The Geographical Setting of Brighton's History
When you walk along the upper promenade between Brighton's two piers, you are walking along a cliff top, and what was the seafront of the Brighton's earliest settlement. To the east of Brighton pier is Madeira Drive, effectively a road built along the beach. Behind Maderia Drive the land rises up along what is now Marine Parade / Kings Cliff. This is the beginning of a line of cliffs that reach along the coast to Eastbourne.
To the west the low cliff of Brighton's seafront falls away until it meets the level ground of Hove's esplanade and lawns. This is the start of the Sussex coastal plain. Behind the coastal plain are the hills of the South Downs, and it is where the Downs meet the sea that the chalk cliffs are formed (see map).
Just to the west of Brighton pier on the north side of the seafront road is Brighton's bus station, known as Pool Valley. Behind Pool Valley is Old Steine. The level ground from Old Steine going north to St Peters Church (where the main one-way road system now runs) is part of what is known as Valley Gardens. At St Peters Church the road forks. To the left is the London Road and to the right is the Lewes Road. Both these roads run along the valley bottoms of two intermittent rivers. Both of these valleys are dry valleys (or coombs), carved out during the last ice age. The intermittent river that in historical times used to flow down the London Road is known as the Wellesbourne (or Wellsbourne) - also known as the Winterbourne because it only flowed in winter when rainfall was at its height.
While the higher land is composed of chalk, the lowland of the valley bottoms and the coastal plain has an upper strata of Coombe Deposits or Coombe Rock, which is composed of chalk rubble, flints, clays and sands. (This is the strata that the early geologist, Gideon Mantell, called 'Elephant bed' because of the fossilised prehistoric elephant bones that were found in the area of Brighton and Hove.)
So here's our scene: a settlement at the top of a low cliff with a shingle beach below, to the west the land falling away to sea level and opening out into the lower land of the coastal plain. Immediately to the east a 'pool' meaning the mouth of the Wellsbourne, the intermittent river, that ran down what is now the London Road. Behind the pool is an area called the Steine, an area of marshland. The level land back as far as what we today call The Level was all probably marshy to some degree, depending on the river flow at the time of year.
According to the historian, Timothy Carder, in modern times the flow was particularly heavy in 1795, 1806, 1811, 1827-28, 1852 and in 1876. The problem was tackled by culverting, the general development of Brighton's sewerage system, and finally the construction of the waterworks at Patcham in 1889. Writing in 1990 Carder believed that 1876 was the last time that the Wellsbourne had flowed, but since then we know that it has happened again, when in the very wet winter of 1999/2000 Patcham Old Village was flooded and a stream of water ran down the London Road for many months.
Away from this level ground of the valley bottoms the land rises steeply. Here are the typical chalk uplands of the South Downs. In days gone by this was grazing land for sheep, but today much of it is the foundation of the steep and hilly streets and roads of what we know as Brighton.