Back to The Brighton and Hove Way

During Summer, the Brighton Explorer’s Club would normally be off on adventures, but lockdown means looking for excitment closer to home. During June, the group has had teams walking the Brighton and Hove Way.

I walked the entire Brighton and Hove Way in a single day on the May bank holiday. It’s a great trail, although doing in one hot day was hard, brutal work – it turns out the 27km distance listed on the website was a typo, and it’s 27 miles. It’s been more fun split into three sections with a (socially-distanced) group. The team event has been well-organised, with a photography competition as well as a quiz.

So far, our group has done two outings walking the sections between Dyke Road through to Falmer via the seafront, leaving a fun stretch along the Downs at the back of the town as our finial journey.

On my first trip, I complained a little about the GPS trail. The exit from Balsdean was actually more obvious than I realised, as well as more scenic. The section around suburban Portslade was still a little tricky, however. The route’s organisers are working to get funding for signage, but progress is slow.

It’s less than a month since I first walked the route, but the changes are notable, particularly the growing crops and bright poppies month them. It’s also been far more fun walking the trail with company.

On the section near Balsdean, we found this huge lump of quartz. It was about a foot across. I have no idea how it came to be on the path. According to Jim Mellor: “the piece of quartz in the photo from the Brighton and Hove Way could be a ‘salt lick’ – a mineral lump left out for cattle as a diet supplement”

With the grass and crops being taller, the wind causes waves to run across the hills. It’s quite a beautiful effect, which the photograph below only hints at:

Looking back towards Balsdean from the correct path out of the valley, rather than the one I took originally.

It’s always good to see the ‘This Way’ markers about the place.

Deadline 22/6/20: Finally! A use for the Brighton i360

According to Brighton and Hove News , “A petition calling for marking on the pavement around the i360 showing the time and date goes before the Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee on Tuesday 23 June.

The petition is available on the council’s petition site and, at present has a mere 57 signatures. It states, “We wish to create an educational attraction that demonstrates how our ancient ancestors developed the measurement of time and date by creating dial plats around a vertical post used gnomon,” and suggests marking various pavements around the town, replicating Augustus’ sundial in Rome.

This seems an excellent way of redeeming a rather disappointing project. The i360 has missed its targets both for visitors and for repaying its loan from the council. (It’s worth adding that the visitor estimates were viable, making the failures even more disappointing). The restaurant, despite a superb location, seems to be promoted ambivalently – someone recently recommended it to me as a great place for meetings, since it was “almost always empty”. The i360 should have been at the center of a thriving and exciting area, but has made little impression.

I’ve long been disappointed with the i360. It was used as a reason for removing some of the beautiful ruins of the West Pier, and a distraction from any feasible project for renovation or replacement of the old pier. It’s hard not to see the i360 as establishing a beach head for commercial development of the beach.

The only real value in the i360, for me, is its height, functioning as a landmark for Brighton in the surrounding landscape. It’s visible on the Downs from Chanctonbury to Firle and I’ve even referred to the i360 as a gnomon myself, with its placement at the center of a long arc of the South Downs. It’s an eyesore close up, but its height makes it a feature from a distance. Maybe using it as a sundial within the town would be a good way of making it more interesting close up.

The i360 was promoted by the West Pier Trust as “putting [Brighton] absolutely fairly and squarely back on the map as an exciting, glamorous and daring place to be”. It’s not done that and it’s possibly unfair to expect the i360 to live up to its own hyperbole. But turning it into a sundial seems like a definite improvement.

May Day

Every year, as May 1st approaches, I start making plans to see the Brighton Morris Men dance in the summer at Hollingbury Fort.

The night before, the Morris Men dance at a series of Hanover pubs. They retire to someone’s house for a few more drinks and then head out onto the Downs in time for dawn.

Every year, almost without fail, I decide against setting my alarm to watch the dancers. I’ve only actually made it once, back in the noughties. I remember trying to find my way in the dark, following the sound of bells. As the sky lightened, dancers circled the fort, just about keeping their footing on the damp grass. It was a magical experience, and I wish I’d taken the opportunity to do it more often.

I love the rituals that mark our passage through the year. There’s an importance to the continuity of these things. Obviously, I could not go and see the ritual this year – but I hope it still took place. I’d like to think there were a handful of socially-distanced dancers, setting the summer in motion.

The Burning of the Clocks

The Burning of the Clock’s is one of Brighton’s annual festivals. Taking place on the Winter Soltice, a few days before Christmas, it was started by the arts group Same Sky in 1993. It involves a procession of lanterns through the town to the beach where they are ceremonially burned.

I’ve been to the Burning of the Clocks a few times over the years. Most times I’ve watched the parade, then wandered to the beach where I found myself in a massive crowd. Some years, unable to see anything, I’ve headed for a warm bar before the fireworks.

This year was different, because the event took place in appalling weather. It was not as bad as 2009, where snow and ice caused the festival to be cancelled; but the rain meant the crowds were much thinner. Despite the weather, the samba bands were there, and I admire the people who kept dancing in costumes designed for summer rather than winter rain.

We waited on the seafront as the lanterns were stripped of fairylights and added to the bonfire. It took some time to light, eventually getting going with some kerosene. For once, I had a perfect view of the event, although wind meant the fireworks were cancelled.

I’m glad the burning of the clocks went ahead despite the rain, and that people did turn out. And I am also glad that I was able to see it clearly this year.

It’s good to have these events to mark the year:

A few years ago I attended the first of Brighton’s traditional March of the Mermaid events. I walked in the drizzle from Hove Lawns to Brighton Pier with a crowd of people in fancy dress. At the traffic lights near the aquariums, an Italian woman asked me what the festival was and I told her. She asked me what it was for and I couldn’t say.

Silicon Beach: What’s great about tech in Brighton?

Way back in October, I was invited to the inaugural Silicon Brighton event at the Eagle Labs building on Preston Circus. A series of events are planned, looking at different areas of technology. The group has three aims:

  1. To bring technical companies together with the town’s talent, with the aim of ‘upskilling’ both employees and companies, specifically by looking at areas and technologies that need more people.
  2. Providing a space to talk about the ‘future of work’, making companies more aware of what potential staff are looking for.
  3. Promoting Brighton as a great place for technology companies.

I’m cynical about the possibilities of Brighton’s position as a technical hub, and the promotion of ‘Silicon Beach’ (see Whatever happened to silicon beach and what are the challenges?). But there are a lot of great things about the town that keep me working in the area.

Below is a list of some of these good points. Please let me know anything I’ve missed. I’m happy to make additions, and the selection below is mostly based around what came to mind as I was writing. There is also a problem in Brighton of seeing who is doing well. For example, I have very little visibility of who is doing great things at Eagle Labs or the Sussex University Innovation centre. One thing Brighton does need is a way of broadcasting these successes better.

Companies and organisations

Much of Brighton’s reputation is built upon its vibrant freelancing/agency scene, but we do have some huge companies, with Brandwatch being one of the most interesting and successful. Other large employers include Unity and Legal and General, and there are some exciting mid-sized startups such as Incrowd and Inshur.

Organisations supporting local businesses include Wired Sussex and the local Chamber of Commerce. There are also some great initiatives in the town such as the Brighton Digital Exchange and the Digital Catapult, which is supporting a growing immersive technology scene. We also have two great universities, with thriving technology departments.

Meetups and events

Some of the national surveys that have scored Brighton highly have reflected the strength of our meet-up scene. Specific technologies such as Java, Azure, Javascript through the Async, and data science (Sussex Data Science Meetup) all have meetups. The Sussex Founders group and podcast is a particularly exciting new arrival.  There are also general meet-ups, such as the weekly freelancers farm. Codebar in particular is providing free training to being more diversity into the local tech scene. Other groups working to improve diversity in the local technology industry include She says.

Brighton also has some world-class conferences, including Brighton SEO and UXBrighton. The annual Digital Festival provides a particularly important showcase for the technology/creative scene.

Coworking centres

Brighton has been a pioneer in providing decent coworking space, with the Skiff recently having its tenth anniversary. Platform 9 is a larger, more recent player. There are also accelerators such as the NatWest Accelerator, with 80 startups in the current cohort. There are definitely room for more such organisations, as each of these spaces has a very different atmosphere.

The Town

The main attraction of Brighton is the town itself. As well as the seafront and a national park nearby, there are the attractions of the North Laine. It’s a buzzing area, despite the toll gentrification has taken. There are exceptional restaurants and a range of interesting festivals, including the Brighton Festival and Fringe in May, a comedy festival etc. Brighton is also an hour from London, meaning connections with the city can be easily maintained – while having a (slightly) cheaper cost of living.

Brighton has been declared ‘the most hipster town in the world’, narrowly beating Portland in Movehub’s survey. While this was a marketing device, the towns were scored on various objective criteria, such as vegan restaurants, coffee shops and tattoo parlours. While these things might not be to everyone’s tastes, they reflect a town which welcomes new things.

Conclusion

I have written a couple of posts that are cynical about the idea of Silicon Beach. But Brighton is a great town and does have potential. The main challenge is working out how to support growth that works within the town’s limitation.

The big success in Brighton has been Brandwatch. They’ve navigated the challenges in the town and achieved momentous growth. Obviously, there is the question of whether this is an exception that proves the rule, or if Brighton can support multiple such successes. I’m hoping for the latter.

A mystery in Stanmer Park: the ceremonial staff resting place

Sometimes, you find interesting things.

One of the big problems with hiking around Brighton is that it’s boring. The land here is arranged in strips. You have the sea which takes up 180 degrees. Then there is the prom, which is a nice walk, but I’ve done it literally a million times. Beyond that there is a strip of town, and it’s hard to get out to the country without trudging through it. Then you have the downs, which is a truly beautiful area, but there are certain east-west paths which tend to dominate. On the other side is the weald, which is full of interesting walks, but you’ve tracked about 5 miles to get there.

Any interesting diversion on these paths is welcome. I was coming from Ditchling Beacon and trying to find my way to Falmer campus, and wanted to get my walk over as quickly as possible. I’d walked from Patcham to the Chattri at the start of the day, taking an Uber to reach Patcham, as the walk the the bottom of the downs was so boring.

I was using google maps to find a direct path when I saw something interesting. On the map was listed a ‘Ceremonial Staff Resting Place’. The google maps marker was placed somewhere in the midst of a set of trees on a steep slope.

I know mobile phone GPS can be somewhat unreliable in the middle of nowhere, but I walked back and forth on the wooded hillside for a while, seeking some indication of what this marker might be for. I couldn’t find it, and after twenty minutes of searching had to give up.

It’s still listed on google maps, under the category “Home goods store.” I love how, even with electronic maps, there are still mysteries. Does anyone know what this might be?

A photo of the area near the ceremonial staff resting place.

Brighton Bloggers 2019 meet-up

As part of this year’s Brighton Digital Festival, I’m organising a Brighton Bloggers meetup. It’s on from 6-8pm on October 21st, near the station, so it should be easy for people to come straight from work. Full details and (free!) tickets are available via eventbrite.

Even in the age of social media, there are still hundreds of blogs based in Brighton. At the Brighton Homebrew Website Club recently, I realised the Brighton Bloggers directory is still online and it made me nostalgic for the meetups. As well as being a place to talk about blogging, these events were great for community building; finding out about other blogs in town, or meeting the writers of ones you already read.

In planning this, I ended up looking into some of the previous Brighton Blogger meetups. Among the broken links and dead sites there are still a large number of working pages from years ago. (I’ve been listening to Disintegration Loops recently, and the linkrot feels similar to the effect of that soundtrack).

The first Brighton Bloggers event I could find was in August 2003, which was even mentioned on NTK, a much-missed weekly email newsletter. It was around this time that the Brighton Bloggers directory was first created. It seems to have been initially compiled by Joh Hunt, with Jane Dallaway taking over and maintaining it to this day.

I found a few things I’d forgotten about too, such as mentions of the Brighton and Hove Virtual Festival, the first of which was held in 2001. I read some accounts of the 2003 award ceremony which I attended with Joh. Of the 5 nominees for best personal site, two are still running (here’s wordridden’s account of the night), and two of the other nominated domains work, but no longer contain blogs.

There have been other meetups over the years from other groups of Bloggers, such as one in January 2009, which rowstar wrote about:

A small but interesting gathering took over a corner of the recently opened Florist pub (which was the PV), talking about everything from retro phones to tractor-mounted lasers (blame Ant for that one), eco-travelling to the recent celebrity Twitter explosion. All in all it was a very pleasant evening, and nice to connect with fellow bloggers after years of writing away in my own little vacuum. As was generally agreed last night, all this advanced virtual communication technology is all very well, but it’s good to bring it back to the real world once in a while and meet people face to face.

And there was another group who met in 2013, as well as a Bloggers’ stitch and bitch later that year. I also found a fun blog round-up from the Argus in 2009, written by Jo Wadsworth.

I think there is still a place for blogs, and I get most of my news via hundreds of feeds in the feedly app. I think it’s important to produce content outside of the walls gardens of facebook, medium, twitter etc, and there does seem to be a growing return to blogs (sometimes referred to these days as ‘the Isles of Blogging’). The thing I miss most about blogging was the comments and the community. Hopefully this event will be a small step towards bringing those back.

Silicon Beach: what are the challenges?

Last week, I published a post on ‘Brighton as Silicon Beach’, and how the town’s technology sector has not lived up to all of its promise. I wanted to follow-up with a post describing the issues it faces.

I have a number of posts to write about this, and the next one will talk specifically about the present opportunities and promises. There is much to be excited about, and Brighton needs to position itself to profit from these things. I’ve had some very interesting conversations about this recently, and would be happy to have coffee with anyone who has something to add.

Brighton has long had an attractive and exciting digital economy, but it has not produced large-scale growth, and there is a lack of large companies and senior positions. Some of the issues include:

Office Space

The big problem for Brighton is that there is not enough office space for start-ups. In a 2013 FT article, the Chief Executive of Mediatonic described Brighton as  “a city with tall, thin buildings, ideal if you’re a solicitor but not if you’re a tech business wanting several thousand feet of open plan.

Without decent office space for large companies, it’s going to be difficult to attract and keep large organisations. Another issue I’ve seen raised is that not all the new buildings are suitable for tech companies, which require very good broadband. I’ve also heard mention of high business rates, although I’m not in a position to know how serious an issue that is.

Geographical Limitations

Brighton is a thin strip between the sea and a National Park, giving it very little room to expand, other than upwards; and a large number of sky-scrapers might detract from the very atmosphere that draws people here. But without more office space, growing companies have been held back from expansion, or even reduced the Brighton office to a satellite of a new, more expandable office elsewhere.

Travel to work is a significant issue. Part of the attractive Brighton life-style is walking or cycling to work, which means there is a lot of competition for housing, with few central options suitable for growing families. North of the Downs, it’s tricky to travel in, with few buses from nearby towns, and little parking in Brighton for driving in. If the technology sector grows, it will need to be east/west, which relies on train/bus commutes.

Brighton also suffers from being so close to London. While commuting to Brighton from Haywards Heath or Crawley is possible, it’s not much harder for residents there to head to London for more choice and more money. Hastings is, by train, almost as close to London as it is to Brighton.

Lack of Communication

I’ve seen a number of claims that communications between organisations are not as good as they should be; and that if the right people were just talking to each other, everything would be sorted. I have some sympathy with this. As an organiser for Brighton Java, I’ve found it hard to attract speakers or attendees from the two univerities just up the road. And there is definitely a need for intersections between companies, VCs and entrepreneurs (Sussex Founders is one recent initiative in this space).

We also need to develop excitement around specific technologies. Everyone knows that VR, Machine Learning and Blockchain are important areas, but how do we move beyond an awareness of this to developing a community of skilled developers? (If such communities already exist, the question becomes how to make them more visible). A lot of people are working on this, including Wired Sussex and Silicon Brighton; and Brighton scores very highly on the number and diversity of technical meet-ups. We need to make sure the potential here results in more visibly skilled people being available for start-ups that would like to move here. Employees need accurate information to work out which skills are worth investing their limited free time in.

One danger is that in setting up discussions between different groups is that this is an easy way to Do Something, and tends to happen for that reason. We have some excellent networking and discussion groups in town, alongside initiatives like Brighton Brains and the Digital Festival. How do we make use of the existing groups, and position them to help the sector expand?

Culture

There are some interesting cultural issues around Brighton. One possibility is that the laid-back, creative culture that draws some people here also repels others.

It’s also been suggested that we’re missing the sort of start-up culture that is seen in places like Silicon Roundabout, with a wealth of the accelators and incubators (I know there are some here, but the friend in question has a point – their presence in Brighton has not led to a wider cultural visibility).

Brighton has some great success stories. In recent conversations, people have pointed me to some very exciting companies, which makes me wonder why these aren’t more widely known. This is not just in the sense of press releases. We need to get to the point where locals can explain to friends considering moving here what great opportunities there are. Brighton is definitely an exciting town, but we need to communicate this more widely.

In conclusion

As I said in the previous post, I love Brighton, and I want to see it thrive. But the issues raised in this post are real and they are significant. It’s possible that these problems are intractable, and Brighton cannot support the unicorns we’d all like to see here. If that’s the case, we need focus on the things we definitely do well, such as being a boutique, creative enclave where ideas can emerge.

Thank you to everyone who has discussed this with me, on twitter, linked-in and in person. Those thoughts have informed this post, and I’ve made edits to the previous one as needed.

Whatever Happened to Silicon Beach?

For most of the last 20 years, people have been talking about Brighton as ‘Silicon Beach’. The idea is that we are Britain’s San Francisco, combining cutting-edge technology with a laid-back seaside lifestyle. Brighton is definitely a hub of creative technology but, even after years of hype, the technology sector here is much smaller than I realised.

Brighton is unarguably an exciting place to live and work. I’ve been here a quarter-century, and worked here a lot of that time. I love how friendly the technology scene is, with local companies supporting so many community meet-up groups. There are some very talented people and companies that work together for the benefit of the sector as a whole. Brighton is a place I’d love to see succeed, not least because I want to carry on living and working here.

And Brighton certainly has a reputation. In a Guardian article announcing the town’s win of digital catapult funding, Neil Crockett, the chief executive at the national Digital Catapult said that Brighton “is the poster child for the campaign because the whole community is involved in digital innovation“. A 2015 Forbes magazine piece on about Silicon Beach announced that “Brighton now has the highest density of digital companies of anywhere in the UK“. A 2014 report by Wired Sussex and the universities showed thatthe average digital firm in the area is growing by more than 14% a year, while the sector in Brighton is experiencing jobs growth at more than 10 times the rate of the wider UK economy” (the report does caution, in relation to that 14.8% figure that “The median is still a respectable 3.8%“).

The town is a good one for technologists. There is an annual Digital Festival, long-established co-working centers such as the Skiff, a strong freelancers community, including a regular weekly meet-up, a Codebar branch, and dozens of other meet-ups for a range of technologies. We’ve had world-class conferences such as Clearleft’s dConstruct, UX Brighton and BrightonSEO. While diversity is still a problem, there are some great attempts to improve this, including from Wired Sussex and Rifa Thorpe-Tracey.

However, I’ve recently encountered statistics comparing towns across the UK and was amazed to see that Brighton’s digital economy is not as large as I’d realised. The best example I could find was the Tech Nation report. The data gathered in the 2018 research is available for review online.

Looking at this data, Brighton (pop ~230,000) has the 28th largest number of employees in technology at 6493, which is smaller than Leicester (pop ~330,000), Southend (~174,000) and significantly smaller than Milton Keynes, Crawley or Luton. In terms of digital turnover, Brighton ranks 36th, similar to Hull, Chester and Wolverhampton. The turnover/employee leaves us in 91st place (Enniskillen is an outlayer in 1st place, but Bristol, Newbury and Swindon are over three times larger).

I don’t know if the problem here is a misreading of the statistics. Slough’s size as the second largest hub seems misleading, and could be due to the presence of O2’s office. Interpreting statistics is tricky – there was one report that noted Brighton was a hotbed of new company formations, and didn’t spot these were companies from around the country with a single online accountant as their registered address. It’s also possible that this survey misses some of the freelance and informal economy. Notably, the Fuse 2 report calculated that Brighton’s digital ecconomy is worth £1 billions.

(EDIT – 30/9: Alastair Reid tweeted a link to the Coast to Capital Report, which said that Brighton was UK’s fourth-largest digital technology city‘. However, this report seems to be based on the number of organisations and meet-ups in the towns – as we see above, this is a metric Brighton does particularly well on, and underlines the issue with translating this into the size of the local economy.)

But, even if there are errors in the comparisons above, Brighton’s IT sector is still significantly smaller than a lot of towns with a lower profile. After almost 20 years of hype, Silicon Beach still feels like an exciting place to be, and I’ve chosen to live here throughout that time. But we’re also not seeing the technical economy mature into something large enough to support people throughout a long career. After almost two decades of Silicon Beach, Brighton still feels full of potential and exciting new things – but that’s been the case for years.

Some other Brighton

This is not the only Brighton. There is a city called Brighton on every continent. There is even a bar of that name in Antarctica (it is little more than a cupboard with a fridge of beer, but it does have a reputation).

There is a New Brighton in the Wirral. And there is a Brighton Beach in New York, on the Coney Island peninsular. There are Brightons on the shores of Australia and New Zealand, places linked only by their haphazard naming.

But the mystery is the landlocked Brightons, the ones without a seafront, where the name seems like mockery. Places with no piers, no beaches, and no waves. But sometimes, in the heart of the night, a lonesome seagull can be heard crying in Brighton, Illinois.