Why lockdown 2.0 was a blessing for Brighton’s oldest seafront institutions

t’s a grey and cold November afternoon in Brighton, but that doesn’t stop me braving the windswept seafront for the third time this week. My coat pulled tight around my face and my hands curled up in my pockets, I walk along the sand-coloured pebbles, letting the cool sea mist dampen the strands of hair escaping wildly from my puffed up hood.  

I tell myself that I’m walking aimlessly towards the Palace Pier, but deep down I know exactly where I’m headed. I reach Brighton’s former Fishing Quarter – a row of arches home to coffee shops and artist’s galleries – damp and cold. Gulls cry overhead as they dive for scraps, while two young girls, seemingly unphased by the swooping menaces, play in a wooden sailboat. The vessel dates back to the 18th century, when these historic brick arches served as shelters for dozens of Brightonian fishermen selling fresh mackerel and herring.

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I take my place in the long queue outside Sea Haze, one of the Fishing Quarter’s few remaining fishmongers. Surprised to see such crowds on a day like today, I ask the lady behind the counter, who’s now re-stocking an iced bowl of cockles and jellied eels, if it’s usually this busy in the winter. “It’s the lockdown,” says Jackie Messenger, whose family has been selling fresh local fish along Brighton’s seafront since the late 15th century. “Usually on a day like this, I wouldn’t bother opening – there’d be too few people to sell to.”

The South-East’s most populated coastal city is best known for its independent shops, LGBTQ-friendly community, and a music and arts scene that’s rivalled only by London. But for hundreds of years, Brighton, which was known as Brighthelmstone until the Victorian era, was a quiet fisherman’s town. It was only in the mid-1700s, when a British physician named Richard Russell encouraged the Victorian population to bathe in saltwater, that Brighton began its history as a seaside resort. Over time, many of Brighton’s fishermen adapted to tourism, swapping their tough seafaring lives for roles such as bathing machine operators and pleasure boat captains.

“My son will be the last fisherman in the family,” says Jackie, whose father and grandfather had also been fishermen. “It’s a dangerous job and the money isn’t always good. You have to really love it to do it.” Despite Sea Haze being a well-known institution in Brighton, its takings before the coronavirus pandemic were very much weather-dependent. “We usually struggle in the winter,” says Jackie as she shucks an oyster before drenching it in fresh lemon juice and hot pepper sauce. “People would normally be in pubs or shopping on a day like today. But lockdown has allowed us to break even.”  

When I ask how she feels about the end of lockdown, Jackie wipes the brine off her fingers and says: “we’ll lose some customers, I’m sure. But I think people will still come because they feel safer on the seafront.”  

As I take my medium portion of mixed seafood from Jackie, the swollen mussels and plump crabstick chunks bulging over the polystyrene cup, I hear orders of kipper rolls and fried scampi being called out across the street. Like Sea Haze, the Smokehouse – a seafront institution that’s been selling smoked fish rolls on the seafront for more than three decades – has also seen business improve since the lockdown began on 5 November.  

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“I’ve never seen it this busy in November,” says Jake – who has been working at the Smokehouse for several years – between shouting out orders. “Some days we’d go an hour without serving anyone. Now look at it.”  

I peer behind me and see a long line of families, wrapped in scarves and bobbing up and down to stay warm, waiting patiently for their paper bag parcels. Curious to see why others were braving the bad weather, I ask one of the families why they’re here. “Since the lockdown, we’ve been trying to discover more of what’s on our doorstep,” says Nick. “Unlike a takeaway at home, getting a hot sandwich and sitting on the beach feels like a day out. I don’t know why we didn’t do it more before.”  

 To my left, a man reads his Kindle as he chomps down on seabass fillets wedged between ciabatta, sending scents of tartar sauce into the air

I take my haul, the Sea Haze mixed seafood along with a hot mackerel roll from the Smokehouse, and sit on the damp pebbles looking out onto a crashing grey sea. As I tuck into a vinegar-soaked cockle, I look around and notice just how many people are doing the same. To my right, two women sit around their baby’s pushchairs, chatting over large pots of crayfish and warm mugs of coffee. To my left, a man reads his Kindle as he chomps down on seabass fillets wedged between ciabatta, sending scents of tartar sauce into the air. Ahead of me, a teenager and an opportunistic seagull, chest puffed and wings spread wide, are battling it out for a just-fried fish finger sandwich.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken so much. But as I sit here on Brighton beach, my hands frozen but my heart happy, I can’t help but think that it’s given us something, too. For Brighton’s oldest seafront institutions, England’s second lockdown has proved to be something of a lifeline this winter. I can only hope that our new-found appreciation of local businesses continues long enough for them to be here for the next generation.    

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