On a surprisingly sunny (for February) Saturday morning, two of my flat mates and I set off in search of the Brighton-and-Hove Swaminarayan temple. All we knew was that it was on Trafalgar Road in Portslade. We didn’t have a map and we didn’t know how to get there. The driver of the 25 we boarded offered us a suggestion, following which we got off at Palmeira Square. This was my first time in Hove (actually anywhere in Sussex outside of my regular Falmer-Stanmer-Brighton radius), and I was struck by its resemblance to Bath. Hove is a far cry from the bohemian raffishness of the undulating lanes of Brighton; the differences are extremely evident. Dotted with churches, schools, old-age homes and prim, orderly houses, it is a staid town populated by seemingly well-to-do, respectable families- not for them the profligacy of feckless students. The well laid out residential areas were a study in contrast to the dazzling, depraved charm of Brighton with its lights, clubs and the pier, quite like a psychedelic scene out of a crime thriller from the 1940s- which is why, given a choice, I’d vote for Brighton. If I had the money, I’d sell baubles and books in the Lanes on Saturdays.
One of our “brainwaves” was to ask for directions in Indian shops. The idea fell rather flat, because all the Indian outlets in the area were restaurants, and the men who stepped forward ready to take orders were visibly crestfallen when we started off apologising for the intrusion and asked for directions to a temple of whose existence nobody was aware. One of the few good men who responded told us that Portslade was a long walk from Palmeira Square. “Keep going straight ahead,” said the proprietor of this Indian tandoori restaurant, wearing a Liverpool jersey and a red-and-white muffler. (Tangential trivia: Liverpool plays Brighton this Saturday.) “Straight,” he repeated, then stopped. “Ask someone for Portslade and you’ll know where to go.”
A couple of bemused responses later, we decided there was nothing for it but to walk. Nobody knew which bus would drop us where we wanted to go, and the day being sunny and bright, we decided to keep going “straight ahead”- if not Portslade, we’d hit the Downs and see something pretty anyway. A cobbled lane reserved for pedestrians drew our attention and we wandered into it, fascinated by the flowers and the jewellery on display at the stalls. But for the retail stores which rather marred the effect, everything about the street was quaint, with an old-world European charm. Tearing ourselves away with some difficulty, we resumed our walk, asking for directions once more to confirm we were roughly in the right direction.
We walked a long while. We thought we’d entered West Sussex, and one of my flatmates said she felt like a refugee fleeing into another country. It did feel like a different country- quiet, sombre and stately, new street-names coming into view with every junction. We stopped to ask for directions again.
“It is a long walk,” said the lady as she strapped her child into its seat in her car. “Twenty minutes.” Nobody seemed to understand why anyone would want to go to Portslade. But people in this part of the world are thankfully used to shrugging such questions off and going on with their own business.
We must be terrible walkers, for it took us nearly forty minutes, instead of the predicted twenty, to reach Portslade. However, we did loiter on the way, stepping into graveyards to study epitaphs and to look at angels with chipped arms. We searched for mysteries where there were none. A gravestone prised away from the earth with a clearly visible gap attracted our attention, but we weren’t too keen on venturing close to it to examine possibly putrefied remains. Beloved wives, daughters, fathers, their headstones adorned with crosses or other ornaments, had been buried in these peaceful graveyards a couple of hundred years ago, when Hove was a stylish resort for the rich; now, they lie under the curious eyes of ordinary people, with a Tesco thrown in next door for good measure.
We were thrilled when we reached Portslade: we now had genuine hopes of finding the temple, which had this far been a minuscule blip on a non-existent horizon. Our hour-long walk had made us hungry, and we looked around for a bit before deciding on Gossip Café for lunch. Only two of the tables were occupied; soon, we were the only customers in the shop, lingering over a long, satisfactory lunch. The food is nothing much to write home about, but for the low prices is certainly decent. A sweet little lady with an exotic accent made us our burgers, and fortified, we set off once more, feeling like brave adventurers for no reason. The stateliness had disappeared as we entered Portslade, and crossing Vale Park, we realised the town grew increasingly run-down. Streets sloped away in the distance, lined with quaint houses sunken in the ground, painted lovely colours and with artistic curios on their walls. We were finally on Trafalgar Road and soon, like a shining beacon, the walls of the Swaminarayan temple came into view- an absurd wave of triumph washed over us.
As far as day trips go, there was nothing remarkable about this one: but it was perhaps the effusion of spirits, the sudden appearance of the sun and blue sky, and the sheer happiness of being outdoors without a cold wind biting at our fingers that made it feel memorable. We wrapped the day up with a visit to the beach, where the sun went down in a lavish blaze of colour, splashing the sky with rich, soothing shades of pink, violet and orange (the kind that only nature can create). The calm sea was barely ruffled by the placid waves as they rolled in softly, catching the tints of the sky and the distant lights, dressed up for their tryst with the night. Sea-waves sound different on shingle than on sand; but isn’t it marvellous how you can listen to the sounds of nature endlessly and never get tired of them?
Summer is around the corner, and much as I’ve enjoyed the winter, I am looking forward to long days, extravagant sunsets and exploring Sussex.