The English Riviera

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Torre Station 1868

The failure of Brunel's Atmospheric Railway (see Issue 17) was swiftly followed by the extension of the broad gauge line through Newton Abbot to Plymouth for steam trains and from this route, in 1848 a branch line was created from Newton Abbot to Torquay.


On Monday December 18th in that year, the first steam train arrived at Torre Station amidst great rejoicing. Everyone had a holiday and there was a feast for the poor followed by a procession through the town.

Torre Station 1868



Before 1848, if you wanted to reach Torquay, you had either to undertake a formidable stage coach journey or travel by boat. Almost overnight, this attractive place was brought within comparatively easy reach of London and visitors began to arrive in droves. Not those who had to work and could never afford to take any kind of  a holiday but members of the upper classes who soon turned the town into a select watering-place for the wealthy and titled. 


As more and more trains brought more and more visitors, it soon became a problem to find enough suitable accommodation for those who wished to stay for any length of time and who looked for a home from home.


It was William Kitson who devised a plan for turning that part of the town which overlooked the sea into elite housing suburbs. Purchasers of  two-acre plots could have elegant villas built for use as holiday homes and when not required by the owners,  these could be let to other visitors.


Meadfoot Lodge which was featured in Tom Stentiford's Story in Issue 25 was one such villa. Another, the so-called Woodbine Cottage on Park Hill, the property of a Miss Johns,  was a very different kind of cottage to the mean little cottages in nearby Pimlico where the poor lived and where, in 1849, cholera raged and there were many deaths.

Woodbine Cottage, Torquay

Woodbine Cottage, Torquay


Not everyone wanted to buy and build or even to rent for months on end - there were others who wanted a short and uncomplicated stay by the sea, and these visitors began to look for hotels.


In 1828, Torquay had just one hotel. When another opened nearby, the Vicar of Torre* objected on the grounds that two such places in the town would be "detrimental to its moral health". This idea was soon kicked into touch by the arrival of British and Foreign royalty who chose to stay at hotels in preference to renting villas.


By the 1840s, Webb's Royal Hotel and Hearder's Family Hotel were established as select and highly-respectable establishments to which people came to enjoy hotel life as well as the delights of the seaside. The local newspaper of the time - the Torquay and Tor* Directory and Advertiser - published each Friday a listing of who was staying at each hotel - nobility favoured Webb's while the church looked kindly on Hearder's!


Foreigners found the summer climate very pleasant and began to make comparisons between Torquay and the French Riviera. Soon the hoteliers of the town were trading off this and Torquay became known as the "English Riviera".


Webb's Royal Hotel, Torquay

Webb's Royal Hotel, Torquay

Courtesy Devon County Council


* The spelling of "Torre" is derived from that of Torre Abbey. "Tor" is also used as in the name of the local newspaper. The station at which the first steam train arrived was called Torre Station. The station now named "Torquay" was added later when the line was extended to Paignton.


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