How New Brighton transformed into a trendy, artistic coastal town on the top of travellers lists

Steve McKenna
The West Australian
4 Min Read
New Brighton is a hotbed of street art.
New Brighton is a hotbed of street art. Credit: Steve McKenna/The West Australian

Back in the 1830s, as the riches flowed in from imperial trade, Liverpool’s mercantile elite sought somewhere to relax, stroll, get away from the muck and grime of the city’s docks and warehouses.

On the rural Wirral peninsula, which faces Liverpool on the left bank of the River Mersey, a new escape for the well-off was founded.

They called it New Brighton, taking its cue from the town on England’s south coast that had flourished as a bathing resort in the 18th century, a favourite of royals like the Prince Regent.

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Sea breezes, strolls and beach time make New Brighton a magnet in good weather.
Sea breezes, strolls and beach time make New Brighton a magnet in good weather. Credit: Steve McKenna/The West Australian

While Brighton has grown rapidly since, evolving into a cool city break (especially for Londoners), New Brighton is still relatively tranquil and under the radar.

Its peak of popularity came in Victorian and Edwardian times, when it had become a magnet for the working-class of Liverpool and the other industrial towns in Lancashire.

While New Brighton’s traditional charms endure - salty coastal air, sandy beaches and amusements - the town has in recent years welcomed a wave of trendy new food and drink outlets, while talented artists have added colourful, humorous murals and sculptures. I’m enjoying a wander here after catching one of the regular Merseyrail trains from Liverpool Lime Street station (the 25-minute ride took us via a tunnel under the famous river).

New Brighton has enticing options for shopping, snacking and browsing.
New Brighton has enticing options for shopping, snacking and browsing. Credit: Steve McKenna/The West Australian

An alternative way to get here is by boarding the iconic ferry across the Mersey from Liverpool’s Pier Head — near the big Beatles statue — and alight at the Wirral district of Seacombe, from which a waterfront promenade courses for 4km up to New Brighton. Liverpudlian and Wirralian walkers, joggers, skaters and cyclists tread this path, which offers terrific views of Liverpool’s skyline, its football stadiums and crane-dotted port.

This side of the river has numerous eye-catching sights, too, including its decommissioned lighthouse, which you can walk out to at low tide, and Fort Perch Rock, a 1820s sandstone fort and battery built to protect this strategically important point, where the Mersey meets the Irish Sea (a portal to the Atlantic Ocean).

Today the fort houses themed escape rooms, while the adjacent sandy beach is, on a sunny summer’s day like today, at least, full of families and friends with their towels, umbrellas and buckets and spades.

I wish the other landmarks from New Brighton’s pomp were still here: its pleasure pier, dismantled in 1978; and the steel lattice New Brighton Tower, which, at 173m high, was Britain’s tallest structure when it opened in the late 19th century (its architects also masterminded the Blackpool Tower).

Sea breezes, strolls and beach time make New Brighton a magnet in good weather.
Sea breezes, strolls and beach time make New Brighton a magnet in good weather. Credit: Steve McKenna/The West Australian

After being neglected during World War I, New Brighton Tower was deemed unsafe and pulled down by 1921, though the building at its base, the Tower Ballroom, remained, thriving as an entertainment hub. The Beatles played there 27 times and it also pulled in stars like Little Richard, the Rolling Stones and Gerry and the Pacemakers before the venue was destroyed by a fire in 1969. The big names don’t tend to come to New Brighton anymore, although nostalgia reigns with Fab Four and other tribute acts at the rebuilt Floral Pavilion Theatre.

That sits by the Marine Lake, which is walled off from the sea and offers activities like stand-up paddleboarding, pedalos and crabbing.

Beyond here, and the modern Marine Point shopping and leisure complex, you could walk by the sea for another 45 minutes to the Wirral town of Wallasey, which is also serviced by Merseyrail and has a links golf course with undulating fairways and sand dunes.

Opting to stick with New Brighton, I veer away from the seafront, and the scents of doughnuts and fish and chips, and the sounds of slot machines ringing from amusement arcades.

New Brighton is a hotbed of street art.
New Brighton is a hotbed of street art. Credit: Steve McKenna/The West Australian

Uphill, in the town centre, I find several addresses with maritime flavours: Smuggler’s Cafe, Driftwood Cafe and the former Neptune Hotel (now the New Brighton Hotel). I stop for a superb cortado and a truly delicious peanut butter chocolate brownie at The Sea Shanty, one of the artsy independent businesses opposite the train station (inside which, by the way, a pirate figure with an eye patch hangs from a rope on the wall).

There are more refreshment options and shops — including a record store, post office, pharmacy and beauty salon — around the corner on mural-strewn Victoria Road, which wouldn’t look out of place in old Brighton’s hip North Laine enclave. Yet there’s no doubting we’re on Merseyside here.

New Brighton is a hotbed of street art.
New Brighton is a hotbed of street art. Credit: Steve McKenna/The West Australian

On one wall I see a huge portrait of The Mysterines, a promising new pop-rock band from Liverpool, while Scouse accents spike the conversations drifting from the street’s busy terrace bars and cafes. And if you head down past the houses on neighbouring Victoria Parade, it won’t be long before you glimpse the landmarks of Liverpool across the river. fact file + For more information on visiting New Brighton, Liverpool and Britain see visitliverpool.com and visitbritain.com

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