The word Riviera describes a coastal region with a subtropical climate and vegetation. This aptly describes the area of Torbay where the climate can at times be almost Mediterranean. Subtropical trees and flowering shrubs flourish along the promenades and in the parks and gardens. The well known Torbay Palm which is to be found lining the sea front in Torquay was introduced here from New Zealand by plant collectors in the 1820s and has flourished ever since.

During the Napoleonic wars Torbay was used as an anchorage for the English Navy as it was a safe and sheltered haven and within easy striking distance of the French coast. The officers, many who would have been on duty for months at a time, brought their wives and families to lodge and even set up home in Torquay. New villas were built on the hillside overlooking the small harbour and a small and select community developed. As travel was restricted due to the war those wealthy travellers who would have departed each winter for the continent now came to Torquay for a respite from the cold English winter. It is interesting to note that Torquay was initially thought of as a winter resort not as a summer one, the area being beneficial to health.

Over time Torquay and the surrounding area became well known as a health resort and those suffering from Consumption, as T.B. was known, found the mild climate beneficial to their health. Elizabeth Barrett Browning came to Torquay in 1838 for a health cure and to take the water, staying here for two years. Seawater baths were very popular at the time and thought to be a cure-all. Ladies were restricted to bathing at Beacon Cove usually descending from a bathing machine wearing rather more clothing than would be worn today. The men bathed from Abbey Sands, often bathing naked. Mixed bathing was strictly forbidden until 1899 when the restriction was lifted due to local pressure. Those invalids not fit enough to bathe in the open sea were able to take warm or cold seawater treatment in the Medical Baths from 1857.

It was during the Victorian era that the title ‘The English Riviera’ was first used, favourable comparison being made with the French and Italian Riviera. With the arrival of the railway in 1848 the popularity of Torbay and the surrounding area encouraged the development of large hotels and guesthouses. It also altered the class of the visitor. Far from being the exclusive resort of the wealthy it now became a favourite destination of the middle classes.

The original railway running into Torquay from Paddington ran on Brunel’s broad gauge track, seven feet and a quarter of an inch wide. The rest of the country was running on standard gauge of four feet eight and a half inches. Delays to freight where broad gauge met standard were a source of frustration to the government who eventually decreed that standard gauge should be the national track width. During a weekend in May 1892 the track from Exeter to Torquay was torn up and replaced with standard gauge. Men were drafted in from all over the country to do the work, many sleeping in goods-sheds and tents beside the line. Late on Friday night, the 20th, after the last train had run, the gang set to work and by early on the Monday morning all was ready for the first standard gauge trains to run on the line.

Brunel lived for a time in the Watcombe area of Torquay, renting various villas and eventually buying land on which to build a house. Over a few years he bought up over one hundred acres on which to build the villa, which he had helped the architect to design. He landscaped the grounds, planted and avenue of trees and constructed a series of water gardens through the valley and planted many varieties of rare trees on its slopes. Unfortunately he died, aged only 53, before the house was completed and he could retire. Now a hotel, Brunel Manor is a fine building and a worthy monument to a genius of British engineering. Part of his land, Watcombe woods is open to the public to walk freely. During his time in Torquay Brunel was working on a revolutionary new system called the Atmospheric Railway. Instead of trains being pulled by locomotives, they were pushed by air pressure. Stationary engines housed in Pumping Stations were placed every five kilometres along the track. These pumps sucked air from the tube in front of the train and thus the train was propelled forwards. Three pumping houses still remain in the area, the best of which is at Starcross beside the present line and is now a museum.

As the ‘Queen of Watering Places’ Torbay continued to develop over the years into a fashionable resort welcoming generations of visitors. Today it deservedly retains its title The English Riviera. The palms still flourish along the promenade and the Victorian architecture is still visible on the hillside overlooking the bay. The climate is mild and the area one of the most beautiful in the country.


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26 January 2010