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Torquay seafront at high tide
Grid reference: SX915655
Location: 50°28’45"N, 3°31’50"W
Population: 63,998  (2001)
Post town: Torquay
Postcode: TQ1 - 2
Dialling code: 01803
Local Government
Council: Torbay

Torquay is a seaside town in south-east Devon. It lies 16 miles south of Exeter on the north of Tor Bay and adjoins the neighbouring town of Paignton on the west of the bay. It is a holiday resort, part of the area billed as "the English Riviera".

Torquay’s population of 63,998 during the 2001 UK Census made it the largest town in Devonshire after Plymouth and Exeter.[1] During the peak summer season the resort's population swells to around 200,000.[2]

The town's economy was initially based upon fishing and agriculture as in the case of Brixham across Tor Bay, but in the early 19th century the town began to develop into a fashionable seaside resort, initially frequented by members of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars while the Royal Navy anchored in the bay and later by the top of Victorian society as the town's fame spread. Renowned for its healthful climate, the town earned the nickname of the "English Riviera" and favourable comparisons to Montpellier.

Torquay was the home of the writer Agatha Christie, who lived most of her life there. The town contains an "Agatha Christie Mile", a tour with plaques, dedicated to her life and work.[3]

Torquay incorporates the ancient village of Torre, which gave its name to the Torre Hundred and to Torre Abbey. In turn, Torre takes its name from the tor above the town, the extensively quarried remains of which can be seen by the town's Tor Hill Road. Torquay was originally Torre's quay.[4]


Torquay stands on the eastern coast of Devon on Tor Bay, forming one third of the Torbay conurbation. It has a mild microclimate, often receiving among the highest hours of sunlight a day in the United Kingdom, winters in the town tend to be mild and wet with above average temperatures. Cabbage trees, nicknamed "Torbay Palms" are a notable feature of the area; the trees were introduced into the area in 1820 from New Zealand and since then have flourished, There are currently thousands throughout the town and they contribute significantly to the somewhat Mediterranean feel of the town.

The town is made up of a number of areas and villages that over the years amalgamated into the town of Torquay. The town's historic core consists of the regions of Tormohun, Wellswood, The Warberries, Upton and Ellacombe, which were once parts of the Palk family's estate. In 1900 the districts of Chelston and Livermead, previously part of the Cockington Estate owned by the Mallocks were annexed by the town, swiftly followed by the absorption of the former borough of St Marychurch into the town. In this period, Saint Marychurch included Plainmoor, Watcombe and Babbacombe. Finally in 1928 the Mallocks' last holdings in Cockington were integrated within the town borders. Torquay continued to expand throughout the century leading to the development of Shiphay, Hele Village, Barton and most recently from the 1990s until present day, The Willows giving the town its current layout.

Aerial view of Torquay Harbour

The areas of Wellswood and the Lincombes were built up by wealthy Victorians. Influenced by their travels around the Mediterranean, they built large villas with Italianate features and towers. There are many pine trees and very many Bay Laurus nobilis bushes and trees, a variety palm trees and Phormiums. The soil type is alkaline well drained and gritty, which is ideal for Mediterranean plants and herbs.


Torquay is also set along a coastline renowned for its beaches, having nine popular beaches. The high standards of water quality and beach facilities mean that many carry coveted awards, including no fewer than three European Blue Flags – more than any other resort in the United Kingdom. The main beaches of Torquay are:

  • Maidencombe Beach
  • Watcombe Beach
  • Oddicombe Beach
  • Babbacombe Beach
  • Anstey's Cove
  • Redgate Beach
  • Meadfoot Beach
  • Torre Abbey Sands
  • Corbyn Sands
  • Institute beach

The town is also noticeable for being the terminus of the Sticklepath Fault line, which runs through the rocks of Devon from Barnstaple Bay to Torquay resulting in infrequent mild earthquakes, the last of which were felt in the 1990s. The fault line emerges in the cliff face which forms part of Rock Walk before going out into the bay itself. On the Rock Walk side is Devonian Limestone on which Warren Road and Fleet Street stand. The other side of the fault line which runs down Belgrave Road is the red sandstone on which Torre Abbey stands, the fault can reach widths up to 1,600 feet in places.


Torquay, 1811

No evidence has been found of Romans' settling in the town, though their soldiers appear to have left offerings at a curious rock formation in Kents Cavern, known as "The Face", joining ancient remains; palaeolithic hand axes found in Kents Cavern may be the oldest example of a modern human in Europe, dating back to 37,000–40,000 years ago.[5][6]

Torre Abbey was founded in 1196.[7][8]

Torquay remained a minor settlement until the Napoleonic wars, when Torbay was frequently used as a sheltered anchorage by the Channel Fleet, and relatives of officers often visited Torquay. The mild climate of Torquay attracted many visitors who considered the town a convalescence retreat where they could recover from illness away from the cold winters of more northerly or easterly towns. The population of Torquay grew rapidly from 838 in 1801, to 11,474 in 1851.

The second phase in the expansion of Torquay began when Torre railway station was opened on 18 December 1848. The improved transport connections resulted in the rapid growth of Torquay at the expense of nearby towns not on Isambard Kingdom Brunel's railways. Torquay railway station was opened on 2 August 1859. The own grew rapidly and was granted borough status in 1872. Previously regarded as a convalescence retreat, Torquay began to encourage healthy visitors, and 1902 saw the first advertising campaign to market Torquay to summer tourists.

The Marine Spa on Beacon Hill by to the harbour was opened as the "Bath Saloons complex" in 1853 after Beacon Hill headland was dynamited to make space for it. It included an open air tide-filled swimming bath. Charles Dickens is said to have given readings there. In the 1900s a ballroom was built and a new seawater-filled swimming pool. The Marine Spa, also carried out various therapies such as Seaweed Baths, Needle, Doche showers, Hot and cold water baths and electric shock treatment. Bands such as Ivy Benson played at Marine Spa ballroom, and the place was regularly visited by Ted Heath, the Prime Minister.

During the Great War, military hospitals were sited in Torquay – many survivors from the Battle of Gallipoli recuperated in the town – and it was also used as a troop staging area. After the war had ended, Great Western Railway launched an advertising campaign to attract tourists to Torquay, and this helped the town grow to a major south coast resort.

During the Second World War, Torquay received many evacuees from the London area, though the town did suffer minor bomb damage during the war, mainly from German bombers dumping excess loads after participating in the Plymouth Blitz. The last air raid on Torquay took place on 29 May 1944 shortly before the D-Day landings in June and in the months leading up to D-Day thousands of US Army personnel arrived in Torquay with the 3204th Quartermaster Service Company being billeted in Chelston and Cockington. During Operation Overlord more than 23,000 men of the American 4th Infantry Division would depart Torquay for Utah Beach.

After World War II several private high-rise apartment blocks were constructed above the rock walk and harbour in imitation of Monte Carlo. The water sport events of the 1948 Summer Olympics were held in Torquay, with the Olympic flame being brought from London to Torre Abbey Gardens.[9]

In 1971, after a tragedy, the Marine Spa was demolished to make way for the ill-fated Coral Island leisure complex. This was characterised by its concrete arches on its uppermost floor and sunbathing decks like those of a cruise liner. The site featured a hexagonal outdoor plunge pool, surrounded by sunbathing terraces leading down to Beacon Cove beach. Inside the building were several lounges, a restaurant and a nightclub within the arches of the ancient swimming bath. All levels were served by a hydraulic passenger lift. Coral Island opened in 1977 and closed permanently in 1988. The complex was demolished in 1997, 20 years after its construction. The site remained derelict until 2002 when the Living Coasts Penguin Park was built there.

In the late 1980s Fleet Street was rebuilt as the Fleetwalk shopping mall, which features street level shops and an upper level shopping deck. The long curved building, which follows the street, is magnolia coloured and in mock Victorian style. In the late 1990s and early 2000s many new pubs and night clubs opened around the harbour area, leading to an increase in binge drinking,[10] however in recent years a better police presence and responsible drinks promotions have improved the situation.[11] Since the War, the nature of tourism in the United Kingdom has changed significantly. Increasing wealth has meant that holidays abroad are now commonplace, and coastal towns are now more popular for short stays as part of a touring holiday.


Central Church (URC), Torquay

Torquay and its immediate area have some 60 churches from a wide variety of Christian denominations.[12]

The largest congregations are:

  • Church of England: St Matthias
  • Baptist: Upon Vale
  • United Reformed Church - Central Church (which has a notable pierced screen wall façade).


Torquay Pavilion, with St John's Church in the background
Strand at evening

Torquay's beaches are its main draw for visitors.

Kents Cavern, a more cerebral attraction, is Britain's most important Stone Age site, which was home to early man for some 700,000 years. The floor is composed of several strata, with remains indicating the prehistoric coexistence there of humans and now-extinct animals. The Rev J McEnery explored the cave between 1825 and 1829 and put forth the coexistence theory. The cave was extensively explored from 1865 to 1880 by William Pengelly, who found evidence to support McEnery's hypothesis. The caves have attracted many famous people, among them Agatha Christie,[13] Beatrix Potter, King George V and the Emperor Haile Selassie who was so impressed with his visit that he gave his guide, Leslie Powe a gold sovereign. On the seafront is the beautiful Victorian Pavilion pictured above. The adjacent "Friends Fountain" complements the Victorian architecture. Both sit idyllically between the Rock Walk and the Marina.

Torquay Harbour

Living Coasts is an attraction built on Beacon Quay, which has existed since 1680. In 1857 the Bath's Saloons complex was built on the promontory overlooking Beacon Cove. This included a ballroom, concert hall and sunlit conservatory and private bathing facilities with, underneath, a large public swimming bath open to the sea. The stone arches of this public bath can still be seen today and have been incorporated into the shop at Living Coasts. Development of the site as a marine animal exhibit was first proposed in the early part of 1999 in response to a call from Torbay Council for submissions from interested parties. The project, developed by Kay Elliott architects, included an exhibit to house marine birds, rather than fish, due to the need to avoid duplicating the exhibits at the National Marine Aquarium]] in Plymouth. The project was subsequently taken on by Paignton Zoo Environmental Park and named "Living Coasts".

The Princess Theatre by the side of the harbour is Torquay's largest theatre with approximately 1,500 seats and plays host to touring independent production companies.[14] The 'Little Theatre in Meadfoot in the converted St Mark's Church hosts productions by the TOADS Theatre Company and of visiting societies.[15] Babbacombe Theatre is located on Babbacombe Downs and describes itself as having the longest running summer season in the country, which lasts nine months.[16]

Other attractions include the Babbacombe Model Village, opened in 1963, and a large tethered balloon offering aerial views of the town.[17]

Torquay in British culture

A number of sketches for Monty Python's Flying Circus were filmed on location in and around both Torquay and neighbouring Paignton. It was while staying in Torquay at the Gleneagles Hotel with the Python team in 1971, that John Cleese found inspiration (and the setting) for Fawlty Towers.[18] After incidents during the Pythons' stay, Cleese later described the eccentric owner, Donald Sinclair, as "the most wonderfully rude man I have ever met", though Mr Sinclair's widow has since said her husband was misrepresented in the comedy.[19]

In the 1970s several episodes of the comedy series The Goodies were filmed in and around Torquay.


  1. "Key Statistics for Torbay — May 2005" (PDF). United Kingdom Census 2001. The Consultation and Research Team, Torbay Council. pp. 2. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  2. The New English Riviera, The Mayor's Vision For A New Torbay, Torbay Council Publication, 2007
  3. "Go on a mystery walk in beautiful Torquay". BBC. Retrieved 18 February 2010.  Agatha's home was actually in Greenaway on the River Dart about 15 miles from Torquay
  4. Percy Russell, A History Of Torquay (Torquay: Devonshire Press Limited, 1960), 7-8
  5. John R. Pike, Torquay (Torquay: Torbay Council Printing Services, 1994), 5-6
  6. "Jawbone hints at earliest Britons". 2005-04-27. Retrieved 2006-11-07. 
  7. Russell, 19
  8. Pike, 6
  9. Russell, 199
  10. "Blackpool and Torquay hit by alcohol-fuelled violence". The Independent (London). 2004-08-02. Retrieved 2010-05-25. 
  11. Page 12,17,18
  13. Agatha Christie (1977), Autobiography
  14. "Princess Theatre : Official Website". Retrieved 2008-04-03. 
  15. "Little Theatre in Torquay, Devon". Retrieved 2008-04-03. 
  16. "Babbacombe Theatre - Let us entertain you ....". Retrieved 2008-04-03. 
  18. "BBC - Comedy - Fawlty Towers". Retrieved 2006-10-29. 
  19. Richard Savill. "My husband was not like Basil". London: Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 2007-01-21. 

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