Brighton goes to the Paris Exhbition

As far as is known, no Jemima ever went from Brighton to the Paris Exhibition of 1867, but if she had, these might have been her letters to her friend Emily.

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Brighton,March 1867

Dearest Emily,

At last! Father has said we can go to the French Exhibition in Paris in September.  First, he says we must all improve our French.  Father is a little distrustful of the Parisians, so he says we must at least know what they are saying.  Mother and I will go to Mlle Witter in Holland Road (such a nice safe area of Hove, Father says) but Father has chosen to go to Mons. Lamette in East-street. Continue reading

D’Aubigny Road

D’Aubigny Road is a pleasant street to the west of the Lewes Road in Brighton, not far from a large junction known locally as the Vogue Giratory.  The streets neighbouring D’Aubigny Road carry ‘good, plain’ (at that time) British names:  Round Hill Crescent, Richmond, Princes and Mayo Roads.  And tucked away at the eastern end of the estate, the relatively exotic D’Aubigny.

Roundhill Park Estate. Brighton

Plan for the Roundhill Estate. Image reproduced courtesy of the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

The 1853 plan above makes clear that, when the Round Hill Park Estate was first laid out in 1853, none of the newly-traced roads had names, with the exception of Round Hill Crescent itself.  Lennox Road was never built and Ashdown Road, which was built later, is not on the plan.

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The Old Folks of Brighton

Les Vieillards de Brighton Saint-BrisOne fine day in 1953, a Frenchman brought his five-year old son to Brighton.  The father said Au revoir, gave the boy a peck on the cheek – at most – and then left him.  In an old people’s home.  These are the facts given at the beginning of Les Vieillards de Brighton [The Old Folk of Brighton] written by Gonzague Saint Bris and published in 2002.

The narration is set in the former French Convalescent Home in Kemp Town. However, the text shows that it is unlikely that Saint Bris knew the building well.   It seems more likely that he saw the Convalescent Home once, perhaps only fleetingly, but was so impressed by it that he determined to set his novel in and around the building.  There is little doubt that Les Vieillards de Brighton is a work of fiction, but an imaginative and absorbing one at that.

The book opens with the sentence: Enfant, j’habitais Londres où mon père était un jeune attaché d’ambassade. [As I child, I lived in London where my father was a young attaché in the embassy.]

So far, so good.  Gonzague Marie Joseph Vincent François Saint Bris was born in 1948 into a not particularly ancient or particularly aristocratic family.  Count Hubert Saint Bris, Gonzague’s father, was a junior diplomat in London and would have been about 37 years old at the time of our story.

The author admits j’avais un caractère difficile [I was a bad-tempered child]. Perhaps the time had come to separate him from his younger siblings, Edouard and François.  Bernard, the Saint Bris’s fourth child would be born the following year in 1954.  Another reason for shipping the awkward youngster off to Brighton?

Father and son set off for Brighton in their fine, French, car. (A very stylish Renault Frégate, if you need to know.)  The child’s first impression of the town was not particularly favourable:

Brighton, une ville élégante mais qui fait peur par sa distinction froide; des villas telles qu’on les imagine chez Agatha Christie …  [Brighton is an elegant town, but its cold refinement is frightening; its villas are like those you imagine in Agatha Christie …]

The day after his understandably traumatic arrival in these alien surroundings, the child in the narrative is able to look at the building in which he finds himself:

ce faux petit château de style Tudor en front de mer de la plus belle cite balnéaire du Royaume-Uni, dans une magnifique perspective de façades Regency, pouvait-il cacher tant de misère? De l’extérieur avec son perron de pierre, ses hautes fenêtres, ses murs gris rehaussés de brique rose, ce manoir néo-gothique semblait l’heureuse demeure d’un gentilhomme.  [how could this fake little Tudor country house on the seafront of the most beautiful resort in the United Kingdom conceal so much misery? From the outside, with its stone porch steps, its high windows and its walls picked out in pink brick, this neo-Gothic manor house looked very much the cheerful residence of a country squire.]

Even if you know Brighton well, you might have trouble reconciling the description above with the building as pictured below.

Fr Conv Home courtesy Harriet Richardson

French Convalescent Home mid-1950s. Image reproduced courtesy of Harriet Richardson

Ironically, most Brightonians consider the Brighton French Convalescent Home to be in the style of a French chateau, but there is no doubt as to the identity of the old folks’ home (to use mid-20th century language) where Saint Bris sets his memoir.  The author describes the building as being:

sur « De Courcel Road ».  C’était le nom d’un ambassadeur français, Alphonse de Courcelles, qui s’était penché sur le sort des vieux et avait créé cette maison de convalescence en 1890.  [in De Courcel Road.  That was the name of a French ambassador, Alphonse de Courcelles, who had pondered the fate of old people and created this convalescent home in 1890.]

At this point, fiction rather starts to take precedence over fact. The first bending of the facts is that Alphonse de Courcel (not Courcelles) ‘created’ the Convalescent Home.  He laid the foundation stone in 1898, yes, but the impetus and hard work came from the trustees and employees of the French Hospital in London.  The money came from the French government (to the tune of £4,000), from the Baroness de Hirsch (£1,000) as well as from many, smaller voluntary donations.

Despite many insignificant errors in the book, there is much that still sounds authentic.

Le plan de la ville (de Brighton) fut calqué sur celui des terrasses de John Nash autour de Regent’s Park à Londres… La laiterie de la falaise de Black Rock, ayant subi un glissement de terrain, ses bâtiments s’inclinaient dangereusement.  Je demandai … de pousser jusque-là, car je savais qu’après le pub, un peu plus haut, il y avait une boutique de bonbons avec ses sucres d’orge couleur de rose dont je raffolais.   [The plan of the town (of Brighton) was based on that of John Nash’s terraces round Regents Park in London… The dairy on the cliff at Black Rock had suffered from an earth slip, so its buildings tilted at a dangerous angle.  I asked … if I could go that far as I knew that beyond the pub, a little further on, there was a sweet shop with the pink barley twists which I loved.]

The reference to ‘the dairy on the cliff at Black Rock’ poses a problem if the events are supposed to have taken in the early 1950s.  The 1925 photo below shows the group of buildings the narrator mentions: Black Rock House on the left, the rather small Abergavenny Arms pub in the middle, the tall building on the right being the Cliff Creamery.  What Saint Bris, as author, had not realised was that ll the buildings in this photo had been demolished by the mid-1930s to make way for the new coast road to Rottingdean.  The simply did not exist in the 1950s when the book was set.

Black Rock jgc_23_146

Image reproduced by kind permisson of the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove

The 1925 photo above shows Black Rock House on the left, the rather small Abergavenny Arms pub in the middle, the tall building on the right being the Cliff Creamery.  All the buildings in this photo had been demolished by the mid-1930s to make way for the new coast road to Rottingdean and did not exist in the 1950s.

It is now very clear that the author is working from, not just guidebooks, but ancient guidebooks at that.  It becomes great fun to spot the anachronisms and errors throughout the book.  Let’s begin at the beginning.

Describing his very early days in London, the author comments on having seen tiny Prince Charles waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The young Gozague, being much the same age, waved back.

Tout cela aurait pu être une charmante histoire, avec les casquettes bleu et jaune de notre école, la St Philip’s School.  [This could all have been a lovely story, with the blue and yellow caps of our school, St Philip’s.]

The boys of St Philip’s Preparatory School in Kensington still wear a very fetching uniform of powder blue with a yellow badge.  The school is less than half a mile from the Exhibition Road, home of the Saint Bris family (according to Gonzague), and even nearer to the French consulate where the father worked.  The present Bursar of the school who kindly answered my enquiry could find no record of any child named Saint Bris in the school’s archive.  Clearly the uniform had attracted the young Gonzague’s attention and stuck in his memory when, as an adult, he wrote the book.

But back to Brighton.  We can now happily assume that the narrative is a fiction and continue to enjoy spotting the inconsistencies as a gentle game.

First, the layout of the old folks’ home:

la petite chapelle située sur le côté gauche du jardin … les couleurs presque pimpantes de ses boiseries, rose et vert pâle, ses vitraux en ogives, le petit autel … la statue de saint George avec sa belle armure, ses cheveux blonds bouclés, son poing énergique tenant la lance qui transperçait le dragon.   [The little chapel to the left of the garden … (with) its decorative woodwork painted in almost startling pink and pale green, its stained glass windows in their Gothic window frames, the small altar … the statue of St George in his fine armour, his fair curly hair and his mighty fist holding the lance as it runs the dragon through.]

The building in De Courcel Road is now no longer either a convalescent home or a retirement home.  In 2007 it was converted into 14 luxury flats and the property is being carefully maintained, as it deserves.  However, the conversion does not disguise the fact that the ‘Gothic window frames’ are on the right-hand side of the garden, not the left.  Alas, all trace of the interior fittings of the chapel have vanished.  The space has become ‘Apartment 4, The French Apartments, De Courcel Road, Brighton’.

However, the clinching detail which reveals that the author / narrator did not know the building well is the description of the ‘driveway’.  After the child has been in the old folk’s home for a while, both parents arrive to pay him an all-too-short visit.  He is naturally distressed as he watches them leave:

la Frégate s’éloignait dans l’allée ocre qui conduisait à De Courcelles Road … La Frégate avait viré à gauche au-delà de la grille. [The Fregate disappearing along the ochre coloured avenue which lead to De Courcel Road … the car had turned left out of the tall gates]

The photo below, of the north side of the building, was taken in May 2020. It is quite evident that there could never have been an avenue of trees between the property and the road. There were no massive gates shutting him in.  But importantly, we can feel for the child. As a metaphor for his unhappiness, the sentence is very evocative, as is much of the sensitive writing of what we must now call The Novel. Perhaps Gonzague Saint Bris’s memory was of the nearby entrance posts to Lewes Crescent.

French Conv Home and De Courcel road

(c) Suzanne Hinton 2020

Apart from inaccurate references to the building, other little quirks creep into the narrative.  For example, lighthouse enthusiasts might well criticise the statement which claims that:

À l’horizon, apparaissait parfois un phare rouge et blanc dans l’opale des eaux [on the horizon a red and white beam would occasionally appear across the opaline waters.]

Neither Beachy Head nor Shoreham Lighthouse can be seen from Black Rock in Brighton and the light beam from each is white.  But what a beautiful sentence in French.  The rhythm of the words far outweighs the historical inaccuracies.

Other parts of Sussex are not spared anachronistic reference:

le Bluebell Railway, ce vieux train à vapeur dont le parcours de Sheffield Park à Horsted Keynes le remplissait de nostalgie. [The Bluebell Railway, the old stream train which, on its route between Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes, overcame him with nostalgia]

Trains on what is now the Bluebell Railway section of the former London, Brighton and South Coast Railway ran as a normal, public service between East Grinstead and Lewes until 1955. The Bluebell Railway did not open until 1959.  But does it matter?  Let’s hope that French readers will be inspired to come to Sussex to take a trip on at least one of our wonderful heritage railways.

The ‘memoir’ is full of extraordinary characters that the child meets.  They are mainly eccentrics, fascinating creations, but entirely from the imagination of Gonzague Saint Bris.  Read the book if you can (unfortunately there is no English translation).  Sympathise with the child.  Enjoy a quirky view of Brighton.  Revel in the bizarre dramatis personae.  But please don’t think of this book as anything more than work of fiction.

Footnote:  Gonzague Saint Bris was killed in a road accident in Normandy.  He died on the night of 8 August 2017.  He was 69 years old.

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Bonnes nouvelles, mauvaise nouvelles

Paris Wine Bar March 2020 (2)

March 2020

It was wonderful to see the Paris Wine Bar in Church Road, Hove newly re-opened in February.  The cafe looked wonderful with its bright new paint and inviting chairs and tables.

It was also good the see the renaissance of La Cave à Fromage in Western Road, Hove which has become L’atelier du Vin and Whey – both of which are fortunately still trading, albeit on a much reduced scale.

L'Atelier du Vin

Mange Tout March 2020The Covid-19 virus  has very sadly meant that, for the time being, such wonderful French themed small bars, cafes and restaurants cannot operate fully.  Let’s wish all the best for “after” the lock-down to: Mange Tout in Trafalgar Street, Petit Pois in Ship Street, Terre à Terre in East Street, Le Nantais bistrot in Palmeira Square, La Fourchette in Queens Place, Hove and others that may have been forgotten.  Many of these businesses now offer a delivery service, so do support them if you can.

Le nantais

Petit Pois                     La FourchetteTerre à terre

Bonne chance pour l’avenir. 

Good luck for the future.

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Refugees 1792

Natalie de Laborde (Louvre plus)

“Portrait présumé de Nathalie de Laborde d’Augustin Pajou” © 1994 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

“Mrs. Fitzherbert, the Duchess de Noailles, and many other ladies of distinction, were present at the Cricket match, and dined in a marquee pitched on the ground, for that purpose. The Prince’s band of music attended, and played during the whole time the ladies were at dinner. In the evening, Mrs. Fitzherbert, the Duchess, Lady Clermont, and Miss Piggott, walked round the ground, seemingly the better to gratify the spectators with a sight of the French lady. The Duchess de Noailles appears to be 21, or 22 years of age, is very handsome, and her figure and deportment are remarkably interesting.”

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‘Adieu’ or just ‘Au revoir’?

Café ROuge window Feb 2020Only eighteen months ago, the Palmeira Square area of Hove was home to several French restaurants (see blog of 5 August 2018: La Place Palmeira).  Since then, both La Cave à Fromage and Pâtisserie Valérie have closed their doors.  Now we have to say adieu to Café Rouge in Bartholomews which closed on 19 January 2020.

It was so good to see all those correctly used accents: Salon de thé and à toute heure.  Fortunately, the branch of Café Rouge at the Marina is still open and carrying on the good work.

Paris Wine Bar Hove Feb 2020Another ‘French’ loss is the Paris Wine Bar at 119 Church Road, Hove.  However, according the Argus, the restaurant was “not as French as its names suggests” – but for all the best reasons.  The wines served in the bar came from all corners of world and not just France.  Is this adieu to the Paris Wine Bar or merely au revoir?  Hard to tell.  Let’s look forward to its renaissance.

Vélo ami March 2019It’s not only food outlets that like to associate themselves with la France.  Cycling and bikes are also often associated with our French neighbours.  The bike shop, Velo Ami, at 73 Portland Road closed its doors in early 2019.  A result of the harsh economic climate for retailers?  But where oh! where was that accent on vélo?


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Brighton’s French Festival of Music

Imagine the grand sight of two thousand musicians and choristers in “a daylight procession [starting] from the Pavilion at six in the evening and having marched with music and banners along the Kings-road to Brunswick-terrace, will return by the same route to the Pavilion grounds.” (Daily Telegraph and Courier).

Grand festival of music

What the advert above does not highlight is that almost each one of these two thousand performers was a Frenchman (with a few French-speaking Swiss and Belgians in the mix for good measure).  Conference delegates descending on Brighton en masse is nothing new, for this event took place in 1881.

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Not all sweetness and light (1)

On Friday 23 August 1816, Captain Cheeseman, master of the Neptune packet boat, returned to Brighton.  He brough disturbing news for all his fellow mariners, for their passengers and for trade with France.  During the night of 19-20 August, Captain Thomas Partridge of the Nancy had been shot by French customs officers just outside the port of Dieppe.

Cotman V&A cdb01178-va-ss

Dieppe Harbour 1823 (John Sell Cotman) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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