Celebrating 80 years of our Brighton centre

11 October 2018 09:00

This month we celebrated the 80th anniversary of our Brighton centre.

The Brighton Centre

Up on a hill at Ovingdean, four miles outside Brighton and overlooking the English Channel, we moved into this iconic building in October 1938.

Our centre was unique in being purpose-built for blind veterans who themselves had input into its design and functions. The architect, Francis Lorne, produced a striking six-storey art deco building of fireproof steel and brick, which from a distance looked like an aeroplane, as author Graham Greene spotted:

"Above Rottingdean the new villas began: pipe-dream architecture: up on the downs the obscure skeleton of a nursing home, winged like an aeroplane."
Graham Greene in his book Brighton Rock, 1938

Our centre is uniquely adapted for the needs of our blind veterans; our large grounds have designated safe pathways and each floor within the building has the same layout to help people keep their bearings; we ask everyone to keep to the rule of the road which is to walk on the right-hand side and railings have floor indicators on them.

These special notches in our centre's handrails are a tactile way for our blind veterans to tell which floor they are on.

Blind Veterans UK came to Brighton within a few months of being founded in 1915. We needed other centres in addition to our headquarters, which was then in Regent’s Park, London. Some of the newly-blinded men had additional health issues and needed more time to rest and convalesce in a healthy environment.

Our first centre in Brighton was in Queen’s Road, near the railway station. We had this property for only a few years, but in 1917 opened a more substantial building, West House, in Kemp Town. In time the training and rehabilitation of our veterans came to be based here, rather than London. West House (later renamed Pearson House after our founder Sir Arthur Pearson GBE) remained in use even after the opening of our new centre at Ovingdean, and finally closed in 1995.

A scale model of the building was produced, so that newcomers could learn the size, shape and relative positions of the rooms and corridors.

In 1975 a swimming pool arrived as part of a major refurbishment which added a new South Wing also housing workshops, a bowling rink and new first floor rooms. Subsequent changes have included the provision of a substantial arts and crafts centre and new and improved accommodation.

Vision-impaired veterans can come to the centre for their initial visit and assessment. They are warmly greeted by our wonderful reception staff and during their introductory week we carefully assess each person's vision impairment, and speak to them and their families about how we can help through training and rehabilitation.  

Always a cheery welcome at reception

After this first visit, blind veterans can come back to our Brighton centre for holidays, respite, residential and nursing care and for activity and special interest weeks. As well as helping with fitness and mobility, we give veterans with sight loss the skills they need to live an independent life.

Numerous celebrities have visited and helped support us, including Max Miller, Helen Keller, Tessie O’Shea, Bernard Cribbins, Dame Vera Lynn and more recently David Bailey and Johnny Ball. Her Majesty the Queen visited in 1962 and 1985 and is seen here arriving at the centre.

The most recent addition to the centre is the lovely garden relocated from RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2017, where our show garden was awarded a gold medal. 

Constructed with our vision-impaired veterans in mind, it includes stonework, beautiful trees and plants and a willow vine structure, which winds around the garden, and reflects the charity’s former involvement in the tending of the Hampton Court Great Vine as shown in the photo below.

This garden was officially opened yesterday by our former President Ray Hazan OBE, himself a blind veteran, who stepped down in 2017 after 13 years in the role and has worked for the charity for more than forty years.

Blind veteran Ray Hazan OBE at the opening of our Brighton centre's 80th Anniversary Garden.