The city of Brighton and Hove exerts a strange attraction for distinctive transport. It has some marvellous Streamline Moderne tram shelters, still in use as bus shelters. It has one of Britain’s best-regarded bus operators (amongst what is admittedly a smaller field than it ought to be), Brighton & Hove Buses, which operates out of a very pleasing Modernist garage and offices. The Volks Electric Railway on the seafront is the oldest operational electric railway in the world (oh, the irony of mentioning this now, given the recent implosion of the latest efforts to electrify Britain’s inter-city main lines). Brighton and Hove both have lovely Victorian railway stations with typical intricate ironwork.
But today, we’re interested in Brighton’s northern border, where the A23 at Patcham features a rare example of a road grandification scheme. The Patcham Pylons frame the southbound carriageway of this dual carriageway road, proudly telling drivers that they have entered the environs of Brighton. We don’t generally go in for road grandification, and if you do come across a monumental gateway on a road, it will most often have been hanging around for centuries, designed for defensive rather than aesthetic reasons.
The Patcham Pylons, however, were built in 1928, to commemorate an extension of the boundaries of what was then the County Borough of Brighton (it only became a city, along with Hove, in 2000). I don’t think they’re really pylons at all, if one were to be pedantic about it. As far as I can tell, in strict architectural terms a pylon is two monumental towers, joined by a lower structure. Think the awe-inspiring entrances to ancient Egyptian cities and you’ll be in the right milieu. The Patcham Pylons omit the linking element, but pylons is what everyone calls them, and I’m not going to worry.
They are perfect examples of 1920s Art Deco design, which often drew inspiration from ancient Egyptian motifs. In plan, they are triangular (isosceles) with the narrow parts pointing towards the carriageway. A tapering column is carved at this vertex. The long sides feature panels with carvings and inscriptions. At the top, the pylons step back and have a thoroughly Deco fluted design.
The inscriptions on the panels mark the construction of the pylons, except for the north face of the western pylon, which has a relief sculpture of a woman holding an ankh (more Egyptian-ism) and torch, over the words:
Hail guest – we ask not what thou art.
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart:
If stranger, such no longer be:
If foe, our love shall conquer thee.
…words which are as true of Brighton today, one of the most welcoming and open-minded cities in the country, as they were then.
The pylons were designed by local architect John Leopold Denman, though the inscription on the east pylon adds Charles Kingston as an architect. They were substantially funded to the tune of £2,555 by local councillor Herbert Carden, who must have been enormously proud of the extension of his borough council’s limits, with a public subscription of £993 making up the rest of the cost.
Around the base of each pylon is a seat, also by Denman, of a moulded stone design, running between stepped columns. Both pylons and both seats were listed by Historic England in 1999, at Grade II.
The west pylon and its seat are now virtually inaccessible. When the pylons were built, they framed the road perfectly, being as it was single carriageway. It has since been doubled to a dual carriageway, leaving the western pylon marooned in the central reservation. Its seat is essentially useless, as you’d be taking your life into your hands to try to reach it. And I’ve never seen anyone using the eastern seat either, modern traffic speeds and vehicle sizes making it an unappealing prospect.
When they were built, however, they must have been considerably more attractive, because traffic speeds were a lot lower, traffic much less dense, and maximum vehicle size a lot smaller. The pylons witness each year a reminder of this lost age of motoring because they are on the route of the annual London-Brighton veteran car run.
First run in November 1899, the run celebrated the date of the 1896 Light Locomotives on the Highway Act, which abolished the infamous requirements that cars on the highway be preceded by a person on foot waving a red flag, and that cars be limited to 4mph. Although it ceased a few years later, the run was reintroduced in 1927, and its operation taken over by the Royal Automobile Club of Pall Mall in 1930. It has run virtually every year since then, except during times of war and petrol rationing, with the main condition of entry being that cars involved must have been built before 1905. The run was immortalised in the 1953 film Genevieve (one for The Beauty of Transport film club) although most of the film’s plot revolves around the return journey to London the next day. Didn’t I tell you that Brighton has a peculiar attraction for transport?
Details of the pylons’ design and their place in events commemorating transport history are, however, likely to escape you as you zoom past them at 70mph or so. I’ve never managed to read any more than a word or two of the inscriptions as I’ve driven by. For me, they are freighted with additional layers of meaning beyond those of the actual words on the pylons.
Like many pieces of attractive, noticeable transport infrastructure, the gates gain some of their meaning to regular travellers from those travellers’ own experiences and expectations. They’re like the pretty old station that’s one stop from the end of the journey, the point at which it’s time to start gathering your things to get off the train. Or the grand bus station (pre-war, post-war, brand new, who knows?) that means you’re in town for a day out. Or the metro station where distinctive architecture marks the beginning of the working the day or the first major landmark on the journey home to family.
The Patcham Pylons mark for me the point where I’m reaching the end of the A23 on one of my trips to the south coast to see my parents. More importantly, my cat (who comes along too) hates the A23 and yowls almost continually as I drive along it. The pylons mean we’re shortly going to leave the A23, join the A27, and the cat will calm down. She doesn’t mind the A27 so much.
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot recently about transport and mental health (see ‘Further Reading’ below); not only that transport facilitates activities that promote mental health, but that transport itself can promote it. The very act travel, and activities based around it, can be enormously helpful to people. I was very moved by this article marking the end of the Merseytart blog, a project to visit every station on the Merseyrail and Northern networks.
I always feel more relaxed when I’m on a train, watching the world drift past, observant of it but not required to be directly involved in it. That’s a perfect antidote to the busy, highly connected social media-driven world, where instant reaction seems essential to everything that’s going on everywhere.
I wonder how much of a role transport infrastructure plays in mental health, through the way it accrues significance beyond its immediate utility? I’d argue that’s another reason why transport infrastructure needs to be distinctive, and also attractive. If you’ve been a regular user of a badly designed or run-down railway station, you’ll know how it starts off the day quite differently to one which is nice to use. I always felt much better setting off for work from the rural charms of Horsley station than I ever did from the cramped and dirty New Cross Gate station. And whose flight isn’t a lot less stressful from a recently built, airy and light-filled airport terminal, than it is from one of the 1960s/70s heavy and hulking terminals with few windows and stale air? It’s worth thinking about, at least…
Further Reading and Bibliography
Passenger Transport magazine has been majoring on transport and mental health recently. This article by Urban Transport Group director Jonathan Bray (@Jonathan__Bray) covered the subject.
Meanwhile, transport consultant at TAS Partnership Meera Rambissoon has started a series on the subject, also in Passenger Transport (you can follow or tweet her on the subject at @transportmeera)
The epic Merseytart blog, here. A travelogue of railway stations in the north of England, and the places they serve.
publicsculpturesofsussex.co.uk – page on the Patcham Pylons, here
The homepage of the London-Brighton veteran car run, here
How to find the Patcham Pylons
Click here for The Beauty of Transport’s map