May 10, 2021

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Exploring the English Riviera: This Torbay discovery is a thing of the past


Whatcomb hasn’t changed much since Isambard Kingdom Brunel fell in love with her 170 years ago. The little crescent of red sand encircling a disk of turquoise sea is still backed by steep cliffs, with patches of rust-colored rock jutting through the thick deciduous timbers.

There are no modern tourist facilities and barely a building in sight from the challenging footpath all the way to the beach.

This is what Jill Brunel called the “English Riviera,” so I lift my pants for a fast paddle.

Enchanting: Brixham Harbor as the sun sets. The dilapidated fishing port has reinvented itself as a seafood capital

The many sheltered beaches facing south and east in Torbay were ingredients that first attracted 19th-century visitors, redirected from the French equivalent of the Continental Wars.

Rival resorts such as Bournemouth, Brighton and Weston Super Mary offer a long beach; Torbay has more than 20.

They vary from small bays like Watcombe to classic broad sands like Goodrington, which is full of watersports opportunities, and the Torre Abbey Sands in Torquay itself, which was once seen as the UK’s best sand for making castles.

Brunel Railroad helped speed visitors to this 22-mile coastline in South Devon. GWR arrived in Torquay in 1848, and soon there were two stations to fulfill the demand. While surveying the railroad, Brunel was stunned by a spot of plum above Whatcombe.

Figures from TripAdvisor confirm that the English Riviera is in all the rage again.  Searches for Torquay, pictured, are outperforming all competitors in the UK

Figures from TripAdvisor confirm that the English Riviera is in all the rage again. Searches for Torquay, pictured, are outperforming all competitors in the UK

Devon cream tea, which visitors to Oddicombe can enjoy views across the bay

Devon cream tea, which visitors to Oddicombe can enjoy views across the bay

He decided to build his dream home for retirement there and asked William Byrne to design a wonderful estate in the gardens. Brunel died shortly before it was over.

Brunel Manor, which was recently a Christian convention center, was sold out earlier this year, but neighboring Orestone Manor, where Brunel had a photo taken of its owner John Callcott Horsley, is a hotel and restaurant.

Having lunch on its terrace, eating seafood from Brixham, and gazing out over Whatcombe Woods to the sea provides a glimpse into what has seduced Brunel.

Figures from TripAdvisor confirm the Riviera is out of the rage again. Searches for Torquay appear to outperform all of its UK competitors, including Lake District and Newquay.

I settled in a room on the water’s edge in another beautiful bay a short walk along the coastal walkway. My glass-sided cabin at Cary Arms Hotel is just meters from the waves.

I test free homemade gin decanter and watch seabirds roaming around the hotel’s yacht moored outside.

The next day, I explored Oddicombe, another beach around the tongue.

Simon discovered Oddicombe - a beach on the tongue.  Take the funicular to the cliff top gardens

Simon discovered Oddicombe – a beach on the tongue. Take the funicular to the cliff top gardens

The noisy funicular takes me to the cliff-top gardens and cafés serving cream tea with views across the sparkling bay.

The heart of the Riviera is still around Torquay’s busy harbors and marinas, palm trees line the promenade with a Mediterranean setting, and the cliffs dotting white Victorian villas.

The Kiss Me vibe was quickly hidden behind old Candy Floss stalls, replaced by elegant wood-floored cafés and opportunities for culture, such as the Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones Gallery in Torre Abbey.

Brixham, once a shabby fishing port, has reinvented itself as a seafood capital.

Excursions on the breakwater feature boat trips to mussel farms, and “fishing and chefs”, where you can grill whatever you hang on. There are dolphin safaris too.

I pick takeaways on the blue flag rated Breakwater Beach.

In today’s chic New Riviera you do not need to accept cod; New offerings include gurnard and monkfish curry. But the best of all are squid and potato chips.