A public art installation has recently completed. By the Brighton School, “a radical, new, post-graduate art school for Brighton, working for the benefit of the city itself”. The work comprises a ‘stone circle’ around the London Road area formed of numbered York stone slabs set into the ground – about 50 of them.
For the last decade, London Road has been ailing. Empty shops, dereliction, crime and grime – more than a little rough around the edges and year-on-year losing key shops and hopes and chances. Yet and at the same time, poised for regeneration which has always seemed just around the corner…
A supermarket chain tried to muscle in, aiming to demolish most of what was and rebuild a retail village in its own image – portraying the existing as so dire that anything would be an improvement. London Road fought back and won. The supermarket chain departed and the idea of a big ‘anchor store’ to save the high street departed with it.
London Road has continued to fight back. The first marker was probably the Emporium – a risk to turn an abandoned church into a theatre bar, but it has become a feature of the street and paved the way for others.
Its not all been an upward path – the Open Market is slowly finding its feet, but the first unit to be let in the revamped former co-op was a poundstore, with ex Johns Camping becoming (another) charity shop. Even so, the area continues to assert its own identity and improvements are sustained by its own strengths and appeal. And this was reflected by the Stone Circle – the way that the numbers are read from the inside looking out, marking the area within as a special place and an independent place with its own (notional) city walls.
Following the route and finding the stones gives a tour of the variety and diversity that sits around London Road. My journey started on Cheapside outside the Hobgoblin Pub – run down, grubby and grimy – or gritty, lively and real – as you wish… Going clockwise my route went up the hill through the more sterile and forbidding New England Quarter, then back to the ‘Shoreditch on Sea’ of Elder Place and Preston Circus via the linear nature path of the New England Greenway.
(A sign of change at number 2 (Preston Circus): where once would be a low grade import rusting ‘mountain bike’, now rests a pampered Fixie.)
Crossing over Preston Circus, you head for a different place altogether. Away from the urban feel, the circle leads through another London Road – one of tree lined suburban streets and generous well set houses.
Looping through more comfortable Ditchling Rise area, the stones take us down to the Level – the melting pot of the city used by the well heeled as much as the down at heel, and here the stones take on a slightly funereal air, set in the turf like markers for those passed on.
From the Level, the circle takes us to another – older – area, and past the flint cottages of Queens Place, which somehow survived the mass demolitions which erased the original streets and houses in the name of slum clearance back last century.
Back to London Road proper and back to where I started.
It is easy and tempting to knock this sort of thing as a poor use of scarce funds, and equally easy to come up with a whole list of more worthy recipients, and I started to explore the stones in definite cynical frame. But – aside from the merits of the process, which has seen training and skill development for the participating students – my overall feeling is positive.
The London Road story that I have watched unfold in recent years is one of an area largely written off, which has resisted attempts to be ‘done to’ and has tried to find its own identity – drawing on its past in the reinvention of the Open Market, and also on contemporary and emerging activities around creative arts and technology, but all within the context of a traditional, shopkeeper led working highstreet. The Stone Circle, being literally rooted in the streets, and created from locally found materials re-imagined, has an understated depth which I think will sustain, be there for those who want to find it, and over time will become seamlessly embedded into London Road and into Brighton. A surprisingly pleasing piece of work.