When I boarded my spur-of-the-moment flight from Boston to Europe, I had no intention of exploring a new place until I landed in my final destination. Eight hours later, I found myself staring out the window of a Thameslink train to Brighton, accompanied by a longing for ocean air and a craving for fish and chips.
After I landed in London around 9:30 AM, I briefly considered spending my seven-hour layover sitting in an airport lounge, with its free Wifi, house wine, and surly middle-aged businessmen. Upon more thought, imagining wasting my precious day of travel indoors seemed like a layer of hell I did not want to mess with. London was over an hour away by train, which would leave me with only 2 hours to explore the city. If not London, then where should I go?
10:00 AM – A Train to Somewhere
Heaven was the rush of adrenaline while running through the platform to catch the next train, and finally settling on a cozy window seat as we inched slowly away from the station. In the frantic moments between deciding to go somewhere and arriving at Gatwick’s train station, a quick Google search had led me to Brighton, a supposedly charming coastal town with curious alleys and a pebbly beach. As I began my whirlwind journey to this new place, I smiled to myself. Sure beats the inside of an airport.
It was a scene from a classic British novel. A fluffy sea of rainclouds loomed overhead, the train whizzing by old brick town homes and spray-painted concrete. I noticed the kind of aged beauty that our shiny cities at home often lack. I leaned my head against the window to feel the chill of springtime against my cheek. Having come from Texas, the cool weather at home was long gone. I’d hoped to savor it for as long as I could here.
Occasionally a British man’s voice would call out the next station – strange names like Wivelsfield and Hassocks. I imagined him to be a tall, brown-haired, handsome man named Alastair. He probably wore a train uniform, had a girlfriend and a pet golden retriever. As I crafted the story of Alastair in my head, I let the peaceful rocking of the train escort me into a light slumber.
10:30 AM – Lost in The Lanes
And all of a sudden, I’d arrived. Alastair’s voice awoke me as the train slowed to a halt. Brighton, he said over the loudspeaker, a hint of curiosity in his voice. I put on my seafoam raincoat and braced myself for a town I knew nothing about.
Brighton’s train station smelled of coffee, magazine stands, and sea air. Compared to the musky scent of a long-haul plane, it was really nice. I walked to the nearby tourist office, where a blonde, lanky British man offered me a map. I told him I simply wanted to see the ocean, and asked about the best way to get there.
“You could walk directly ahead,” he said with a subtle smile forming on his lips, “or you could get lost in the Lanes.”
There’s nothing I love more than meandering around a charming place, so I followed his suggestion to take the scenic route of cobblestoned side streets. After I escaped the bustle of the station, I took a left turn and made my way deep into the maze of the Lanes. I tucked my map deep into my bag and decided to let my eyes guide the way.
What greeted me was a few narrow streets of trinket shops, cafes, and clothing boutiques with an eclectic assortment of colors and patterns. Quaint is most certainly the word I’d use to describe this place. I couldn’t help but stop to admire the odd rarities, strange fashion choices, and general laid-back hipster vibes that The Lanes had in store. Curiosity got the best of me here.
Soon, hip mom-and-pop shops gave way to more upscale shopping (boring), and the map I’d given up on using soon led me in the direction of the famed Brighton Beach.
12:00 PM – Pebbly Beaches
I had to keep reminding myself that I only had 4 hours in this place, and finally resorted to setting an alarm on my phone to remember to leave. It seemed like every corner of Brighton thus far had given me something interesting to look at. After hurriedly walking through the “posh” section of the Lanes, I turned a corner and found myself staring ahead at the famed Brighton Beach.
Indeed, it was pebbly. Despite the light drizzle, I perched myself by the water and listened to the sounds around me. The commotion of the tourists, the crashing of the waves, and the cars zooming off into the distance all melted together in a simultaneous hum. The clouds moved overhead, their contours casting somewhat daunting shadows across the sky. It was sort of meditative to just sit and listen to the world move around me.
The pier nearby was buzzing with life. On top of it sat a theme park and a large building, which I assumed had shops and restaurants to enjoy. I considered for a quick moment going to scope it out, but checked my watch and realized I’d been sitting on the beach for nearly an hour. My stomach began to rumble and I knew I had to finish my quest with a plate of fish and chips. Thus began my final search.
1:00 PM – Gorgeous Gardens
On my way back toward the train station, I found myself passing through a beautiful green space with dozens of people spread out on blankets or playing music. Concrete paths wound their way through assortments of flowers and blossoming trees. As I passed through the garden, I heard a busker with the most angelic voice and smiled at children who were playing in the bushes. Even though it was overcast and gray, the park glowed with sunshine.
In the backdrop sat an incredible mansion, which had really unique, Eastern looking architecture. It turned out to be the Royal Pavilion, which was built originally for King George IV several centuries ago. After throwing a few quid into the busker’s guitar case and offering to take photographs for some tourists, I made my way up toward the Lanes on my quest to find some lunch.
1:30 PM – Finally, Fish and Chips
One of the things that inspired me to come to Brighton in the first place was the thought of eating a delicious meal of fish and chips. Yeah, it’s touristy, I admit it. But I’d also gone hours without eating (thanks, jetlag!) and was eager for one last experience before I headed off to my final destination.
I stepped into a tiny food shop near the Lanes that advertised fish and chips for just 4 pounds. What a steal. It might not have been the most amazing fish and chips, but I was satisfied and happy with my last British adventure in Brighton. And did I mention that the people watching in this city was absolutely phenomenal?
As I relaxed and savored every salty bite during my last few moments in Brighton, I realized that all this time, if I’d been hesitant to take an impulsive chance at this long layover extravaganza, I would have been sitting in an airport this entire time doing nothing. That’s the amazing thing about travel, right? It’s usually the instances where we have to take a chance that turn out to be the most rewarding ones.
2:00 PM – Goodbye, Brighton
Before I knew it, 2:00 PM had rolled around and it was time for me to head back to the airport to catch my next flight to Ljubljana. As I approached the train to Gatwick Airport, Alastair’s familiar voice beckoned me to enter.
Still clutching my Brighton map, I thought about how glad I was that I’d decided to leave the stuffy airport for four hours of exquisite alleyways, music-filled gardens, and fresh air. Before I boarded, I took one last whiff of the coffee/magazine pages/sea salt scent that greeted me just a few hours ago. It was a combination of smells that would thereafter remind me of the joy of impromptu adventures.