Madeira Drive

Building Green is very interested in Madeira Drive – ‘Maddy’ – the seafront along East Brighton.

Home to unique Victorian engineering, major public events and a great beach, it’s also the greenest part of the seafront in Brighton & Hove, home to rare ‘vegetated shingle’ habitat and the location for the longest, oldest green wall in the UK.

For that reason we think it’s worth special attention, so this page provides a walk through time, from the founding of modern  Brighton to the present day.


But first a ‘Stop Press’ announcement:


Can you help write the future? In July 2017, Brighton & Hove City Council launched a crowdfunding appeal for the restoration of Madeira Terraces. This calls for anyone who can help to restore, revitalise, rejuvenate or otherwise re-up Maddy to get involved. Make a donation at the SpaceHive website here.


‘Maddy’ – A story of invention

Early history

300 years ago, the town of Brighton collected tax – money from the churches – to pay for sea defences. These stopped the town washing away in storms, and created a beach.

200 years ago the first defences went up along the East Cliff. These included ‘groynes’ – long arms of timber or concrete into the sea which trapped sand and stones.

Regency era

In 1823, the first Pier was built. It was suspended with huge chains and known as the Royal Suspension Chain Pier. People caught ferries from the end to cross the channel. They liked the feeling of walking to the end and being above the sea.


Brighton’s Chain Pier undoubtedly added impetus to the argument for a rail link to London. The pier was used primarily as a landing stage for a steam packet service to France. With the advent of the London to Brighton Railway, it would create a key route from London to Paris.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria visit the Chain Pier in disguise, are recognised by local urchins, and have to make a run for it.

In 1827, the chalk cliffs of East Brighton were covered with a special limestone cement to stop them eroding. This was to protect the east cliff where the new buildings of Kemp Town were being established.

Looking east – the Chain Pier, bathing machines and Victorian traffic. You can clearly see planting established on the cliff face. Dated 1890 but Shelter Hall, built 1890, not visible so this is probably earlier

Mid-Victorian era

In 1870 there was enough new beach to create a road at the bottom of the East Cliff. Called Madeira Road, it was protected by a new sea wall built from one of the old London bridges.

Looking west towards the Chain Pier, with the railway laid out. Japanese spindle trees look around 12 feet tall here. 1883? Lawns were laid out in 1884 and are not visible here. Railway established 1883

Around this time the Victorians planted plants along the East Cliff. A woodcut print from in the Fishing Museum in Brighton, dated 1972, shows evenly spaced plants established at the bottom of the cliff. These are approximately the spacings of the plants that still exist here some 140 years later. The main plants are from Japan, and called  Japanese spindle – Euonymus japonicus. They have pink and orange berries in winter.


Woodcut print from London Illustrated News, 17 August 1972, from the Brighton Fishing Museum collection 1994. Showing the steps at Paston Place, a building that looks to be in the location of the Volks train workshop, and planting evenly spaced along the bottom of the cliff.

Madeira Drive green wall is almost certainly the biggest, oldest and longest ‘green wall’ in the Europe. There was also a green wall further West in Hove around this time.

Picture of Japanese Spindle

Japanese Spindle berries – Euonymus Japonicus

The green wall helped to make the seafront a nicer place to walk – a ‘promenade’. In those days, rich people were attracted to Brighton to walk along Maddy and enjoy the ‘sea air’. People believed it was good for your health.

Late Victorian era

In 1883, Brightonian Magnus Volk opened the ‘Volks Electric railway‘. This is the oldest in the world. A year later big lawns were laid out along Madeira Road – all possible because of the sand and gravel accumulated by the groynes.


Magnus Volk riding the Volks Railway, 1933

Magnus Volk was an amazing inventor. Brighton was the first town to have electric lights thanks to him. He designed an electric car which was the first car built in England to be sold to people in Europe. He put in the first telephones into the town, and designed a fire alarm. He was a bit of a mad inventor – his only patent was for a device to transport a person from their bed to the street without standing up!

dmas_bh400096_d01_ab10Bathing machines on the beach, Volks Railway, and Shelter Hall. c1890. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Volk established the Pioneer in 1894 – otherwise known as the Daddy Long Legs – a train that ran on stilts through the sea. There were two floors, and it could fit 160 passengers. A huge storm damaged the railway only one week after it opened and destroyed the Chain Pier. But the railway was rebuilt and runs for 5 years.

By law, it had to be helmed by a sea Captain. The 35 minute journey was 2 1/2d each way. When the line closed, the ‘Pioneer’ was left to rot at Ovingdean pier until 1910, with the remainder sold for scrap.


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

After the war the railway carried 1 million people a year.

In 1890, to protect people from the rain and the sun, the Victorians built a covered walk called Madeira Terrace.

…each bay of the entirely cast-iron arcade has an identical elevation: round arches carried on single columns of a fanciful marine order; scalloped-arch intrados; spandrels formed by concentric rings of quatrefoils, forming a pierced sun screen; keystone cast to resemble either a female or a bearded male deity, perhaps Venus and Neptune.” (From English Heritage listing)

This became a famous draw to Brighton ‘for health and pleasure all the year round’, and was connected to a shelter hall for tea and dancing. A lift went to the top of the cliff. The hall and lift are still working as part of the Concorde 2.

Rail poster

Rail poster to promote the ‘Famous Sheltered Walk, Madeira Drive’

The Terrace – designed by Brighton Borough Surveyor Phillip Cawston Lockwood – was deliberately built with a gap to allow the Japanese spindle plants to continue climbing up the cliff behind. Benches were installed for promenading public to rest on – and the local paper at the time feared small children would roll all the way down the cliff through the gap, so grills had to be installed!


Madeira Terrace, lawns and Shelter Hall

The planting was maintained through the years, as Brighton grew around it and seafront developments came and went.


Hello Sailor! Promenading the ‘famous Madeira Terrace’

In 1891 the Palace Pier construction begins, designed by R St George Moore. A funding crisis caused a halt in construction, which was completed in 1901.

This stretch of seafront has seen bathing huts on wheels for people to change in; shows and funfairs for children – notably at Peter Pan’s playground; carts pulled by goats to ride in; boating lakes and gardens.


Goat cart rides on Madeira Drive! Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

1905 saw the first ‘Motor Race Week’, for which Madeira Road was tarmac’d. This led to annual National Speed Trials, held every September since. In 1909 Madeira Road was renamed Madeira Drive.


Brighton speed trials in 1905, the first ever year. Madeira Terraces provided a great viewing platform for public events.

20th Century

Later, from 1930, there was a big open air swimming pool with diving boards at Black Rock, where the marina is now.

St Mary's Hall and Kemptown 1926 showing the planting on Madeira Drive and Duke's Mound. Britain from above. Copyright Historic England

St Mary’s Hall and Kemptown 1926 showing the planting on Madeira Drive and Duke’s Mound. Pre-Carlton Hill and Whitehawk


Madeira Drive green wall and Duke’s Mound from the air, 1935


Camoflage nets in use, 1944. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Further East, planting and ‘promenade’ continued to Black Rock when the formerly private estate in front of Sussex Square was opened up in 1952.

Construction of Brighton Marina commenced in 1971 and was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 31 May 1979.

The green wall was well maintained through the 1980s, as this photography clearly shows.


1985 view of the Madeira Terraces and trunks of spindle plants in perfectly maintained condition. Looking west towards the Shelter hall

21st Century

Now the green wall at Madeira Drive contains 100 different kinds of plant. It’s so important, that it will be saved as a site of importance for nature conservation – a nature reserve for wildlife and people to enjoy.

Unfortunately, Madeira Terraces have since fallen into disrepair and become a danger to the public. The Council were forced to close them in 2015, pending future restoration and the much needed regeneration of East Brighton seafront.

In 2016, the Council announced the ‘Lockwood project – the repair and restoration of Madeira Terraces alongside the continued regeneration of East Brighton seafront.

Madeira terraces, Kemp town with cyclist

Madeira terraces, Kemp town with cyclist. ‘The famous sheltered walk’

Building Green have been working with volunteers and the Council to manage the section of green wall that runs from Madeira Drive up to Marine Parade. ‘Green Gym’ work parties take place about twice a year, and the intention is to keep the wall in the best possible condition and in future to plant up the gaps to restore it to its original extent.

Approximately 100 years separates these photos, showing Madeira Drive, the Volks railway, Kemp Town and the Madeira Drive green wall

Approximately 100 years separates these photos, showing Madeira Drive, the Volks railway, Kemp Town and the Madeira Drive green wall. This is the section of wall currently managed by Building Green.


Councillor Gill Mitchell greets the Portslade Green Gym volunteers at Madeira Drive green wall. With Brighton & Hove Building Green.

Building Green welcome the statement from Leader Warren Morgan that …

“Importantly, we are looking for ways to preserve the unique and historic Green Wall which predates the Terraces themselves, building around it just as the Terraces were, allowing the Green Wall to breathe and grow.”

The future

Can you help write the future?


In July 2017, Brighton & Hove City Council launched a crowdfunding appeal for the restoration of Madeira Terraces. This calls for anyone who can help to restore, revitalise, rejuvenate or otherwise re-up Maddy to get involved.


The Lockwood Project – architect visualisation of the future seafront on Madeira Drive


The £24 million ‘Lockwood Project’ to restore East Brighton seafront