Seaside postcard: Brighton Pavilion Officially it's the Royal Pavilion, having been created as a seaside bolthole for the Prince Regent at the end of the 18th century. It's an astonishing building, bedecked with domes and minarets outside, and exquisite decor within. But it started out as a farmhouse, believe it or not, which became embroiled in the Georgian equivalent of Grand Designs. Prince George first rented this lowly property for liaisons with his beloved Mrs Fitzherbert, at a convenient distance from court in London. His architect then expanded the property to become the Marine Pavilion - a mere three rooms around a central rotunda - and this was expanded further during the Regency. Designer John Nash added additional rooms and flourishes, within and without, to create the Brighton icon we see today. But he scrimped a bit in creating an external illusion without much substance immediately underneath the roof, and the building's been a conservation nightmare ever since. Queen Victoria didn't care for it much either, especially when the railways brought daytrippers to what had previously been coastal seclusion, so sold the place off and nabbed many of its contents to help fill Buckingham Palace. And it's been in the ownership of the municipality of Brighton ever since.
Once a year they open the doors of the pavilion for free. This used to be for residents only, as the lady behind me in the queue kept repeating to her husband, gazing downcast at the number of visitors wanting to take a look inside. The queue stretched all the way round the "Conservation Area Keep Out" back as far as Brighton Museum, and apparently it didn't used to be that long in the good old days. I kept very quiet as an out-of-towner enjoying my good fortune, until a passing friend bowled over to say hello and somewhat blew my cover. If nothing else the enforced wait permitted those queuing to admire the pavilion's outer structure, all towers and frilly bits in an extreme Indian style. Whether the ornate spikes were deliberately seagull-proof, that's a matter of conjecture, but the roof remained bird-free while we watched. Forty-five minutes to reach the front, that's how long it took, and still the families and retired citizens of the borough continued to pile onto the back of the queue behind us.
I'd not been inside the Pavilion since the 1970s, and I'd forgotten quite how wow it is. I'd also forgotten that the interior isn't Indian at all, almost entirely Oriental, starting with the main corridor along the ground floor. Rich decor greens the visitor, all dark reds, golds and greens, with illustrated lamps dangling down to add to the Chinese illusion. But that was nothing compared to the Banqueting Room, at which the designer seemed to have hurled every opulent trick in the book. The huge dome is decorated with 3D plantain leaves, from which hangs a dragon, from which hangs a glittery chandelier so massive it'd no doubt kill you if it fell. The walls are tiled almost like snakeskin, while at the centre is the long dining table at which the Prince impressed his guests. His kitchens are nextdoor, top of the range in their day, still with copper pans of all kinds stacked waiting for use. He did love his food, did George, which explains why he ended up with a 55-inch waist and eventually died from excess fat on the heart.
The Music Room, at the opposite end of the building, is wow-er still. In an age before cinema and TV, the long dark evenings were perfect for musical entertainment, and here guests could stare in awe as well as listen. A snake still curls down the pillar beside the curtain, several lamps hang like water lilies from the domed ceiling, and stained glass panels shaped like eyes stare down from above. It's like all the excess from a dozen Chinese restaurants crammed into one imposing interior, whilst still retaining an optimum of taste. The Music Room also provided the first chairs on the way round, which permitted several of the more elderly visitors a chance to rest their legs before climbing the bamboo staircase to the first floor.
The King's apartments are upstairs, with one of those grand beds that needed steps to climb into. Queen Victoria's chambers are at the opposite end, not that she stayed here much, but her presence has allowed the curators to make a fuss of a few smaller rooms. All the furniture and various artefacts scattered throughout are numbered, for the benefit of those with a guidebook, although the labelling reminded me of an auction, or perhaps a rather grand tombola. In a sideroom are a few information panels recalling the Pavilion's lengthy story, especially the persistent water damage that's been a problem ever since George's day. And there's a tearoom, obviously, before the guided path leads out into the gift shop, obviously. It had been an overcrowded circuit, sharing each room with a shuffling mass of appreciative locals, which hadn't always made appreciation of each room easy. So I'd judge the spectacle as best enjoyed by paying £9.80 and coming round on a quieter day... which should be any day before same time next January. And prepare to go wow.
» Brighton Museum and Art Gallery: A short distance from the Pavilion, in a similarly domed building that used to be the stable block, that's where Brighton's town museum has its home. It's an eclectic mix, of both local and wider interest. Two galleries concentrate on Brighton, as you'd expect, one the public-facing tourist angle, the other more about the town itself and how it grew. There are two tiny rooms stuffed with Egyptology, very nicely presented, and a long gallery given over to a history of 20th century design (as if I hadn't seen enough collections of chairs at the Design Museum in London earlier). Upstairs there's art and a cafe, plus an intriguingly themed room of "performance"-related ephemera, which is almost a bit Pitt Rivers. If you ever do the Pavilion, don't skip the Museum.
» Hove Museum and Art Gallery: Forty minutes walk up the road, across the border into sophisticated Hove, a very different museum. From the outside an understated townhouse, and inside a cosier, homelier experience with a nod towards the younger members of the family. The toy collection is housed in the Wizard's Attic, which is beautifully atmospheric, and for older visitors there's a room full of very early flickery movies, local or otherwise. Several mums and dads had brought their offspring to see the Robot Invasion exhibition - two small rooms in which Sussex artist Chris McEwan is showcasing his collection of robots and space toys. They're delightful, all vintage tin and plastic, lined up in colourful cases... at least for the next few weeks.