If you’ve strolled through the Pavilion gardens lately, you may have noticed the glass circles laid into the ground. The small round inlays look like they may be light up the gardens at night, but in fact they are quite the opposite. These portholes actually provide daylight to a secret underground passageway between the Pavilion and the Dome.
As a student in Brighton, it should absolutely be in your best interests to visit the Pavilion during your three-or-so year stay in the city. It’s a chance to understand the daily life of the royal who established Brighton’s status as the hedonistic party city we know today. There are garish colours, ostentatious objects and a surprising amount of dragons; a tour of the party Palace is like globe-trotting on acid. Not only is it the most lavishly decorated house you’re ever likely to see in England, but as Brighton student you get a massive resident’s discount!
I was fortunate enough to get a spot on an alternative tour of the palace, one which focuses upon the underground, unseen and unattractive upkeep of such a high-maintenance building. The Pavilion Basement and Tunnel Tours show the untold stories of what the King did not want seen; the excessive heating systems, the mountains of dirty laundry, and the 160 members of staff who had to navigate elaborate networks of corridors to avoid the gaze of distinguished palace-guests. The tours are back by popular demand after trialling earlier this year, offering public access to these areas for the first time ever in the Royal residence’s history.
The decidedly un-glamourous tour began outside the public toilets, as the charming and knowledgeable tour guide engaged everybody with anecdotes and tales of the Pavilion’s long history, from Georgian roots through to Edwardian embellishments. Over the 45 minute journey we got to know King George IV through his lifestyle and particular home-comforts, and understood his reputation through accounts from his close friends, staff and unimpressed subjects. The winding corridors, some dating back to the original late 18th Century building plans, clearly showed the footprints of each extension to the decadent palace. I was surprised to learn that the underground spaces have been repurposed over the centuries, from stores for grains and soiled linens to WWII air-raid shelters, and more recently as modern, working offices.
The truly fascinating finale to the tour was a walk through the secret passageway from the Royal Pavilion to Brighton Dome, formerly the King’s stables. Many stories today circulate of why the King took to the underground, from embarrassment at an inability to mount a horse, to requiring a direct but discreet link to visit his preferred companions. One reason discussed was that when the tunnel was in use, King George IV not only was deeply afflicted with gout and dropsy but also at this point he was severely unpopular with the public, and so chose to hide from his people rather than appear publicly in his ill and morbidly obese state.
I’d recommend the tours to anybody who appreciates the alternative accounts of history; the basement and tunnel experience completely contradicts the elaborate, extravagant party-palace with the gritty truth and human-cost of one man’s self-indulgence. The tour presents previously overlooked areas of Royal history, and the fantastic museum staff, Meg and Terry, totally engaged our small group with their own excitement for showing the Pavilion’s many nuances and secrets. The Royal Pavilion itself is a must-see while in Brighton anyways, but the underground tours are an unmissable opportunity. Plus anybody who completes the tour gets a free badge, which should be more than enough incentive to go!
By Sarah-Mary Geissler
Image 1: Naturally lit underground tunnel, image author’s own, 13.10.16
Image 2: Looking back down the underground tunnel, image author’s own, 13.10.16
Image 3: Stood in the basement, gazing directly up to the roof, image author’s own, 13.10.16
Image 4: Above ground view of tunnel porthole directly outside of Brighton Museum, image author’s own, 13.10.16
Featured Image: Underground view up to the sky through tunnel porthole, image author’s own, 13.10.16