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The town was originally split in half by the Wellesbourne, a winterbourne which was culverted and buried in the 18th century.

Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray referred to "Doctor Brighton", calling the town "one of the best of Physicians".

and an important Brythonic settlement existed at Hollingbury Camp on Hollingbury Hill.

They were attracted by the easy access for boats, sheltered areas of raised land for building, and better conditions compared to the damp, cold and misty Weald to the north.

Having lost the Battle of Worcester, King Charles II, after hiding for 42 days in various places, fled on the evening of 15 October 1651 in the "Surprise" from Brighthelmstone to his exile in Fécamp, France.

Over the next few decades, though, events severely affected its local and national standing, such that by 1730 "it was a forlorn town decidedly down on its luck".

More foreign attacks, storms (especially the devastating Great Storm of 1703), a declining fishing industry, and the emergence of nearby Shoreham as a significant port caused its economy to suffer.

The university has three campuses: Streatham Campus and St Luke's Campus in Exeter; and the Penryn Campus near Falmouth, in Cornwall.