Nick Tyson

Elaine Evans interviews - Nick Tyson

The Curator at the Regency Town House

A few months ago I took Nick to La Fourchette as a thank you for his generous time and expertise with a project of mine. Over lunch I was fascinated to hear how Nick’s involvement in the Regency Town House project came about. It’s amazing how life’s journey can take us in such an unexpectedly different direction.

After leaving school, Nick’s interest in biology and nature led him to take a 4 year degree course in Human Sciences, during which he took a year out working as a research assistant in a bio-chemistry lab in Detroit. Adjusting to life in the USA took some doing but, in a funny sort of way, greatly influenced the decisions he made a few years down the line.

There were many small groups who would take an interest in an “old” feature of the city, for example, a 19th century bridge. At weekends they would gather at said bridge to give out leaflets and point out architectural features. In downtown Detroit there were beautiful townhouses built in French provincial style. As the affluent owners fled to safer parts when the riots broke out, the area became a ghetto and the once magnificent houses went to rack and ruin. This made a lasting impression on Nick.

Having completed his degree in Britain, Nick then began to work at the University of Michigan, specialising in protein chemistry and molecular genetics.  He gave me the example of how snake venom kills.  To a non-scientific brain like mine it’s incredibly clever and complicated.  Asked what attracted him to these fields, Nick said, “Nuclear physics was the science of the early 20th century; molecular biology (genetics) is the science of the 21st century.”  I know he’s right but let’s leave it at that!

In 1984 Nick returned to Brighton for the summer vacation and fate stepped in.

After his awakening in the USA, he observed that Brighton and Hove’s historic buildings were being converted with little care and attention, which concerned him. Nick and partner bought the lease of an uninhabitable basement flat at 13 Brunswick Square and decided to take a year out to restore it before returning to the States. However, leases of the other flats began to become available and Nick could see the possibility of putting the house back together again – a dream in the making.

The Bath Preservation Trust was going strong, other cities had identified important examples of architecture and opened them to the public, but there was no such building in Brighton and Hove. Over the next five or six years Nick and partner managed to buy all of the leases bar one, and then the freehold.

The prices were reasonable; the problem was the cost of maintenance. Nick had hoped for grants from English Heritage but he didn’t qualify as he was not the freeholder. He carried out the repairs and applied again. No luck – grants cannot be retrospective. With financial help and a great deal of negotiating, Nick managed to press on and a charity was set up in 1994 to enable the restored house to develop further.

The Regency Town House was the first lottery-funded project in the south-east (ref. 0001!) to buy the basement at No.10, which had more of its original interior compared to No.13. It is now included in the Regency Town House tour, and fascinating it is too. The basement at No.13 is used as educational space.

The Town House is slowly being restored as funds become available. Nick, himself, made moulds (a practice he’d mastered as a teenager) and restored and replaced the mouldings throughout most of the building. Neil England replaced the three ceiling centres and won an award at the Sussex Heritage Trust annual awards four or five years ago.

A unique project successfully completed is the reintroduction of a full set of external storm shutters to the sash windows of No.13 – the only house in the City to have a fully operational set. (Crown glass was fragile and prone to break during storms. Shortly after, stronger large panes of glass became available, and Victorian occupants exchanged their shutters and fragile many paned windows for panoramic windows.)

Much of the work done so far is not so obvious but nevertheless essential. Nick reeled off a list: renew five slate and lead roofs; make all new lead valley gutters; rebuild chimneys; remake parapet tops; new window lintels, sash boxes and sashes (windows); re-render rear of house; restore front render; install new downpipes; replaster damaged ceilings and walls; restore cornices, ceiling centres, friezes, etc; manufacture and restore internal joinery (e.g. skirting boards, doors), to mention but a few….

Some people expect the pace of restoration to be faster. Well, funding is the obvious necessity. However, I’ve observed Nick’s work on the Regency Society committee (and I believe he takes the same approach on the Conservation Advisory Group). My opinion is that he is a perfectionist; he will not cut corners; he researches everything to the Nth degree to ensure that all work is historically authentic. That may be irksome to some but his integrity is to be admired.

The Town House has a skilled computer team (professionals and volunteers) looking at ways to store, interpret and present history. A highly successful initiative which has been taken up by museums worldwide produces multi-media authoring systems that museum staff and volunteers can use without the need to understand computer programming.

I asked Nick what was on his wish list for the future. Restoring the fireplaces was the answer, and completing the dining room and drawing room at No.13 and the housekeeper’s room and wine cellar at No.10, so that they can be fully and appropriately furnished for public viewing.

On top of this heavy workload Nick and his team are tirelessly promoting and co-ordinating the Open Door weekend again in September. In the few years that Nick stepped back from this task, arrangements fell apart disastrously, so we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their efforts which give so much pleasure and interest to so many.

I am so glad that Nick turned aside from his career path as a bio-chemist and was inspired to take on the Town House project. I can’t wait for the day when his dream is fully realised! That will indeed be a red letter day for the City. Thank you so much, Nick!

Mini Questionnaire

Date of birth:
11 October 1955, London

When and why did you come to live in Hove?
First in the 1960s, since then several times, then in 1984; the architectural heritage, its juxtaposition to the Downs and the sea, its educational institutions and relatively easy travel connections

What do you like about your house/flat?
The near endless opportunities to delve into the archaeological and archival records, and its Regency style

Where would you take a first time visitor?
I would drive down through the back of Hove, down Brunswick Place (north), across Western Road and into Brunswick Square, the narrow entrance designed by C A Busby to deliver this stunning visual effect. Sadly the City closed such access a few years ago

Favourite restaurants:
Local: Terre a Terre; The Saint. Elsewhere: The Hong Kong Peninsula’s Spring Moon or many of the region’s market stall eateries

Ideal dinner guests:
Alfred Wallace, Charles Darwin and C A Busby

Ideal holiday:
Almost anywhere I can watch animals in the wild

Most recent holiday?
August 08, sub-aqua photography of grey seals off the North Devon coast [for the sixth year]; Nick’s work is currently being used in the Houses of Parliament in a video supporting the UK Marine Bill

Your most memorable experience in the last 5 years or so?
Recruiting such a great group of volunteers to assist in the development of the Town House

Any future ambitions/desires?
To stay healthy and finish the Town House project so that we can offer access to a fully restored house