By Jodhi Doherty
Photo: Jo Hunt Photography
Public spaces are paramount to how we spend our time within the place we live. Without these spaces cities and towns would be nothing but roads to travel, stores to shop in, places to work and study. If this infrastructure is the arteries that run through the body of the city then the spaces that give us the opportunity to live, socialise, relax and celebrate are the very heart and soul of it.
When growing up in Brighton in the 1980s and 1990s, I remember even from my shortened perspective a very sorry looking structure, abandoned and unloved on the seafront. It was the bandstand known as the ‘birdcage’, which once would have been buzzing with a melodic congregation of bands producing musical notes to be carried on the sea air down the promenade, but now creaked in the wind like some old, broken accordion and blotted the landscape. Red and white No Entry tape fluttered where the bridge onto King’s Road had been destroyed, making the scene look all the more desperate.
The bandstand had originally been one of eight throughout Brighton and Hove. In a time when Brighton was the number one destination for leisure and pleasure, and giggling ladies in bustling skirts came in droves to bathe in ridiculously modest stripey costumes, take rides on donkeys or stroll along the promenade, it was built by the Victorians for music and performance (well, initially for ladies to take shade, but it was soon hosting bands and gentlemen) – a far cry from what I remember as a rusty old heap of a bandstand. I could only imagine Victorian ladies snubbing this sorry sight and scurrying on by.
It was the last one standing. Others of its kin had already disappeared, one in Hove to be replaced by the Babylon nightclub, where international students came to grind the night away and karaoke singers doused themselves in vodka and lime. That site has again been recently reinvented as The View restaurant, offering ‘Italian cuisine in an English setting’.
Phillip Lockwood designed the birdcage in 1883. He was Brighton’s borough surveyor and you may have seen some of his work, the arches decorated with Neptune and Aphrodite, on Madeira Drive. The bandstand was built a year later by Walter Macfarlane & Co. of Saracen Foundry in Glasgow. Bands were still performing on it up to the mid-1960s, but it soon fell quickly into disrepair. In the 1970s it was listed as a Grade II building, protecting it from the fate of the others. However, it wasn’t until a ceremony on 24th July 2009 that, after major restoration works, it was reopened in all its former glory. A succession of bands performing a mix of musical genres underneath the beautiful decorative arches – known as spandrels – breathed life back into the 134-year-old bandstand.
In a city where venues and places to be seen (or not to be seen) change as often as Katie Price changes her men, it really is nice to see something like the bandstand restored. It puts our heritage back on the seafront and more importantly is a space to be enjoyed by all people of Brighton and beyond.
I do feel it’s for everyone: you see break-dancers; indie bands; brass bands; big bands; young kids tearing round. I’ve met people who are about to propose, taking time-out, taking a photo or just hanging out. If you pass by these days you might see a wedding couple posing for photos, kids skating down the steps, a film crew, a performance or, late into the evening, even a salsa class.
Do take a moment to stop and admire the beauty of the birdcage, especially at dusk when its chequered black and white tiles and ornate arches are illuminated by purple light. It’s been resurrected from the past and is all yours to use.