The Meeting Place has a scruffy sort of charm about it. Only a short bike ride for me along the seafront cycle path, I’ve been coming here for years attracted by its promenade location. Being completely outdoors, in the summer the cafe has hordes of tables and chairs spread around its terrace. When it’s cooler, like now near the the winter solstice, then it’s the hardy few who venture here well wrapped up to grab a beach side table. Its bold, canary yellow wind breakers give shelter from the breeze. Pigeons and seagulls abound here so you can’t be too squeamish about them coming close daring to scavenge a few morsels of your food.
Some years ago the cafe was demolished and reborn a few yards further east along the seafront, significant in that those few yards now mean that you can buy your tea or coffee in Brighton and drink it sitting in Hove. The Angel Peace statue also straddles the boundary between the two towns and heralds this popular cafe.
All the staff are Polish, friendly and eager to practice their English. The cafe is open 365 days a year from dawn serving breakfasts and hot drinks to the dog walkers, joggers and early risers in general to dusk where it catches those reluctant to tear themselves away from the beach. It’s even open on Christmas day and I’ve seen the queues stretching back in their masses with customers seemingly impervious to the long wait. There are so many food and drink deals they are too many to mention but if it’s no nonsense fillers and home baked cakes you’re looking for then this is your place.
Christmas is nearly upon us again and it seems to come around quicker and quicker each year.The early setting sun was transforming the watery blue of the sky into a peachy glow while the skeletal West Pier slumbered peacefully on the calm December sea. At least down here by the The Meeting Place Cafe you can take some time out, swapping the demands of last minute present buying at the shops for breathing in the fresh air and wonderful seascape for the price of a cuppa.
There is something special about getting up that little bit earlier and getting a taste of early morning. Just A gentle bike ride along the seafront cycle path and I am at Morrocco’s in just a few minutes. The ice cream counter is what first welcomes you on entering. A chilled cabinet with a rainbow of rich colours representing around two dozen different flavours of their home made ice cream to choose from. Over the years I’ve tried most with the chilli chocolate being a favourite.
The sun is getting quite strong already but with cup of tea in hand I’m lucky enough to get a seat on the small front terrace which is still in the shade. I love the musicality of the Italian language and hearing the banter of the staff as they get set up for a day’s trading. Having studied Italian at school I can usually pick up a few words here and there but unfortunately that’s about all.
Watching the cyclists pedalling by on the cycle path directly in front of the terrace. I hear the whir of chains turning and the bur of rubber on tarmac. I wonder how long it will be until I spot someone I know. Only about ten minutes as it turns out. The sea is just a few yards away and the sound of the waves on the shore blend with the hissing of the coffee machine behind me and the chatter of the nearby customers. A couple of yachts are sailing on the horizon on a calm and clement sea. Breakfasts, seems to be what everyone is ordering to set them up for the day ahead.
I’ve been coming to Marrocco’s for years now since I first moved down to Brighton & Hove. The original couple who established the cafe in the late 60’s have since passed the business on to their son, Peter Marrocco, to run. Marrocco’s describe themselves as bringing a touch of Naples to Hove. So, in the summer it is not unknown for queues to stretch right along the block for the famous Marrocco’s ice cream with people waiting up to half an hour for their choice of flavour. The cafe is mainly known though for its Italian seafood, pizza and pasta but you can just as easily pop in for a coffee or tea. Now open till 11pm at night it’s a honeypot for late night cafe and ice cream lovers. When I’m cycling home late in the evening after a night out it’s cheering to see Marrocco’s lit up and still buzzing with life.
In Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts in the movie, Elizabeth goes to Rome on the first stage of her voyage of self discovery and indulges in the local pasta and ice-cream. I’d venture you wouldn’t need to go as far as that. Just cycle down to Hove promenade to savour a little bit of Italy and ponder on life while watching the world go by.
Its all about the beach huts these days. I’d been to an evening hosted by the Brighton Beach Hut Writers, a collective of local authors, talking about their books and how they’d got where they are with their success in being published authors. Brighton and Hove beach huts though are not just an inspiration for local writers they also play their part in a most unusual creative arts project every December.
There’s nothing like getting you in the seasonal mood than to visit a Beach Hut Advent Calendar. The evening was chilly but with not a breath of wind and a sea as calm as a sleeping baby. Beach hut number 227 was just setting up on its appointed evening as part of the advent calendar art project as I was cycling home along the promenade. The small wooden hut was lit up in changing hues of green, pink, blue and violet. Inside it was set up as a traditional nativity scene but with a golden star spangled voile lining the wooden interior. With a crowd starting to gather the host was singing a haunting seasonal melody in soft harmonious tones. We warmed our hands around cups of steaming mulled wine and munched on mince pies and Santa Lucia cakes, the spicy sweetness of the hot drink an antidote to the sharpness of the air.
The ukelele was brought out to accompany Silent Night sung in Japanese, Spanish and German as different people from the gathering offered their talents. A change of tempo had the poet Jack Psychosis performing some work specially written for the evening. I even met someone from the audience I hadn’t seen for years and we caught up on the usual family news, delighted to be running into each other again.
A warm and inviting get-together on a becalmed December evening. This was my first Beach Hut Advent Calendar and there is a different one open every evening from 5.30 – 6.30 until the 24th December along the promenade. What else will the humble Brighton and Hove beach hut inspire?
Looking around the new Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate at Tracey Emin’s work the question did occur to me as to why some people are famous and not others. I loved the neon works and some of the sketches but the tatty old mattress on the floor would stretch most people’s credulity as to what is art and what isn’t. Being Margate’s most famous daughter she has most definitely earned her place in the contemporary art world.
Situated right on the seafront by the west harbour, the new Turner Gallery holds the promise of Margate’s renaissance. The gallery building is stylishly modern but the rest of Margate, in my view, will take a while to catch up. Becoming somewhat fazed by the juxtaposition of sketches by Turner, Rodin and Emin the chink of crockery and the hiss of steam from a coffee maker beckoned me down to the cafe on the ground floor.
The cafe is wonderfully light with uninterrupted views right over the harbour, beach and towards the seafront. On two sides the cafe is completely glass fronted with the rest of the walls starkly white. Any colour comes from the multi-coloured industrial style seating in hues of red, blue, gold and silver. There is seating outside too so you can take in all of that fresh Kentish air from the point where the Thames Estuary becomes the North sea while you drink your tea or coffee. There were some lovely cakes and savouries to be had but after a full English breakfast at our B & B we didn’t have the stomach for any more food that morning.
We’d come to Kent for a few days of cycling discovering the Sustrans cycle routes both inland and along the coast. Having never been this far east in Kent before we wondered why not as we were enjoying the cycling so much and the discovery too of such spots as Whitstable and Herne Bay along the way. Margate was our mid point for a rest day and the gallery was our culture trip for the day. Later we would walk along the coastal path all the way to Victorian Broadstairs with its Dickens heritage for ice-cream 99s at the harbour wall cafe.
The boy band Bros famously sang ‘When will I be famous’. Whether Emin’s art will still be talked about decades and centuries from now as Turner’s work is only time will tell. For the time being Tracey Emin is certainly famous and full marks to Margate for making the most of its connections with her.
There are so many independent cafes in Brighton that’s it’s tricky trying to decide which one to go to next. A friendly chap who I met one day up at the Buddhist centre cafe suggested Hudson & Bridges in Kemptown so that’s where I went. It was a superb bike ride along my favoured route of the seafront cycle path with a prevailing westerly making it easy peasy. This time I continued on past Brighton Pier breathing in the fresh ozone filled air almost as far as the marina. The steep climb up by Dukes Mound to the coast road meant I had to make full use of my low gears and hard earned leg muscles. Then I cycled up through the gorgeous Regency Lewes Crescent with its garden enclosure at the centre. I spotted Hudson & Bridges across the road so parked up my bike and went in for the first time.
From outside the look is fairly inconspicuous with its grey frontage on a busy corner with noisy double decker buses passing by every few minutes and metal pedestrian railings on the pavement just outside. I was a bit doubtful about visiting this cafe as it didn’t seem my sort of cafe at all. As soon as I walked in I knew though that this was a goodie. The style is individual, eclectic and quirky but somehow it works and all comes together. The table of delicious looking pastries and cakes is the first thing you see on your way in followed by the chilled counter of tempting savoury pies and pastries and bowls of freshly made salads. A straw basket of free range eggs sit on a lace cloth at the end of the counter. The main colour inside the cafe is an easy on the eye mid-green but with splashes of floral wall paper panels of gold, magenta, pink and silver at strategic points. The lights are clear glass chandelier while the small green tables are retro and unusually are height adjustable. Its the odd little touches that give this cafe its warm ambiance like the glass jars on the window sill of cacti next to the small line up of paperback books. The main room has several alcoves reaching from it, there’s the one up the candy pink painted iron banister staircase where a customer was tapping away on his laptop. The alcove under the stairs has a gold snake patterned textured wallpaper where a group were sitting around an original 60’s coffee table.
I took a window seat where the south facing light streamed in on an unusually sunny morning and listened to the chilled sounds of World music. My tea arrived on a small pine tray with a Suki teapot which has a clever integral tea strainer as part of the lid, so no messy leaves or drips. The exterior of the cafe had indicated a concierge service though the staff didn’t seem to know anything about this. However later on the web I found out that they offer amongst other things: finding a new house, arranging social events, cleaning, washing and ironing and handling repairs in the home for the busy residents of Kemptown. Whether this is still the case I really cannot say but the offer of this concierge service certainly makes them stand out from the competition. As the morning wore on the tables were beginning to fill up with local office and hospital workers popping in for lunch so it was time for me to vacate my table to make some room.
Moral of the story is never to judge a cafe by its exterior, it’s well worth checking it out first before making up your mind.
Town seemed so busy. Swarms of international students , hordes of tourists, packs of shoppers all out thronging through Brighton’s narrow old town streets. I couldn’t seem to find a cafe that suited me, spoilt for choice in some way but I just cannot stand the crowds and couldn’t work out why everywhere was so busy. It wasn’t yet the school holidays or the weekend. After a chilled out meditation over lunch I was expecting to be relaxed and laid-back but it didn’t take me long to work out that town just wasn’t what I wanted . The great thing about being a cyclist is it just takes a few minutes and I’m on my way again. The seafront beckoned and I was out of the crowded streets before you could say ‘freedom’. Then I understood why it was so crowded in town – the seafront was deserted! The day was overcast for sure but still fairly warm and pleasant but the masses had decided and it was just not sunny and warm enough for them. I breathed in the fresh sea air and zoomed breezily along the seafront cycle path glad to leave the town centre behind.
Al Fresco cafe-bar is on the ground floor of Alfresco Italian restaurant, housed in the former milk maid pavilion and sandwiched between the children’s play area and the land side of the old West Pier. I took my mug of tea to a window- side table and settled in for some reading and writing. The cafe is spacious, light and with wonderful 180 degree sea views from their full length windows. The tables are light ash with white bucket shape chairs which are more comfortable than they look . There is also some great purple banquette seating to the rear. As Al Fresco is a cafe-bar there are plenty of cocktails to choose from as well as a condensed food menu from the main restaurant upstairs.
The interior is cool and stylish but its the outside that grabs your attention. The hulking wreck of the West Pier sits marooned just off-shore, a skeletal remnant of its former glory. Today the sea is a milky green and fairly calm with a mist hanging in the air hiding the top of the fairground rides at Palace Pier to the east. Empty bold striped deckchairs sit forlornly on the empty pebble beach. Five minutes later I looked up again and the mist was clearing, the sun was breaking through and the sea was more blue in colour.
One day last year I had been holed up at home with the dreadful weather and storms raging overhead. Thinking the weather had abated I ventured out but only got as far as Alfresco’s until the heavens opened again. I dashed indoors to shelter from the rain and sat mesmerised by the display of forked lightening before the electric storm blew itself out to sea.
So basically I’ve worked out that I tend to go in the opposite direction to the masses. You’ll find me in the shops and quirky streets of Brighton when the crowds are down on the beach leaving town relatively quiet. Or I’ll be down on the seafront enjoying the calm of the empty promenade on an unseasonal overcast day.
Our daughter used to come along with us on our Saturday walks when she was younger as we cajoled her to accompany us with promises of cafe stops and pub lunches. She’s now eighteen and, all being well, is off to university in the autumn. She’s happier meeting up with her boyfriend now, getting together with her friends or working in the gastro pub at the top of our road than going walking with us at the weekend. Its been a gradual process of letting go with her imminent departure in the autumn being the biggest adjustment to come for us all.
This Saturday we took the train along the coast to Angmering as there is a great walk starting not far from the station. Given the strong westerly wind this turned out to be excellent forward planning.Just before we reached the sea we took a small detour along Manor Road. There is an original art deco petrol station called Manor Road Garage that has now been transformed into a development of new homes. Amazingly the four original iconic Shell petrol pumps at the front have been preserved and stand proudly at the front of the white stucco building.
We wiggled our way through the back roads till we reached the green lawns of East Preston. Here there is an, almost continuous, stretch of lawn and footpath that follow the coast for some miles. Very expensive looking homes back onto the lawns and you can ponder and wonder about the sort of lives lived there with their huge gardens and imposing structures. The strong wind was at our backs making the walking easy. The sea was rough and we could see the sails of the kite surfers in the distance as we got nearer to the Sea Lane cafe. The kite and wind surfers seem to congregate in the stretch of sea just opposite the cafe showing off their skills to the audience seated on the patio. The blustery day offered an ever changing scene with the brightly coloured sails of the kites and windsurfers breezing against the overcast sky.
There’s plenty of outdoor seating so once we’d ordered our tea and cake we carried our tray outside and grabbed a table. In the winter it’s great sitting inside with wonderful far reaching sea views through the windows on two sides. There is always a bit of table hopping going on inside as people vie for the best booths when tables become vacant. The fish and chips is gargantuan in size and is a bit of a speciality for the Sea Lane. They have two amply filled chilled cabinets of cakes and desserts so there is no chance of going hungry here.
We usually chat a lot on these walks about different things that have occurred during the week. We’d been to the private view of our daughter’s college one evening as she’d just completed her A level photography course. We’d met and chatted to other parents and our daughter’s friends there and looked at all the art, textiles and photography work on show. The teenagers are ready to move on and in many ways so am I. The familiar route of a much loved walk is reassuring but as our teenager plans to decamp, I’m gradually starting to embrace the subsequent change that is on the horizon for me too.