The Pavilion’s interiors are renowned for their mixture of the Orient and the exotic. Richard Moss © Culture24.
Many visitors to Brighton and Hove marvel at the stunning Oriental interiors of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. But how many have pondered what lies beyond the velvet ropes, the no entry signs and the locked doors?
All will be revealed when you take our tour ‘behind the scenes’ of Brighton’s most famous landmark with Pavilion keeper Andrew Barlow.
It looks exotic from the outside, but inside the Royal Pavilion is even more startling. The dragons of the music room, the vertiginous ceilings with their pendulous chandeliers – even the kitchens, where famous Royal feasts were prepared, continue to surprise people with their oriental mixture of exoticism and fantasy.
But beyond these splendid rooms with their antiquaries and attendant stories lies an equally intriguing world – a world hidden behind the disguised entries and passageways that sneak mysteriously away beyond the velvet ropes.
A glimpse into the music room offers a servant’s eye view of the Royal Pavilion. Richard Moss © Culture24.
The Pavilion is a building that has always retained an air of mystery and provoked a certain degree of conjecture. Who hasn’t heard some tall tale of underground tunnels or some other Regency decadence? Yet it has also undergone many changes – reflecting the tastes and needs of later custodians, William IV, Queen Victoria and the local council who have managed it since 1850.
Yet despite 150 years of municipal management the building has one or two remaining secrets as our guide, Pavilion Keeper Andrew Barlow reveals.
As we emerge from his office, in the northwest of the Pavilion, we find ourselves staring down a vast stone spiral that disappears into the heart of the King’s apartments.
“This stone staircase at the very northern end of the Pavilion is central to making this part of the building function,” explains Andrew. “It’s where the page of the back stairs would live – he would be shooting up and down this staircase, when he was on duty from here down to the King’s apartments.”
This stone staircase was the servants access to the Royal apartments. Richard Moss © Culture24
Descending this dizzying stairway we pass two water closets – just two of the thirty originally installed in the building. At the time, such arrangements were the ultimate extravagance - ensuring both servants and masters were never caught short in the Pavilion’s corridors and stairs.
“Absolute luxury - and in the Royal apartments the toilets would have had flaps to stop the smells coming back into the room.”
Following in the footsteps of the King’s Page we arrive at the blue- tiled corridors that discreetly ferried servants, out of sight, around the building.
“This is a servant’s corridor that led into the king’s apartments,” explains Andrew, “with the familiar glazed tiles – it’s a useful shorthand for recognizing where you are.”
A remnant of the network of servant’s corridors lined with Dutch glazed tiles. In the Regent’s day this access would have stretched from the basement through the north end of the Pavilion and over the main entrance. Richard Moss © Culture24
But rather than moving into the King’s apartments we descend into the basement to investigate George IV’s infamous tunnel.
For years it seems Brighton residents have dined out on stories that tell of a vast network of Royal tunnels; some maintain a passageway ran to Mrs Fitzherbert’s house (running south a hundred yards away across the Steine).
Others believe a subterranean network fanned out to various locations ranging from imaginary flophouses on Western Road to discreet apartments near the clock tower, but alas, it’s all part of the Pavilion parable.
Stories abound as to the purpose and number of tunnels built by George IV. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
So into the bowels of the building we descend, with its maintenance workshops and after limbering through scaffolding we find ourselves in the famous tunnel – but where does it go?
“This is the tunnel that everybody knows about,” explains Andrew. “It led from the new north end of the Pavilion to the stables and the riding house, which is currently the museum.”
“It was only used at the very end of his life, when he was keen not to appear in public, so this was a great way of getting from the Pavilion to the riding school without being seen by members of the public. But of course everybody thinks it went in another direction.”
Once upon a time this door would have allowed access to the Royal stables, it now leads to the Brighton Museum and Gallery. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
“We know from the Royal Archives that the final cost is pretty much spot on, (£1,783, which works out at a modest £71, 320 in today’s money) so there’s not really much room for speculation that the cost of the tunnel was sufficient to enable them to build another one.”
The cobble-stoned corridor retains the niches where lanterns once stood and there are shafts in the roof that once housed a bizarre series of glass lanterns that emerged in the flowerbeds.
It’s really quite easy to imagine the Prince and his entourage making their way to the stables – safe from the prying eyes of the public.
Shafts in the tunnel's roof held huge glass lanterns that emerged in the flowerbeds above - allowing light into the tunnel. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
“We know for example that towards the end of his life he was so unhappy about appearing in public that when he effectively moved to Windsor, he wouldn’t allow anyone else to be in the park when he was out riding in the afternoon.
“The pavilion was relatively modest in terms of grounds and there wasn’t enough space for him to hide from the public gaze.”
“Of course when the king came he brought the whole household required to furnish the monarch – as it were. The three great house departments that ran his life; the Lord Chamberlain, the Lord Steward and the Master of the Horse.”
Although many of the secret corridors that the servants used around the building have now disappeared, some remain, offering valuable insights into how the building functioned. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
We retrace our footsteps – and those of Kings, Lords and Servants, past the busy maintenance workshops that now occupy the Pavilion basement and head back into the blue tiled servant’s corridors.
A swift detour through the magnificent kitchens (on the main tour circuit) is followed by a saunter through the main corridor to the upper floors of the guest breakfast room where a concealed door leads to one of the Pavilion’s most intriguing spaces.
Beyond this door lies one of the most remarkable spaces in the Royal Pavilion. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
Stepping over the ropes and moving aside a wicker chair Andrew opens a secret door to reveal a space that is a million miles away from the bright décor of the breakfast room, a place where the passage of time has seemingly slowed to a near standstill.
Climbing the rickety spiral staircase past ancient peeling wallpaper we reach a doorway to one of the most fascinating rooms in the whole building, the interior of the main minaret – today known as the bottle room.
Lost in time, this old staircase leads to one of the Pavilion’s untouched spaces. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
So what is this remarkably untouched space?
“It was definitely servant’s accommodation and we certainly know that Albert’s valet stayed up here, but what’s amazing of course is the fact that it exists.”
“If you look at it from the outside everybody has driven past it so many times, or walked past it or waited for a bus outside – and although people look up I can’t imagine they think there are rooms up here.”
How many people imagine there to be rooms in this minaret? Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
Today it’s a storeroom scattered with remnants of tables - the odd carved pillar rests in the corner. But with windows on all sides it also affords great views across the Pavilion roof and gardens.
But it’s the walls with their tattered remnants of flock wallpaper that really draw the attention. A multitude of scrawls and signatures – an Edith and an Ethel in old fashioned cursive handwriting – to more modern obscenities have all survived the passage of time. Even the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron have apparently scribbled their monikers…
“There seems to be a kind of tradition of scribbling on these walls – here’s a 1920, a 1944, there’s an 1885 - not something we encourage now of course.”
Over 150 years of graffiti: peer closely and you might be able to see the hand of Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
“I suspect that since 1850, when the council took over the running of the Pavilion, it has been used for storage because it’s a difficult room to access – there isn’t an alternative exit.”
Current thinking from the custodians of the Pavilion is to leave this remarkable space untouched. It is, after all the only such space in the building despite the presence of several more minaret-shaped domes.
“Most of these areas are quite empty, and you can’t go up inside them. The rooms below are used for storage but the actual shapes themselves are just purely decorative,” explains Andrew as we scan the other decorative domes from our central vantage point.
A remarkably untouched space. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
The room is divided into higgledy piggledy spaces, cupboards and doors that lead to rooms where ancient fireplaces still retain the ashes of the last century – or so it seems.
“I think it’s amazing up here. Of course because it’s a circle you have these funny little shapes so storage cupboards were incorporated to make the shape a little bit more regular.”
It’s the sort of space where you could spend hours, just scanning the walls, peering into cupboards, conjuring up past lives whilst Brighton life bustles by outside, blissfully unaware…
After the revelation of the bottle room it’s difficult to imagine the Pavilion retaining any surprises but Andrew ushers me back down the rickety stairs.
The bottle room stairs - a little wonky but ‘...structurally sound, I’m told.’ Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
“It’s structurally sound – I’m told, it’s just that it leans somewhat…” offers my guide – before leading me across the building through more tiled corridors for a look at one of the small rooms underneath another minaret.
Beneath another ‘bottle’ we climb an impossibly narrow staircase and enter a former servant’s room, now a storeroom that looks across the pavilion gardens towards New Road and the Theatre Royal.
Not a bad view if you’re a Royal Servant, but in it’s cleaned and recently decorated state it takes a greater imaginative leap to visualize its past function.
Often the servant’s quarters were situated beneath the purely decorative and empty minarets. Richard Moss © 24 Hour Museum.
“These days we are all interested in how these buildings function, where the servants lived, where the kitchens were and so forth, so people are always very unhappy when I say that the council got rid of some of those things. But in a sense, by doing that they were able to finance the purchase of the pavilion.”
“Perhaps we wouldn’t have had anything if they hadn’t,” muses Andrew, “so it’s an interesting change in perception.”
The Pavilion may have lost a few of its servant’s quarters and corridors, but it’s good to know there are still some spaces that remain to retain the power to surprise.
Staff from the Royal Pavilion undertake the occasional tour of some of the locations in this article: contact the booking office (details below) for more details.