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|A Straight Line Walk Across Brighton
by Paul K Lyons
29 - Brunel's Hove; now King Alfred's up for demolition while Gehry's towers are pending
Opposite, on the north side of Kingsway, west of The Sussex is Seafield Road and then St Aubyns. The land between them was a large archery ground in the 1860s. St Aubyns is a road that spills out into Kingsway as though it had an estuary, with curved terraced corners, and wide pavements. The archaeologist Dr Eliot Curwen lived at number 1 a long time, at least from the 1930s until he died in 1950. His great grandson, John Gimlette, recently published a book ('Theatre of Fish') about his trip to Newfoundland and Labrador following in the footsteps of a journey made by Curwen in 1893. A more famous name is vaguely associated with number 9: Virginia Woolf spent several summers there as a child. Further along, a school for ladies occupied number 19 in the second half the 19th century. On the west side, at the corner, is Brighton Kingsway Hotel which claims it is 'a Grade II listed Georgian building with stunning sea views'. I don't know much about architecture, but I find this claim a bit odd: Georgian usually refers to a period no later than 1830s, but these buildings date from around the mid-19th century which is generally considered early Victorian. The hotel and other buildings stretch along Kingsway as part of St Aubyn's Gardens for most of the block towards Vallance Gardens (the use of both Aubyns and Aubyn's seems to be another apostrophic anomaly). The name Vallance recalls a land-owning family that moved to Hove in the late 18th century and owned a brewery.
The route of my walk along the 450 northing keeps me to the north of Kingsway at this point, but opposite on the south side there's a Texaco petrol station, with familiar black and red signage (unleaded is 94.9p a litre today), and then a small commercial playground for young children with trampolines, a mini-dodgems, and the miniest, dullest miniature golf course I've ever seen. One blue and white stall sells 50p tokens, another candy floss and tea and coffee. Somewhere here (southeast of St Aubyns and on the seafront, according to the 'Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade'), an educationalist called Dr Morell ran a boarding school in 1820, and one of his pupils was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In a letter to his father, Brunel wrote (from a place he called St Aubyns): 'As for what I am about, I have been making half a dozen boats lately, till I have worn my hands to pieces. I have also taken a plan of Hove, which is a very amusing job.' After Hove, he went to study in Paris.
Of most interest, though, on the south side of Kingsway is the large and striking King Alfred Leisure Centre. It's definitely a building from between the wars, with its horizontal feel, metal frame windows, and modest art deco details (on the balcony railings for example). In fact it was built at the end of the 1930s, and opened as King Alfred Baths. The Admiralty requisitioned the place during the war (renaming it HMS King Alfred), and then it reopened in 1946 as King Alfred Swimming Pool. It was remodelled and extended in the early 1980s.
These days King Alfred's definitely looks past its prime, with bright orange paint (like an old lady with too much lipstick perhaps), ugly and stained plastic monster tubes sticking out behind (slides for the swimming pool, I suppose), and an excess of signs and notices promoting uses in different parts of the building. On the east side is a six rink indoor bowls centre and Cheetahs Gym (three month membership only £70). A line of posters advertises various entertainments around town (one beckons me to Arlington Stadium for banger or stock car racing every Wednesday at 7:45). The central and main doors of this once grand building, facing onto Kingsway, are unused. A window to one side shouts the word 'Therapy', and smaller words inform me that various forms of massage are available here: indian head, sports remedial, holistic. A basement well around the building is protected by well-planted triangular flowerbeds, and more art deco railings. On the east side of the building is yet another entrance, this one for the King Alfred Suite, 'an ideal venue for discos, weddings, birthdays, office parties, seminars, exhibitions and trade fairs'. Dominating one of the brick walls are some large orange plastic signs with symbolic pictures for the leisure possibilities on offer, swimming, tennis, meals, etc. And down the side of the building is a covered walkway leading to the actual entrance.
The home page of the leisure centre's website greets visitors with this message in bold pink letters: 'Still open Brighton & Hove City Council's largest indoor sports centre. Redevelopment will not take place at least until early 2007.' The stark reality behind this message is that King Alfred's is on borrowed time, and demolition gangs are straining at their leashes. A fabulous and very controversial plan to replace King Alfred has been in the planning process for years, but seems to be nearing a final decision. A consortium of local developer, Karis, and the property arm of the Dutch bank ING, one of the largest property developers in the world, propose to build a new public sports centre, 750 residential units (including affordable housing) in two towers and eight other buildings, with ground floor commercial uses including shops, restaurants, cafés, bars, a doctors surgery and basement parking. The planned complex has been designed by Frank Gehry, an architect most famous for the extraordinary Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Local conservatives say the plans are totally out of character for quiet, spacious, sedate Hove; but progressives suggest this is a unique opportunity to create a landmark which, one day, might be as famous as Brighton's Royal Pavilion.
by Paul K Lyons
A Straight Line Walk Across Brighton - along the 450 northing
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