway that would travel through the sea. It was called the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Railway, and you can spot its remains immediately east of Brighton Marina at low tide. Work on the project began in 1894 and involved building a railway across the rock pools between Brighton and Rottingdean. It was 5.5 metres wide to carry Pioneer, as it was originally called. This 45-tonne ‘salt-water tram’ was supported on seven-metre-high struts, allowing it to travel through the water. With its gangly appearance, Pioneer quickly earned the nickname, “Daddy Long Legs”. It faced constant difficulties, though, and after a few years was eventually closed then sold for scrap.

Backstage at the Booth Museum, Seven Dials

As Brighton’s most eccentric and off-the-beaten-track museum, the Booth is a hidden gem in itself. However, it’s also the setting for one of the city’s most intriguing tours. Backstage at the Booth offers curious visitors the opportunity to go behind the ‘staff only’ signs to discover the museum’s secret stores. They are home to just under one million objects relating to the natural world. Tours of this vast backstage anthology are a fascinating, all-consuming experience as you walk up and down creaky corridors, past wooden cases of dusty drawers filled with butterflies and bugs, bones, eggs and shells, and cupboards filled with fossils, minerals and rocks – not to mention the 9,000 mounted birds and other creatures you can spot hidden away. Your journey throughout is peppered with anecdotes about the museum’s eccentric affluent founder, Edward Thomas Booth, and fascinating stories of the natural world.

George the Pavilion cat is buried in the pet cemetery at Preston Manor (Credit: Lucy Sharpe)

George the Pavilion cat is buried in the pet cemetery at Preston Manor (Credit: Lucy Sharpe)

Pet cemetery, Preston Manor

Tucked away in the north corner of Preston Manor’s beautiful walled garden – a hidden gem in itself – are a few tiny mildewed gravestones that stand testament to the Victorian tradition of burying beloved pets in special cemeteries. This particular pet cemetery was founded by Mrs Eleanor MacDonald and her twin daughters, Lily and Diana, who lived at Preston Manor in the late 19th century. Today there are 16 dogs and three cats buried here, including dogs belonging to Preston Manor’s most well-known owner, Lady Ellen Thomas-Stanford. The miniature gravestones bear epitaphs you can just about make out. They range from the touching to the macabre, most offering personal tributes. The gravestone that people find most intriguing is inscribed ‘George the Pavilion Cat’… a shorthaired black and white cat who lived at the Royal Pavilion from 1965 to 1980.

Racehill Community Orchard, Whitehawk

Hidden from plain sight almost in the middle of the Whitehawk Estate is one of the city’s best-kept urban secrets. It nestles on three acres (1.2 hectares) of lush, wild landscape overlooking the city and the sea known as the Whitehawk Nature Reserve. The Racehill Community Orchard is a collection of 200 fruit trees – once established, they could reap an estimated three to four tonnes of fruit a year. The scheme was launched in January 2013 after 80 per cent of people who replied to a public consultation said they would like to see an orchard here. It’s run by the Brighton Permaculture Trust and is a marvellous place to have a wander around and view the varieties of trees, from apples, pears, plums, cherries and the more unusual like figs.

Secret Brighton by Ellie Seymour is available in many of the city’s independent bookstores including City Books, Kemptown Books and the Museum shops, as well as Waterstones.

To read Ellie’s blog, visit: ellie-and-co.blogspot.com

The Little Fridge Library in Kemptown (Credit: Lynsey Haskell)

The Little Fridge Library in Kemptown (Credit: Lynsey Haskell)