Torbay, Devon, UK
Created | Updated Sep 10, 2009
Torbay lies on the eastern coast of Devon, a county tucked away in the south-west of England. Geographically, 'Torbay' refers to the bay itself, which is a relatively safe haven when storms pound up the English Channel. Sheltered by the coastline and in the rain shadow of Dartmoor, for shipping it is one of a few calm places to hide away from the worst Atlantic weather. However, 'Torbay' is also the collective name given to three towns in an area of the coast known as 'The English Riviera'; Torquay, the largest and most northerly, Paignton, in the centre, and Brixham to the south - though as the three towns have expanded, they have joined together fairly well; where one starts and another ends is largely academic these days.
From cave dwellers to Victorians, and American soldiers to Spanish prisoners-of-war, Torbay has had a varied, if relatively quiet, history.
The First 25 Millennia
The first known visitors to the bay were the prehistoric inhabitants of Kent's Cavern, an ancient cave system in the Wellswood area of Torquay. Remains of early man here have been dated at over 25,000 years old, and are generally accepted as some of the most important finds in Britain, if not in Europe. Through the work of William Pengelly, a Victorian cave explorer, much was learnt of these early humans' diet and lifestyle. Remains of flint tools and creatures such as bears and wolves are still found regularly.
Fast forward to around 1500AD, and more concrete evidence of life in the bay is found. A few small communities lived around the coast at this time, most notably at Cockington, on the southerly edge of modern Torquay, and at Brixham. Both settlements would develop enough to build their harbours in the coming years, and near Cockington an abbey was built. Torre Abbey is the oldest building in Torbay and lends an odd sense of country grandeur to Torquay's seafront; its so-called 'Spanish Barn' (an outhouse) is so-named because Spanish prisoners of war were held there in Drake's day. Although these hamlets spread and began to grow, progress was slow. In terms of mineral wealth and productivity, there was little to recommend the area, tucked so far away from centres of population; it is easy to imagine that the biggest contact with the burgeoning Empire would have been a few passing traders calling in to the sheltered bay for supplies. Brixham was perhaps an exception in some ways. The promontory of Berry Head at the southerly end of the bay is visible for 30 miles out to sea, and had some strategic importance. In the last years of the 18th Century, a small fort was built to keep watch against Napoleon's fleets, but there was never even a small skirmish in the vicinity and during its short service life the fort was only used for training.
Health and Wealth
The making of Torbay was in Victorian times, when revolutions in medical care meant that, instead of leeches, doctors began to prescribe bathing as the cure for all known diseases1. Towns such as Brighton and Blackpool made the first gains in terms of rich folk heading to the shore for a few months' recuperation, but the advent of rail links to the south west meant that places like Exmouth, Newquay and Torbay began to grow rapidly. The particular appeal of Torbay was that, facing east, it was possible to have a swim in any weather conditions apart from a strong easterly wind, and word began to spread among the wealthy. They built big fashionable houses, and the proximity of Dartmouth, with its strong naval connections2, meant that money started to flow into the area. Some of the new homes were big enough to accommodate guests, and some were built with the idea of the paying guest in mind. The long, flat, sheltered beaches at Torquay and Paignton were ideal localities, and the new tourism industry soon outstripped the fishing trade a few miles away at Brixham.
Thanks to railways, doctors and a favourable aspect the small settlements of Torbay began to grow rapidly. The mariners had discovered that, due to the Gulf Stream's influence, tropical species such as palm trees could adapt easily to the South Devon climate, and the area gained a nickname that remains its strapline and selling point to this day; 'the English Riviera'3.
The 20th Century and Beyond
The resorts continued to develop until the advent of cheap foreign package tours in the 1960s and 1970s. The flow of guests into the resorts during the intervening years was perhaps only punctuated by the World Wars, particularly World War Two when many North American and Antipodean soldiers were stationed in the area. The bay was occasionally bombed, and the old Napoleonic fort at Berry Head used for the first time in a century4. An American training exercise just down the coast at Slapton Ley ended in disaster when the D-Day landing practice was interrupted by the appearance of German U-boats, and the full details of the losses were kept secret for decades. Although Torbay was hardly levelled, it was possibly the only time in the history of the area that world events had a direct impact on its quiet existence. The old slipways from which the Americans finally departed for France are still there on Torquay's harbourside.
But world events ultimately had their say. The ailing health and death of General Franco in Spain opened up a new cheap market to British holidaymakers, where sun could be more or less guaranteed during their annual breaks. A revolution in travelling habits similar to that which had brought tourists in by the trainload began taking tourists away by the planeload. All of a sudden, British resorts had to compete, not just in a national market, but with foreign resorts too. Bookings fell, taking prices with them. The booming tourist industry, while not in crisis, suddenly had to think carefully about its future.
There are two schools of thought for the future. Some in the tourist trade think the image of family holidays, beach huts and palm trees, will ultimately weather the storm and tempt guests back when the (admittedly long-running) fad for going abroad is over. Others suggest a change of emphasis to weekend breaks, conferences or environmental holidays. The truth is that no-one is quite although there is a strong argument that the area is over-saturated with hotels and the situation will not improve until the supply is reduced. The resolution of the debate one way or another is key to the future of Torbay. An example of the uncertainty was the English Riviera Centre5, built in the mid-1980s at great cost and intended to be a funky leisure centre, concert venue and conference centre. Done well, it potentially could have had a massive positive impact on the area. However, no-one involved was absolutely convinced this was the way forward, and so half a job was done. The concert venue is far too small to attract big acts, the conference centre not big enough to fill many of the resort's beds, and the leisure facilities sufficient for a wet day but certainly not enough to be an attraction in itself.
The Three Towns
Torquay, Paignton and Brixham do tend, in some respects, to have different characters. Away from the main tourist areas, all three have areas that are fairly opulent and other that are relatively poor, but from a visitor's point of view they will seem quite different.
The most northerly, and largest, of the three towns, Torquay likes to think of itself as forward-looking, cosmopolitan, a truly international resort. It has a marina and a promenade running for a mile from the harbour to the main beach, and a proliferation of small cafe-bars clustered in the harbour area. The main problem with this vision is simply the British weather, and although it is a pleasant enough place to stroll a while on a warm June day, the empty spaces and shut-down bars add an air of quiet depression to the winter. Torquay unquestionably has the best shops in the bay and arguably the best views from Babbacombe Downs; Lyme Regis and Portland are visible on a clear day.
An odd thing about Torquay is its appeal to the elderly. Not only is it a popular holiday destination for this group, but Torquay has a high concentration of retirement homes. Equally baffling is the appeal of Torquay to people who have made vast amounts of money in their lives and retire to areas like Ilsham and Livermead, places with no pubs or shops but lots of large houses. The contrast with poorer areas like Barton and Upton, just a couple of miles away, is incredible.
Paignton is much more of a 'family resort'. Clean, sandy beaches run for almost its entire coastline6, and small hotels to the north and campsites further south take advantage of this. As is the case in Torquay, wages are low and, away from the seafront itself, pubs and bars have the attitude that spit and sawdust would be a waste of money. The attraction of Paignton, apart from the beaches, is its renowned zoo, which manages to pack an incredible amount of open space into an urban area. On its own, Paignton would probably be just another small seaside resort, but, flanked by Torquay and Brixham, it has become a popular holiday destination.
The smallest of the three towns, Brixham is the only one to have retained its character to any meaningful extent. Fishing has been the mainstay of the economy for years, and although platitudes like 'picturesque village' are somewhat exaggerated, the harbour remains the centre of Brixham life. Restaurants on the harbour serve local fish caught the same day, the souvenir shops are full of sea-related trinkets, and even if the bustle of the dock isn't what it once was, it's still a pleasant place to visit for an afternoon.
Berry Head, the most southern point of Torbay, is an important ecological feature. Migratory birds head here as it is clearly visible for miles out to sea, and the views from the top at least rival those from Babbacombe in some people's eyes. It is a National Nature Reserve, and is managed by the local conservation group Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust7.
The entire economy of the area is based on tourism; a low-wage, seasonal and often erratic industry. The fishing industry in Brixham is smaller scale than ever due to quotas, and lack of material wealth and poor connections to the rest of the UK mean that no big business wants to be there. Companies have tried moving in to take advantage of the low labour costs8 but quickly moved out again. Every business is either directly involved with tourism or is working in support of tourism. Consistently, areas like Ellacombe, Upton and Barton (primarily Torquay wards) show up on lists of the most 'deprived' in Britain in terms of income and quality of life. The low wages mean a high proportion of people pay nominal Council Tax, and to account for this the council makes large yearly rises. In turn, these are 'capped' by central government, and services suffer. Perhaps the 'agreeable climate' so loved by the Victorians somehow makes this all bearable.
What to See and Do
Locally, you can find everything you would expect of a British resort. A fine zoo, marina, beaches, caves, shops, a steam railway - there is a plethora of attractions, all well-publicised. There is even a thatched village, Cockington, complete with manor house, nestling between Torquay and Paignton. There are, however, some unique surprises along the nine-mile-stretch of coast.
A surprising amount of the coast is classed as SSSI, or Site of Special Scientific Interest9. The South West Coast Path passes through the bay and joins many of these beautiful and interesting sites. Bird-watchers will find Berry Head at Brixham to be one of the foremost sites in the UK for spotting migratory species, and it is surprisingly easy to get away from the traditional British holidaymakers' view of promenades and amusement arcades. In fact, there is so much of conservation importance that Torbay has its own local wildlife trust, the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust, who manage a variety of sites around the bay.
The stretch of coastline from Exeter to Dartmouth is one of the most beautiful parts of Devon, and the train is a great way to explore it further. Torbay is situated on a branch line of the main Exeter-Plymouth route, and regular 'scheduled' services run through Torquay and Paignton. From Paignton you need to change trains to the local steam-driven service, and this is where the real pleasure begins. It runs along quiet stretches of the coast, past Brixham and down as far as Kingswear, and from there a boat will take you to Dartmouth. This is a very touristy day out, but no less a pleasure for that.
Aside from the coast path, climbers will find some of the best climbing in the south west around Torbay. Although the sandstone in the middle is unexceptional and not really suitable for climbing, enthusiasts will find the limestone at Berry Head and around Meadfoot in Torquay well worth a visit. The rock is generally sound, and a variety of experiences can be had, from multi-pitch 'trad' climbing to relatively gentle coasteering. Watersports also abound on the bay, and as noted above it usually takes a fairly solid easterly to spoil things.
Although not famed for its beautiful buildings, Torbay has many listed buildings, and the whiff of Victorian opulence still lingers in some places. The Pavilion on the harbourside in Torquay, although not on the same scale as its cousins elsewhere on the south coast, is a heady reminder of the boom years. In the town centres, the shopfronts change regularly but the first and second floors are often unchanged for decades. On the roof of a camping shop is an often-unseen gargoyle, stalking, that most residents probably miss. Look up Torwood Street and lift your eyes to the delicate stonemasonry above modern nightclubs. Torbay is full of surprises for the watchful.
Torbay is not famous for sporting achievement. Sheltered from the prevailing winds, it is considered to be a great place for sailing and other watersports, but on land there is little to cheer. Devon play Minor Counties cricket, and Torquay usually gets at least one match during the summer. The only professional sport though, is the lower league football 'enjoyed' by supporters of Torquay United. The club don't have a great pedigree, having never been above the 'old' Third Division (now League One) and hold the dubious honour of being knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league teams in more consecutive seasons than any other. The club's one claim to fame is that the first-ever female linesman, Wendy Toms, made her first appearance in a professional game at Plainmoor.
The acclaimed BBC Comedy 'Fawlty Towers' although filmed elsewhere, was set in a fictional hotel in Torquay. To this day, the average complaint about the quality of their stay contains the line 'It was just like Fawlty Towers!' Many Monty Python sketches were also filmed on location in the bay.
Crime writer Agatha Christie is also associated with the bay, as she wrote many of her novels either while on holiday in Torquay or at her home in nearby Dittisham.