Brighton’s Back Passages

Whilst I’d love to lay claim to having come up with the title of this post, I’m afraid all credit must go to the authors of the excellent Cheeky Guides – and in this case, the gem that is Cheeky Walks in Brighton & Sussexwhich I was lucky enough to stumble across in my favourite local independent bookshop, City Books, shortly after the somewhat unnerving realisation that although my planned departure date would be in about six weeks time, I had done absolutely no preparation for the journey whatsoever, beyond plotting a few marker points on a map (see previous post).

Well, that’s not strictly true. In terms of fitness, my addiction to Bikram yoga keeps me pretty healthy, but I’m not convinced that Standing Bow Pulling is going to pull me through 825km of mountainous Spanish terrain.

I am also three sessions into 6 weeks of circuit training with Brighton Boot Camp, which is every bit as intense as it sounds; three times a week I am willingly submitting myself to 40 minutes of what has already proven itself to be pure hell and which certainly involves no walking. Sweating profusely? Consistently. Collapsing in agony? Intermittently. Questioning my sanity? Daily. But no walking. And even if I do reach the end of it alive, it’s still only 40 minutes of pain 3 times a week rather than an average walking distance of 25km every day, which feels like a completely different form of punishment.

So I figured I’d better get walking, as I also need to get some practice in writing about and taking a few photos of my walks, as I’m going to attempt to keep this up as a daily blog recording my experiences when I’m walking The Northern Way, which hopefully should make for interesting reading, even if it’s only evidence of previous comments made here about the likelihood of my getting hopelessly lost.

Which takes us back to Brighton’s Back Passages. Where better to start than my own back yard? So to speak. It feels almost impossible not to mutate into an aspiring joke writer for Julian Clary with a title like Brighton’s Back Passages as your point of entry (see what I mean?), but I’ll try and make as good a fist of it as I can…

At a grand total of 3.5 miles as a round trip, the walk felt like an eminently civilised way of getting this whole thing kick-started. I could have started off with the first walk in the book at 1.5 miles (the mileage gradually increases as the book goes on), but its title – Brunswick’s Boozy Backstreets – suggested that I might not be entering into this enterprise in entirely the right spirit. Anyway, without wanting to shamelessly plagiarise Cheeky Guides, here’s just a flavour of the walk and a couple of anecdotes from the book.

I loved the fact that it starts, more or less, in a supermarket lift; perhaps not an anecdote that you’d want to use as a starting point for a conversation with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, but it made me smile.

On reaching the summit, or as it’s more commonly known locally, Morrison’s car park, the walk begins in earnest, plunging you headlong into the ‘twitten trail’ – a twitten, as revealed by Cheeky Guides, being a local term for a narrow passage or sphincter (down, Julian) – which is a veritable Pandora’s Box of dark alleyways, cramped cut-throughs, hidden doorways and beautifully manicured residential passageways hidden away throughout Brighton and the fringes of Hove; I’m ashamed to say that even after having lived in the city for nearly 8 years, I never knew that about 80% of the locations along the way even existed. Not to mention never having considered that I might have had the opportunity to say to a local resident “And how long have you had that fig tree up your back passage?”. (OK, I think that’s enough, now).

If you fancy it, you can stand in the exact spot where Phil Daniels gave Leslie Ash a knee-trembler in Quadrophenia (apparently something that, very romantically, is still re-enacted by die-hard mods to this day), but there are also a host of historical pearls stretching back a little further to be discovered. For starters, and in no particular order, there’s the row of listed cottages dating back to the 16th century – probably the oldest in Brighton – tucked down an alley that I must have walked past hundreds of times and never noticed. (Given that the camera wasn’t invented until 3 centuries later, I suppose there wasn’t actually much point putting a sepia tint on this photograph of it).

Apparently this is also the site of a lost bet in the 18th Century when an aristocratic compulsive gambler was challenged by his rather more corpulent companion to a race on the condition that the latter could choose the course; walking down the confines of the alley, it’s immediately obvious that this particular choice would be unlikely to have the winner breaking into much of a sweat once he’d gained a lead.

There are odd little nuggets, such as the explanation for the wrought iron frame that can be found just behind one of Brighton’s busiest shopping thoroughfares, and which looks like some kind of 19th Century basket ball hoop, but which was actually a device used during that period to mount mirrors that reflected daylight into the windows above to ensure that the garment workers working there “could see what the hell they were doing and avoid chopping off their arms in an automated mangle”, as Cheeky Guides puts it. Obviously the first stirrings of the Health and Safety movement.

There are also anecdotes along the way that are just pure Brighton; such as the notorious story of a character called Tin Tin, a half-French, half-Indian transsexual who suffered severe harrassment from the local drug dealers living next door to his house in Queensbury Mews, including the poisoning of his dog. Clearly not one to take things lying down (oops), Tin Tin exacted his revenge by clambering on to the roof of the adjoining house and daubing the words ‘Drug Dealers’ in 10 foot high letters with an arrow pointing at the house, just in case anyone had missed the point. Having read elsewhere that Tin Tin’s sartorial flair extended to combos of summery dresses and novelty slippers, this was obviously no mean feat.

At this point in the walk, just round the corner from Tin Tin’s house, I was conveniently directed to the Queensbury Arms for a Cheeky Pint (actually that part wasn’t strictly on the itinerary, although it seemed pretty on brand to me). Also known as the Hole in the Wall, the pub is designated by blue plaques by the entrance as the smallest pub in Brighton. I thought I’d do a bit of my own research and asked the landlord if he knew anything about the Tin Tin story; clearly an old school resident of the area, he told me with a distinct Polari inflection: “Oh, she’s moved on, dear – gone off to worry sheep in Lancashire, I think. Completely barking that one”. Something in the air round here, obviously.

Even though the whole walk takes no more than a couple of hours, these are just snippets of the attractions en route. But for me the lasting impression was one of briefly inhabiting an entirely different landscape to the one that I thought I knew well; because many of the twittens can barely accommodate two people walking abreast, for much of the walk it’s quite rare to come across anyone else using them, contributing to an occasionally disconcerting sense of being entirely alone in the middle of a bustling city, catching the occasional glimpses of lives carrying on elsewhere – a sense that I tried to capture with the photos at the top of this post.

And perhaps that’s why the authors of the guide chose to end the walk with an altogether more reassuringly familiar Brighton landmark; although one which also manages to bring you back to the real world without too much of a bump.


Filed under: Camino Countdown Tagged: Bikram Yoga, Brighton, Cheeky Guides, Circuit training, East Sussex, El Camino del Norte, Spain, The Northern Way, The Santiago Way, Walking

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