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Brighton Bids Farewell to the Iron Lady

18/04/2013 13:02 BST | Updated 18/06/2013 10:12 BST

We're on the 14:06 train Brighton-bound. Outside the sky is a pallid shade of grey and a handful of snowflakes begin to float down. Spring is nowhere to be seen.

Fifty minutes later and within minutes of pulling into the station we are whisked away, past the regency townhouses and squares of handsome mansion blocks, to our destination: the Brighton Grand.

It is an impressive building: from up close, the multi-layered, wedding cake-façade is far too big to take in in one single viewing, not to mention its enviable position overlooking the sea.

Today, however, is for indoors. A man dressed in tails and top hat relieves me of my heavy bag and bids me welcome, as I walk through the glass doors and head up the small flight of steps where I am transported into another world.

In the lobby, a curvaceous, middle-aged woman is immaculately turned out wearing what looks like a modern interpretation of a fez. Her cherry-red lips and coat coordinate perfectly with the rich colour and fabric of her headpiece, in turn complementing the deep, warm gold of her locks. The man accompanying her, by contrast, is tall and slender, with a long grey beard to match. His black skin-tight trousers only serving to further elongate his frame.

"Welcome to Brighton," comes an accented voice somewhere behind me.

With the formalities out of the way, I negotiate a route around the brass luggage trolleys, past the large grey-blue marble columns, across the plush carpets and take the lift to the sixth floor.

Wherever you look there is a flurry of vacuuming and polishing, fresh batches of linen being distributed and cushions being plumped. The wide landing, with its sweeping wrought-iron staircase winds its way upwards, before disappearing into a pool of light.

I open the door to my room to reveal a generous suite unexpectedly basked in sunlight, while wall-to wall windows and a long balcony offer sweeping views stretching the length of the King's Road and seafront.

In the past six months, the Grand has begun a £5 million makeover and the results are beginning to show. As well as a much needed lift to the interiors, there is a new seafood restaurant GB1, and on the site of the former swimming pool a luxury new spa - to be opened on May 10 - is also being fitted.

Since its construction in 1864, the Brighton Grand has become one of the coastal town's most recognisable landmarks. The De Vere Group, which now manages the hotel, has this to say about it:

"More than a hotel; this is an institution, an iconic piece of British history, perched contentedly at the centre of one of the most famous seafronts in the world."

Some of the less visited corners of the hotel provide a visual reminder of that history: along one wall, towards the back of the ground floor, a row of neglected telephone booths looks like a relic from a vaguely remembered past.

Lest we forget, a glass-mounted wall cabinet nearby tells the tale of what happened here three decades ago, although in the rich and sumptuous surroundings of the present, it is hard to imagine the horror that befell the Grand one early October morning in 1984.

The bomb detonated at 2.54 AM on October 12th as the majority of delegates at the Conservative Party's autumn conference lay sound asleep. Five people lost their lives in the IRA bombing and scores more were injured - some severely so. An entire mid-section of the hotel collapsed following the impact.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was still awake - having only just handed over the final draft of her conference speech - when the explosion occurred. After the initial bang, followed by the sound of falling masonry, there was an eerie silence.

Writing about the bombing in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, she described feeling "a loud thud" shaking room 621 (629 at the time of her stay):

"Apart from the broken glass and a ringing fire alarm, set off by the explosion, there was a strange and, as it turned out, deceptive normality. The lights, thankfully, remained on: the importance of this played on my mind for some time and for months afterwards I always kept a torch by my bed when I was staying the night in a strange house."

One of her first reactions was to change clothing, before crossing the vast landing to where she knew her team of dedicated secretaries had been busy transcribing her speech, to check they were unharmed. Eventually, Thatcher would emerge with husband Denis and assistant Cynthia Crawford unscathed.

Not everyone was as lucky. Roberta Wakeham, wife of the Government's Chief Whip at the time, John Wakeham, was among the dead, as was the MP for Enfield Southgate, Sir Anthony Berry. Four hours later the injured were still being pulled out from the rubble. Images of Cabinet Minister Norman Tebbit and his wife Margaret appearing on stretchers, looking ghostly white, were broadcast live. (Mrs Tebbit has since been confined to a wheelchair as a result of her injuries.)

To the dismay of many, and in Mrs Thatcher's typically defiant manner, the conference went ahead as scheduled the following day.

As for the hotel, almost two years would pass before it would reopen, with Mrs Thatcher and Mr Tebbit making a dramatic return to the scene of the bombing to mark the occasion. Handing back the hotel's Union flag, which had been given to her for safekeeping, Mrs Thatcher said at the time:

"With its new battle honours the flag will fly over the Grand in its new prominent position."

"It will fly there with special pride to show that, happen what may, the British spirit will once again triumph."

A few days after I bid farewell to the Grand, the nation bids farewell to the Iron Lady, as her body takes its final journey through the streets of London. Those words of defiance before the Grand Hotel in 1986 were, by then, characteristic of the woman many loved to hate. Scenes of protests and partygoers celebrating her death demonstrate how divisive her politics were and continue to be.

Back in Brighton, along the beach, I imagine a few hardy souls - undeterred by the weather - tucking into some soft-serve ice cream, oblivious to the fact that Mrs Thatcher was among the research team that developed it.

And as they tuck into their 99 cone, they look up to the Grand, where, at half mast, the Union flag flaps in the wind, in honour of the woman who would not waver.

This article was originally written for www.runninginheels.co.uk