Sometimes headlines take forever to write, sometimes they write themselves, and on some occasions – well, this one – a four-year-old does. In response to Mummy’s enquiry about the best things about her Daddy-and-daughter weekend in Brighton, she replies: “the sharks and the chandeliers.”
The chandelier in question is suspended in the Banqueting Hall of the mesmerisingly OTT Royal Pavilion. It’s 30 feet tall, weighs one ton and hangs from the claws of a colossal dragon. Below, six smaller dragons breathe through glass shades, and lustrous chains hang down above a banqueting table (where no less than 130 dishes were served when the Russian Tsar’s brother visited the Prince Regent).
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the ostentatiousness of the Prince’s seaside holiday home. For a four-year-old it’s overwhelming, and evidently makes quite an impression. Over the next few days she tells everyone she meets about it – before explaining the frankly bizarre sex life of seahorses.
We’ve come for the weekend, partly to give Mum and a new-born a bit of a break, partly for a bit of quality time together, and partly because Daddy has his eyes on a rather good record shop. And that is the beauty of Brighton: whether it’s a swanky weekend full of cocktails and dancing, a seaside break with the kids, all fish-and-chips and skimming stones, or a day scoping out some of the country’s best independent shops, Brighton has it all in, ahem, spades.
Arriving at the train station, it soon becomes apparent the attractions for the little ones are more diverse than I’d imagined. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the station to YHA Brighton, a new addition to the YHA portfolio, but to get there requires navigating the city’s most colourful quarter: North Laine (not to be confused with the nearby shopping labyrinth of The Lanes).
In North Laine this hot Saturday, bunting hangs from the narrow streets and market stalls crowd the roads. Murals light up the façades and street performers blast out music. It’s like being momentarily dipped in a weekend at Glastonbury, with less mud. There are bead shops, old toy shops and bakeries selling Portuguese custard tarts – we visit all of them. We check in to the YHA, which inhabits an old Regency building. One of the most stylish hostels in the country? Without doubt. It’s probably best described as ‘quite Brighton’. Local artists have decorated the walls of the dining room and café-bar, and its location couldn’t be more central. All of our planned activities, including fish and chips on the seafront, are, remarkably, less than a five-minute walk away.
Now, trying to explain the Prince Regent to children, the edited version, is tricky. Fortunately, more talented people than I have thought about this and there’s a superb audio guide for youngsters at the Royal Pavilion. Her eyes shine at the indulgent, almost unbelievably flamboyant, Chinese-inspired decoration and she relates the stories back to me through the guide.
From there, it’s back past the hostel to Sea Life Brighton. Aquariums always seem to be winners with children, especially when they involve getting up close with sharks and seeing giant sea turtles with heads bigger than mine. It’s dark, loud and fun, but there’s also an educational message.
From the aquarium we spend the afternoon wandering around the pier and trundling along the Volk’s Electric Railway with ice creams. And of course Brighton’s biggest attraction is the beach. It’s what attracted the Prince Regent to the town in the late 1700s, and it’s what attracts millions of visitors every year.
There are plenty more sights to take children to, but wandering back through North Laine the next day, it’s the life on the streets that we remember most. Puppet shows and giant bubble blowers, musicians, hawkers and artists, restaurants spilling out onto the pavements and lively market stalls. Brighton is one of the most vibrant and colourful towns in the country – and that appeals to kids of all ages. My daughter now has a favourite YHA – it’s the perfect base to explore the city, and we’ll be back soon to tick off what we missed.
Four more ideas for family fun close to Brighton
• Get back to nature at Devil’s Dyke on the top of the South Downs
• Explore the quaint town of Lewes with a revolutionary past
• Get up close to camels and meerkats at Drusillas Park zoo
• Go crabbing off Littlehampton Waterfront
Four other great family options
YHA Hartington Hall: A Peak District manor house with pets’ area, games room and a playground.
YHA Tanners Hatch: An eco-friendly getaway in the Surrey Hills. Outdoor barbecues welcome.
YHA Stratford-upon-Avon: A great base for an educational break in Shakespeare Country.
YHA St Briavels Castle: How often do kids get the chance to sleep in an 800-year-old castle?