What has Oscar Wilde got to do with the Madeira Drive green wall?
Bear with. Madeira Road was opened in 1870, forming a new promenade along the bottom of East Cliff, and connecting people from the wealthy Brighton and Kemp Town with the seaside. Our new theory is that it was named ‘Madeira’ after the island’s greenery.
One man who did much to popularise Madeira as the ‘garden isle’ was Sir William Wilde…you guessed it…father of Oscar. An excellent botanist, he wrote of the vines and terraced gardens, praising the ‘hothouse of the open air’ that he grew to know on his visits from the late 1830s. Madeira became popular with Victorian visitors through the 19th Century for much the same reasons that Brighton did – for the health giving properties of seaside living and recreation, as well as its luxuriant gardens.
Madeira Drive green wall was planted in 1872, and we expect that it was always part of the vision of for Madeira Road to establish vegetation to soften the hard cliff and new road, and encourage people to spend time there.
A later photograph, probably about 1872/1873. By now, the Aquarium had been built, on the site of the esplanade, and the few hesitant steps towards the construction of Madeira Drive had commenced. Note the long line of sapling trees and the ladies’ bathing machines.
Both are, of course, recent copies of old stereoscopic photographs.
So Madeira Drive Green Wall is extra well named…our little slice of the ‘garden isle’ on the Sussex coast.
And what of Oscar? A frequent Brighton visitor, and sometime Worthing resident, Oscar lectured in the Pavilion in 1884, avoided long walks, and crashed his cart into the railings of Regency Square in 1894. I don’t know that he ever saw the newly established saplings of Japanese Spindle of Madeira Road…but I hope that he did.
With thanks to Derek Wright for the prompt to research this piece.
Heritage England have regraded Madeira Terrace as a II* structure.
The nerds amongst you will enjoy reading the citation. A few headlines for others:
- This designation is deserved by ‘particularly important buildings of more than special interest’
- There is no other building like it in the English historic record (closest is a Victorian pier)I
- It’s ‘monolithic’ form is considered very rare of possibly uniqueI
- It is thought to be the longest cast iron structure in England and possibly the world.
The Madeira Drive green wall gets a special mention:
“Earlier, between 1830 and 1833, the natural East Cliff at Brighton was made good by the application of a concrete covering, and was then planted up to achieve a green wall which is now believed to be the oldest and largest of its kind in Europe, with over 100 species of flowering plants recorded.”
Now to save it…
(Painting by Vincent Donlin)
James Farrell from Brighton & Hove Building Green will be giving a tour of Madeira Drive to delegates from this year’s Green Architecture Day.
Expect local history, tall tales, and environmental inspiration!
28 March, Grand Parade, Brighton
Sign up here.
Found in a second hand shop…a framed print of how Madeira Road could have developed. By architect John Johnson, and published in The Builder, May 5, 1883, the ‘improvements’ show features that are still in place, and many now lost or never implemented.
Surviving still – albeit with sections lost over the years – is the ‘green wall’, running from the Chain Pier (now the sun terrace) to Paston Place. Banjo groyne is there. There is the idea of a lift from Marine Parade (the print shows two lifts) – now part of the Concorde 2 of course. There were gardens and squares in Kemp Town. There were extensive lawns and bandstands on Madeira Road. Some of these were built and maintained for many years, but have all now been lost. And there was planting in the road – hedges close to the Madeira Terrace, which this architect hadn’t envisaged.
Obviously not taken forwards are the grand looking hall to the east of the Chain Pier, and the car free streets!
Questions remain. Was there an architectural competition, and was the winner the Council’s own Philip Cawston Lockwood who imagined the Madeira Terrace? Whose idea was it to establish the green wall? And what is today’s vision for the future of East Brighton seafront?
Many people ask me about the fig trees growing on Madeira Drive at the bottom of the green wall.
We all know about the leaves used to cover Adam and Eve’s modesty, but are figs really all about sex? Well, yes.
There are 2 trees at the bottom of Paston Place, one growing 10m tall. They are often cut back hard, but grow back quickly…tough and hardy plants even in our salty and windy climate.
Ours are male figs…so whilst they have fruit, it’s dry and inedible. In the wild, you need males and females to reproduce (like us), but also a little help from a tiny wasp (unlike us).
According to Jonathan Drori in his great book ‘Around the world in 80 trees’, in the native Turkey, the wasps (Blastophaga) are female, stingless and tiny. Wasps of both sexes hatch inside male figs and mate, the males burrowing out to die. Male figs produce pollen…which covers the female wasp as she leaves the burrow made by the male in search of figs to lay eggs in.
It’s a one way trip with a 50-50 success rate. Getting into a new fig strips off her wings so there’s no turning back. If it’s a male fig then she lays eggs which hatch to continue the cycle of life. If it’s a female fig, tough luck – it doesn’t fit her anatomy so she can’t lay eggs. She does however spread pollen around unwittingly as she goes, and when she dies her body contributes to the plant’s growth.
A couple more interesting facts. The smell of the ripe female figs is designed to attract bats and birds to spread the seeds. And the natural laxative effect of eating the figs ensures the seeds get a good dollop of fertiliser to help them along.
So if we can’t eat the fruit, what about the leaves? I once met someone who picked a fig leaf to munch on his way along Madeira Drive every day and swore by the health benefits. Well, turns out regular consumption may lower triglycerides which are implicated in obesity and heart disease. Just watch out for that laxative effect!
The first new shoot has appeared growing on the newly transplanted Japanese Spindle. Fingers crossed they all spring to life this Spring!
And thanks to the Council, new guidewires have been installed to help these and other recently coppiced Spindle plants re-establish and grow up the cliff.
Seen here – the old Victorian guide wire tensioners…and the modern stainless steel version (hopefully even longer lasting).
Building Green’s page on the history of Madeira Drive has been updated. There’s more to do – this is undoubtedly a passion project! – but it’s a fascinating story so why not take a look.
All scientists know that sea water and electricity is a dangerous combination, yet Volk still built an electric powered railway that ran through the sea
This article appeared in The Living Coast newsletter this month.
Did you know that a particular jewel in our ‘green building’ crown is on Madeira Drive?
A hotbed of Victorian invention, Madeira Drive’s history has seen piers, an aquarium, an electric railway and ‘Daddy Longlegs seagoing car’, the first speedway and the ‘famous sheltered walk’ – Madeira Terrace. Well, in amongst all that, 150 years ago, the Victorians planted a ‘green wall’. The engineers had the foresight to build the Madeira Terrace in a way which enabled the planting to continue growing up the East Cliff – a rare early example in this country of integrating built and natural environments!
The green wall has grown in majesty since its humble beginnings as a backdrop of evergreen Japanese Spindle, which was planted to soften and improve the appearance of the developing seafront.
A recent survey by Building Green found over 100 species of plants growing on the wall, which – although much reduced from its original extent – is almost certainly the oldest, longest, green wall in Europe! The Madeira Drive Green Wall is now a candidate ‘Local Wildlife Site’ – the only one of its kind in the UK!
The Duke’s Mound end is managed by Green Gym volunteers in partnership with Building Green, Brighton & Hove City Council and the Ecology Consultancy.
Madeira Terraces are, of course, in need of restoration as part of a newly regenerated East Brighton seafront. Building Green is working with Brighton & Hove City Council and its “Save the Terraces” Campaign to ensure that this regeneration celebrates and enhances both the built and natural environments along the seafront.
What a great opportunity to connect more people with nature – the mission of The Living Coast – whilst honouring our Victorian legacy and creating a place that people really want to spend time in for the next 150 years!
Building Green attended an important first meeting about the future of Madeira Drive recently.
The Council hosted the meeting, and invitees included a number of community organisations like ours, local businesses, interested residents and others. There were some big names in the room, which bodes well for the level of interest in regenerating the neglected East Brighton seafront.
Building Green spoke about the value and importance of the Madeira Drive Green Wall, which contributes vital natural heritage alongside the built heritage of the seafront. We will be offering the expertise the support of our volunteers to ensure the green wall is protected and enhanced as part of any future development.
The meeting discussed the new crowdfunding appeal – to be launched soon – plans and suggestions for future development, and ‘meanwhile’ uses to bring much needed life, recreation and business activity to Madeira Drive.
On our way to the meeting, we stopped off at the Fishing Museum and found a woodcut that offers an important clue to the founding of the green wall. For some time, Building Green has been looking for evidence of when the wall was first planted (with Japanese Spindle). Our hunch was that it was earlier than 1880, though the only documentary evidence points to 1882 (JB Evison 1969 ‘Gardening by the sea’). Well, I know you’re holding your breath, so…the woodcut print was published in 1872 and seems to show evenly spaced shrubs planted along the footing of the cliff. How exciting!
For a full history of our wonderful Madeira Drive, visit our unique page.
Brighton & Hove Building Green have published a history of ‘Maddy’ – our beloved seafront road in East Brighton which is home to the oldest and longest green wall in the UK.
It’s a story of Victorian invention, bringing together technology, engineering, the environment and health and enjoyment.
Visit the Madeira Drive page to find out more.
Hello Sailor! Promenading the ‘famous Madeira Terrace on Madeira Drive