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.
‘Maddy’ – A story of invention
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
Bathing 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.
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.
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!
The planting was maintained through the years, as Brighton grew around it and seafront developments came and went.
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.
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.
Later, from 1930, there was a big open air swimming pool with diving boards at Black Rock, where the marina is now.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.