When I first qualified as a barrister I secured what was called a pupillage in a set of chambers that was opposite the Brighton Dome. Early every morning, I would drive into Brighton over the South Downs in my old 2CV and park in an open-air car park just north of North Laine (often called the North Lanes). It cost a whopping £2.50 (I think) for the day and at the time, I thought the cost was outrageous. Then I would walk through North Laine, varying my route each day, chatting to stallholders and boutique owners as they opened up, admiring that which I couldn’t afford, and buying coffee and breakfast.
My day would then be spent pretending I was reading law books (whilst I was actually staring wistfully at The Dome) or hanging out in Brighton or Hove law courts, stopping only for a £10 lunch of mussels and wine at Mrs Fitzherbert’s. At the end of each day, I would retrace my steps, winding my way through the backstreets to home. At the time, I had no idea how cool and carefree that existence was.
A sensual experience
Thirty years on (and although I’ve been back to Brighton many, many times since), I thought it was time to retrace my steps. I went with no other purpose than to spend a leisurely Sunday morning meandering, browsing, and soaking up the unique vibe that represents the Brighton Lanes. After all, that’s what Sundays are for, surely?
If you don’t know, the North Laine is a conservation area and a sort of bohemian quarter, with a labyrinth of narrow lanes and courtyards that include 300 independent shops and cafés that sell everything from antiques to jewellery, weird musical instruments and vintage comics! Covering less than a couple of kilometres, North Laine or the North Lanes are also home to some fantastic street food, live music, al fresco dining, markets, and street art. They are unique and at the risk once more of sounding very uncool, they are … very cool.
Of course, my open-air car park isn’t there anymore but I parked nearby in Trafalgar Square car park. It’s expensive but Brighton parking is, and I was resigned to that. As soon as I was out of the car park I was hit by the familiar and sensual experience of this part of town: the sound of seagulls and the fresh smell of the sea, mixed with incense (I think), coffee, and assorted bakes. It was all still there.
I half expected to see the old boy with the dreadlocks and freckled, weatherworn tan sleeping in the first doorway but of course, he’s long gone. And although gradually a few buskers started to emerge as the day got underway, they weren’t of course the same faces I knew so well in my youth.
A great expression
Brightly coloured graffiti, street art, hidden green spaces and narrow alleyways have always been a big part of this part of town and are reason in themselves to visit Brighton’s North Laine.
And if it’s great Instagram shots or graffiti and street art you’re after, start by heading up Trafalgar Street. Just before you go under the railway bridge, you’ll see the iconic Prince Albert pub.
The pub became famous for its Banksy artwork Kissing Coppers in 2004, along with a mural of the late BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel. In 2013, a mural depicting 26 deceased musicians, as well as Oliver Reed and George Best was added. In 2017, the mural was updated with another 24 deceased musicians and it was updated again in 2019 with the addition of Scott Walker and Pete Shelley. It’s quite a magnificent sight!
From here, head back down Trafalgar Street and turn right down Trafalgar Terrace. It’s a narrow alleyway of brightly coloured houses and hidden gardens.
At the end of the alley, turn left and then double back on yourself at the second left along Trafalgar Lane for some great graffiti (and where I bumped into a couple of the street artists at work).
Alternatively, if you don’t want to double back on yourself, head to The Pond pub (you’ll see it to your right as you emerge from Trafalgar Terrace) and explore Frederick Gardens with its row of tropical little gardens.
The vintage vibe
I’m never quite sure what Brighton folk think of outsiders but I’ve always felt comforted by the fact that once you’re in, there is no judgment here. Everyone seems to accept you for being who you are. Nonetheless, in the face of the uber-cool and eclectic locals, I felt a little dowdy. So, as this was a trip down memory lane, I thought I’d try and recapture my youth and sense of style by dipping into the many vintage and preloved shops.
This is another of the many reasons to visit The Brighton Lanes: a slow leisurely rummage through flea markets and boutiques. Shops to try include New Wave Exchange in Trafalgar Street (everything from 60s to 00s) and TUT (also in Trafalgar Street) who do vintage clothes, coffee (for £2) and collectables – and what’s not to love about their brightly coloured walls. And be sure not to miss big boutiques like To Be Worn Again in Sydney Street or the cute little boutique which you have to step up into called All About Audrey!
Got the bug
Once you’ve got the vintage bug, the flood gates are open. I dived into Diplock’s Yard a treasure trove of “stuff”, and followed a large sign that said Junk! And they were right, what a splendid floor-to-ceiling warehouse of junk it was!
Then I went in search of vinyl records, old books, collectable stamps, and even vintage postcards! I found them all and in fact, I couldn’t stop (well only briefly, for a coffee)!
Street food and buskers
By the time I’d finished exploring little alleyways and trying on vintage frocks, the Lanes were filled with the smell of street food and the sound of buskers. Despite someone recommending the Fatto a Mano Pizzeria on the corner of Kensington Gardens and Gloucester Road (and by the way, Kensington Gardens is a must with its Snoopers Paradise and rooftop cafés) for the best charcuterie board in town, I’d set myself the challenge of eating in the most exotic eatery I could find.
That, it turns out, is a tall order as there is literally everything in North Laine. I turned down Japanese, Korean, Indian, South American, French, Spanish, Italian, Mexican, vegan, and more. In the end, I gave up on exotic and weary from my search, I settled for Coffeetzar which looked welcoming and wholesome. Here I enjoyed a superb falafel wrap with mint, tahini, beetroot and spinach followed by surely the ultimate cheesecake experience, namely gluten-free brownie and coconut cheesecake chocolate cake. It was huge. And sublime.
By now, the best part of the day had gone. I’d walked a total of 5 kilometres but probably covered no more than one. Much of the Brighton Lanes hasn’t changed at all since my legal days and what has, seems to have done so for the better. The great thing is that I left feeling like I’d barely touched the surface which means I have plenty of reasons to go back for more. Now I just need a 2CV and a carefree, misspent youth.
If you like this post about The Lanes, Brighton, you may also like our 16 Things to Do in Brighton post and Brighton Museums post. And if you like the sound of the North Laine district and want more information about Brighton and what it’s like to live there, you might like this post: Why Move to Brighton.
You’ll find more information about Brighton here: Visit Brighton