Marketed as the English Riviera, the towns of Torquay, Brixham and Paignton are a little bit of seaside heaven in Devon
The air is fresh and crisp, save for the unmistakable waft of fish and chips. The sand is covered with a colourful mix of towels and umbrellas, the water speckled with semi-naked flesh. Seagulls are all around. Great beaches, good fish and chips, the neon lights of amusement arcades. It may sound familiar, but this isn’t any old English seaside experience: this is the English Riviera.
At first glance, it’s hard to understand why the Torbay towns of Torquay, Brixham and Paignton could possibly justify such a name. The area lacks the glitz of St Tropez, and the multi-million pound boats of Antibes are nowhere to be seen, nor are the Porsches of Monte Carlo. They may have trouble competing with their French namesakes, but the South Devon towns certainly hold their own against their English seaside rivals.
The fish and chips are tasty, there is enough neon – albeit in smaller volumes – to satisfy the Blackpool faithful, and the beaches are beautiful and uncrowded compared to Brighton or Bournemouth. Some 20 beaches and coves are dotted along a 22-mile coastline, with Torquay’s Torre Abbey Sands the centrepiece. From here, it’s just a short stroll to the promenade and after-sun drinks on the harbourfront.
The best beaches in the area, though, can be found around the bay. The ever-popular Paignton Sands is cut in two by a wonderful old pier, while nearby Preston Sands and Goodrington Sands are both long and sandy. Brixham, however – the smallest of the three towns – is home to the quietest, and possibly the prettiest, of the lot. St Mary’s Bay in particular is lovely, as is the view from Sharkham Point above it.
For more coastal views, we boarded the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway for a seven-mile chug from Paignton to Churston. From here it was on to Kingswear via the wonderful wooded slopes leading down to the Dart estuary. Away from the promenades and games arcades, the mystery of why this area is called the ‘English Riviera’ finally starts to unravel.
It’s a region famous for mysteries, but usually those of a more literary type. The novelist Agatha Christie was born in Torquay in 1890, and she used the town as the backdrop for several of her novels. Each September, Torbay becomes the murder mystery capital of Europe when the annual festival celebrating Christie’s life – and coinciding with her birthday on the 15th – is held. More than 40 events take place during Agatha Christie Week, including plays, open-air cinema screenings, walks, talks, and murder mystery balls.
Throughout the rest of the year, you can visit Greenway, Christie’s former home (now a National Trust property), or walk the Agatha Christie Mile around Torquay. An exhibition at the Torquay Museum includes an image of a young Agatha roller-skating along the pier with her friends. What she would have made of her quiet hometown one day blossoming to form part of England’s very own Riviera will remain a mystery. For the rest of us, though, the secret is well and truly out.
Where to stay
Julie Court Holiday Apartments : luxury self-catering apartments just minutes from the water. (5 Colin Road, Paignton)
The Grosvenor Hotel : a three-star in a prime location a short walk from the seafront. (Belgrave Road, Torquay)
The Grand Hotel is the place for Agatha Christie fans – she spent her honeymoon here. The hotel has a suite named after her. (Sea Front, Torquay)
Where to eat
The Michelin-starred Elephant Restaurant is one of the most stylish restaurants in Devon. (3 & 4 Beacon Terrace Torquay)
The three AA rosette-rated The Orchid is a small restaurant – it only has room for 24 covers – with wonderful views stretching from Torquay Harbour to Berry Head in Brixham. (1st Floor, Corbyn Head Hotel, Torbay Road, Sea Front, Torquay)