Stepping Out in... Torquay Devon
PUBLISHED: 18:06 23 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:25 20 February 2013
Victorian gardens decked out in their summer finery, sweeping views and idyllic rocky coves, and so much more, as Trudy Turrell discovers
The Geopark walk route can be purchased at Kents Cavern for 50p or downloaded at www.bbc.co.uk/devon/outdoors/walkthroughtime/index.shtml
From Exeter take the A380. There are regular First Great Western trains to Torquay. Sailors arriving in their own craft may berth at Torquay Marina. National Coach Express travels to Torquay and Paignton.
When you walk along Torquays main seafront, with palm-filled gardens before you and Victorian villas perched on the limestone cliffs behind, you understand why Torbay is known as the English Riviera. From a fishing village in the 1800s to a very fashionable holiday resort by 1850, its Victorian visitors have left a legacy of elegant houses and fabulous gardens.
Today, Torquay promotes its international status as a Global Geopark; one of only 64 in the world, designated for its unique geological heritage, and one which is easy to see on foot, by water and in underground caves.
With its holiday attractions and miles of coastal path, Torquay offers a real variety of experiences, far beyond that of shops and seashore. Come for a day and youll feel as though you have been on holiday!
Off to a good start
Arrive by train at Torquays Victorian station, just off the seafront. Appropriately, its part of the Agatha Christie mile, and has the feel of a Miss Marple film set. There are many more links to the Queen of Crime, who spent many years involved with the town, and with a handy leaflet to guide you, you wont need to be Poirot to discover them en route!
Why visit now?
Torquay excels as a holiday destination, and you are guaranteed to find fascinating things to see and do, whatever the weather. If the sun shines, enjoy a stroll, or swim and sunbathe on Torquays wonderful beaches. Beyond the family-friendly Abbey Sands you can also visit the wide sweep of Meadfoot, with stunning views and plenty of space, just a short walk from town. Or try the many idyllic rocky coves beyond; each has its own character and feel.
Torquays fabulous Victorian gardens will be decked out in their summer finery. With Persian-carpet plantings, fountains and palms, you can enjoy colour and scent as you stroll.
Its an ideal place to take the children. Whilst you absorb the gardens, architecture and views, they have sandy beaches, animals, birds, caves and miles of coastal path to burn off their energy, so you wont mind buying them an ice cream!
Victorian parks and gardens, and a glimpse of South East Asia
Just behind the seafront, Torre Abbey gardens are perhaps Torquays oldest, and were once the grounds of the 12th-century monastery. Now showcasing many of the sub-tropical plants that can thrive in Torquays mild climate, the new Potent Plants garden is inspired by many of the plants found in Agatha Christies novels; plants that had dire effects!
Follow along the seafront through Abbey Gardens for a real view of Victoriana. The rockery, ponds and formal plantings in this Italian garden will be ablaze with red, orange and yellow geraniums and marigolds. Behind the manicured bowling green, the One World Caf offers a surprising glimpse into the Far East. In its bamboo-lined interior, you can relax on chairs carved from twisted jungle wood and sip a chai. As authentic as it comes, the recipe is a secret one from the chai seller on platform 5 of Varanasi railway station.
As you make your way along the seafront to the harbour, you can go palm spotting. As well as the iconic tall cabbage-tree palm, there are large jelly palms and phoenix palms; a graceful centrepiece of the colourful plantings in the sunken gardens by the Princess Theatre.
Grand finale of this walk is the baroque fountain, where cherubs ride golden dolphins on a layer cake of jets. It stands in front of the pavilion, built in 1912 as a fashionable meeting place. The white palace as it is known, topped by verdigris domes, pineapples and a life-size Britannia, is still an arresting sight.
Walking with penguins
Just across the harbour, via its new sculptural bridge, Torquays coastal zoo Living Coasts is a delight whatever your age. Vast nets allow birds to fly free, and penguins are allowed to wander around your feet. Awe-inspiring is the huge South American fur seal; the male is like a swimming grizzly bear. I found the chance to see British wading birds, usually spotted as tiny shapes on a mudflat, amazing. Close enough to touch, you can appreciate their fragile beauty.
Twenty minutes walk uphill or a short bus ride from the harbour, in elegant Victorian Wellswood, is Kents Cavern. The network of huge limestone caves through which you can walk, runs for a kilometre and is full of surreal and beautiful rock formations. Much more than an attraction, this site, originally excavated in 1865, is still being investigated. Eighty thousand bones have already been found in the caves, which once sheltered huge cold weather creatures such as woolly rhino, mammoth, wolves and sabre-toothed cats. Amongst them is the jaw bone of an ancient ancestor (dragged inside by a hyena the size of a great dane dog), which sets back the date of the earliest humans in Europe.
Swimming in the rain
If the sun doesnt shine, dont despair. Children and adults can still enjoy a swim, splashing down the twisty flume and through simulated waves in the English Riviera Centre behind Abbey Gardens. No sand to rinse out of swimsuits either.
As a Global Geopark, Torquays rocks have tales to tell. Take a 5km circular walk from Kents Cavern or nearby Ansteys Cove and let the informative leaflet tell you the story of when Torquay looked like the Great Barrier Reef, with a climate to match the Bahamas! Over volcanoes and coral reefs and even the gold deposits at Hopes Nose, you walk a spectacular stretch of South West Coast Path, returning along Meadfoot Beach and through meadows to the caves. There are shorter routes on offer, or if you prefer to see it all from the water, one-hour Geopark boat trips run from Princess Pier.
Enjoy the view
For a grandstand view of Torquay Harbour and all the activity of boats and people, call into Hoopers department store on The Strand. Not for retail therapy, but for a sandwich lunch and tea in a silver pot in the top-floor restaurant. For the price of an ordinary caf, youll have a seagulls-eye view over the harbour, town and out to sea all to yourself, and old-fashioned service too.