Exploring the English Riviera: Discovering Torbay Kiss Me Quickly is a thing of the past

Watcombe hasn’t changed much since Isambard Kingdom Brunel fell in love with it 170 years ago. The small crescent of red sand framing a disc of turquoise sea still leans against sheer cliffs, with patches of rust-colored rock piercing through thick deciduous woods.

There are no modern tourist facilities and barely a building in sight from the difficult trail down to the beach.

It’s what Brunel’s generation dubbed “the English Riviera”, so I roll up my pants for a quick paddle.

Enchanting: Brixham Harbor as the sun begins to set. The once shabby fishing port has reinvented itself as the seafood capital

The many sheltered beaches exposed to the south and east of Torbay were the ingredients that first attracted 19th century visitors, diverted from the French equivalent by the continental wars.

Rival seaside resorts such as Bournemouth, Brighton and Weston-super-Mare offer a long beach; Torbay has over 20.

They range from small coves like Watcombe to classic wide sandy beaches such as Goodrington, teeming with water sport possibilities, and Torre Abbey Sands in Torquay itself, once considered the UK’s best sand for castle building.

The Brunel Railway has helped speed up visitors to this 22 mile coastline in South Devon. The GWR reached Torquay in 1848, and there were soon two stations to meet the demand. While surveying the railroad, Brunel was wowed by a patch of plum above Watcombe.

Tripadvisor figures confirm that the English Riviera is back in fashion.  They show Torquay's research, pictured, overtaking any UK rivals

Tripadvisor figures confirm that the English Riviera is back in fashion. They show Torquay’s research, pictured overtaking any UK rivals

A Devon cream tea, which visitors to Oddicombe can enjoy with a view of the bay

Devon cream tea, which visitors to Oddicombe can enjoy with a view of the bay

He decided to build the retirement home of his dreams there and asked William Burn to design a beautiful park. Brunel died just before it was finished.

Brunel Manor, most recently a Christian conference center, was sold earlier this year, but neighboring Orestone Manor, where Brunel once posed for a portrait by owner John Callcott Horsley, is a hotel and restaurant.

Having lunch on its terrace, eating Brixham seafood and admiring the view over Watcombe Woods down to the sea, offers a glimpse of what appealed to Brunel.

Tripadvisor figures confirm that the Riviera is once again all the rage. They show that Torquay’s research is ahead of all British rivals, including the Lake District and Newquay.

I settle into a waterfront room in another pretty cove a short walk along the coastal path. My glass cabin at the Cary Arms hotel is a few feet from the waves.

I taste the complimentary decanter of homemade gin and watch the seabirds melt around the hotel yacht moored offshore.

The next day, I explore Oddicombe, another beach just around the headland.

Simon explored Oddicombe - a beach on the promontory.  He took a noisy funicular to the clifftop gardens

Simon explored Oddicombe – a beach on the promontory. He took a noisy funicular to the clifftop gardens

A rattling funicular transports me to clifftop gardens and cafes serving cream teas with views of the sparkling bay.

The heart of the Riviera is still around Torquay’s bustling ports and marinas, where palm trees line a Mediterranean-style promenade, its cliffs dotted with whitewashed Victorian villas.

The kiss-me-quick atmosphere has been quietly swept behind the old cotton candy kiosks, replaced by stylish, wooden-floored cafes and cultivation opportunities, like the Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones Gallery at Torre Abbey. .

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

Breakwater rides are punctuated with offers of boat trips to mussel farms and catch-and-cooks, where you grill whatever you hang. There are also dolphin safaris.

I opt for a takeaway on the Blue Flag classified breakwater beach.

In today’s chic new Riviera, you don’t have to settle for cod; new offerings include gurnard and monkfish curry. But, best of all, cuttlefish and fries.

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