Even if you’ve only come to Torquay to enjoy the coastline and entertainment you should definitely try to include a visit to Kents Cavern as well if you can.
These show caves were opened up to the public for the first time back in 1880 and attract around 80,000 visitors a year. Exploration of the caves took place much earlier than that and records go back as far as 1571.
These dates become insignificant when we start to go backwards in time though. The cave’s most important find was a human jaw-bone that has recently been dated to between 41,500 and 44,200 years old which makes it the earliest modern human (Homo Sapiens) fossil found in N.W. Europe. It can be seen in Torquay Museum where many other finds from Kents Cavern are kept. (See my tip on Torquay Museum).
If you think that’s old then think again because Stone Axes have been found in the caves that can be traced back 500,000 years. These earliest Europeans (Homo Erectus) would no doubt have used these tools to butcher the local wildlife which would have included Hyenas, Lions and Mammoths.
Just to prove the point there’s a Bear’s skull on display before you enter the caves that has been put at around 420,000 years old.
So, if archaeologists have dug up these remains from all this time ago how old are the caves themselves? Well it would seem that they were formed about 2 ½ million years ago when rainwater gradually permeated through the limestone rocks.
So what about the age of the rocks themselves then?
They’ve been dated to around 385 million years old, which is still young compared to Scotland’s Pre-Cambrian rocks that are something like 3,300m years old - and if you’re really interested you might like to know that our planet was formed some 4,600m years ago.
The caves are interesting from both an archaeological and geological point of view, but for obvious reasons can only be seen on a guided tour, which is both fun and informative and lasts about an hour.
Kents Cavern has been in the hands of the Powe family for over a hundred years but it’s bang up to date with facilities that you would expect of such an attraction and is open throughout the year.
The caves are an important part of local, national, and international pre-history and you’ll leave Torquay all the poorer (figuratively speaking) if you don’t come here before you leave.
Torquay has a lively harbour and an international marina and remains a fully commercial and busy little Devon port; the Harbour is sheltered by two piers. Princess Pier to the west and Haldon Pier to the south. Princess Pier is a popular promenade complete with seating that also provides a good spot for anglers. The inner harbour lies behind a cill and bridge, trapping the water at half tide level and berths 170 moorings for boats up to 9 metres long. The Quayside contains shops, cafes and ample space for trailers and a boat park area.
This Victorian Fountain has the distinction of sharing the mouldings that were used to cast another fountain which is outside Raffles Hotel in Singapore. There are slight differences to the bolted-on sections in that the bowl on the Singapore version has no supporting brackets and the top feature is different.
Made of Bath stone the clock tower, known as the Mallock Memorial, was built in 1902 and is named after Richard Mallock, who represented Torquay in Parliament from 1886 to 1895 and who died in 1900. In 2010 the Clock Tower was re-dedicated to the people of Torbay following restoration by the Torbay Development Agency (TDA).
St John's Church is an Anglican Parish Church and is a fine example of Victorian Church Architecture influenced by the Pre-Raphelite Movement. The church is a delightful building with many interesting features, including Burne-Jones and William Morris windows, Salviati mosaics and a rare total immersion font.
Mondays, Fridays and Sundays
Most first time visitors to Torquay will probably want to head straight for the harbour because it’s Torquay’s focal point.
There are actually 2 harbours - the Outer and Inner.
The Outer Harbour is protected by 2 piers - the Princess and the Haldon but it’s the Inner Harbour that will be the main attraction for the casual visitor.
The Inner Harbour is enclosed by a cill between the South Pier and the Old Fish Quay. The Millennium Footbridge crosses over between the two and so it’s therefore possible to walk all the way around the Inner Harbour without having to turn back. The cill allows water to remain inside the Inner Harbour even when the tide goes out but it only caters for the smallest of pleasure craft.
Surrounding the harbour is a range of shops, bars and restaurants and the North Quay side (Vaughan Parade) is pedestrianised. This is also where the Tourist Information Office is situated.
Also around here are the kiosks advertising various boat trips on offer along the South Devon coastline. I will be writing a separate tip about these.
On the other side of the harbour at the end of Victoria Parade is ‘Living Coasts’ . This is an attraction run by Paignton Zoo and consists of seabirds and other coastal creatures.
Nearby, two D-Day embarkation ramps have been preserved in honour of the 4th U.S. Infantry Division who left here for Utah Beach in Normandy back on June 6th 1944.
It has to be said that the harbour area can get quite lively on weekend nights but the excessive number of stag and hen parties of a few years ago seem to have abated in recent years.
These days you can visit outstanding museums in this country with their exceptional collections for nothing :-Free, buckshee, zilch. So why would anyone want to pay a fiver to visit a small provincial museum like Torquay?
The problem is, of course, that small local museums don't get any real consistent financial support, and this doesn't just apply to Torquay but to smaller museums up and down the country. Consequently a small band of people with the help of volunteers put an awful lot of effort in to keeping locally important collections in the local community. So if you feel like I do that it's important for this to continue then the admission fee asked for doesn't seem so bad.
So what do you get for your money? Firstly, don't let the Victorian exterior put you off because inside it's not as fusty as you might imagine. Thanks to grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund the museum has had a makeover to bring it into the modern age. It is in fact the oldest museum still operating in Devon (founded in 1844) and over the years has ammassed an estimated 300,000 specimens. Only about 1% is on display and it's easy to see why. It's not a large building and there are a number of things that are important to the history of Torquay. They include the special geology of the area (it's the world's first Urban Geopark), the life and literature of Agatha Christie, explorers of the past who either came from or lived in Torquay, and of course the everyday things that made Torquay what it is.
For the casual visitor I would highly recommend the items on display that have been found in Kent's Cavern - and whatever you do don't miss KC4. It's only tiny and you could easily miss it - but don't because KC4 is Britain's oldest human fossil, recently dated at between 41,500 and 44,200 years old and consequently the earliest modern human fossil ever found in N.W. Europe. It was found in Kent's Cavern in 1927.
The best thing to do of course is to check out the museum's website for all the up to date details. It has lifts to help people with mobility problems, a cafe and shop as well as a Classic Cinema every other Friday afternoon. Photography isn't permitted in the Agatha Christie section due to copyright issues but is allowed everywhere else. It's open practically every day of the year (except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day) so there's no excuse not to come and check it out -and it has to be worth it for the price of a large glass of wine - or a small one if you qualify for a concession.
When I came to write this up I discovered that the balloon was ripped to pieces by high winds in January 2012 and hasn't been replaced. It then transpired that the operators, Lindstrand Technologies, had been in a rent dispute with the Torbay Council and hadn't paid any rent for use of the site in the Abbey Gardens for the last three years - the sum of £50,000 is being bandied about.
So it looks like this is no longer going to be a "Thing To Do" after all - well at least not with this particular balloon, but I'll leave this piece anyway as a reminder of what was - and another example of Torquay's capricious nature.
Whilst the Torquay Town Council weren't spending money on the upkeep of the characterful and historically important Torre Abbey they did manage to find funding for this concrete monstrosity - about 15 million pounds.
Completed in 1987 this is a purpose-designed conference, sports and leisure centre with gymnasium and swimming pool facilities. It seems to have had a bit of a chequered history in its earlier years when managed by the Council but in recent years the centre's management has been put out to tender and has been rebranded from the English Riviera Centre to become the Torquay International Riviera Centre.
Recent reviews rate the Bay Brasserie restaurant quite highly and the swimming pool with its wave machine and flumes gets some good write-ups too but it is still a very ugly building and typical of the overall incongruity of the town itself.
Torre Abbey was founded in 1196 by a group of six Premonstratensian Canons from Wellbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. The order had been gifted the land by Lord William Brewer, who at the time was High Sherriff of Devon and an important advisor to the succession of contemporary monarchs. As well as the land for the abbey Brewer also provided various other grants which provided an income for the canons and the upkeep of the abbey and subsequent canons attracted further sources of income such that in 1536 Torre Abbey was said to be "The wealthiest in all England." (according to the "Valor Ecclesiasticus" - the Church Valuation initiated by Henry VIII in order to asses them for taxation).
Following Henry's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 the abbey's church was demolished and the remaining buildings turned into private accommodation which were eventually bought by the wealthy Cary family, who owned the nearby manor of Cockington, in 1662.
The Cary's were responsible for creating the present-day manifestation of the abbey, adding further buildings, relandscaping the gardens and creating the Georgian facade of the South Range. By the end of the First World War the Cary family had lost all of its male line, most killed during that conflict and the house was bequeathed to the son of one of the female family members, a naval captain, Lionel Coxon. In order to accept the bequest Coxon was required to change his name to Cary, for which he received royal assent. However not being independently wealthy Coxon, now Cary, struggled with the upkeep of the house and upon his death in 1929 his son, Commander Henry Cary, had to sell it, offering it to the Torquay Town Council for the bargain price of £40,000.
The council duly bought it in 1930 and decided to use it as an art gallery and museum, opening it to the public. Coincidently two years later the council managed a similar deal for Cockington Court with the Mallock family who had bought Cockington from the Cary's back in the 1660's and similarly turned the manor house there into an art gallery and museum too.
With the decline in the Cary family's fortunes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the property had seen little investment in its upkeep and this was the case also under the council's ownership. What repairs that had been carried out were unsympathetic to the buildings' structures, such as the use of cement-based rendering which prevented the walls from breathing and causing the supporting timbers to rot. In 1994 a building inspection commissioned by the council found that there was serious structural damage which was in need of immediate attention. The abbey was then closed to the public in 1996 for major renovation work, a project which is still ongoing, and despite opening for a couple of years has now been closed again whilst the last of the work is carried out. This is expected to be completed by July 2013 and when it reopens it is expected to be one of the Southwest's main attractions as both a gallery and a museum.
Even though the main buildings are currently closed you can still walk round the outside and enjoy the gardens and external architecture.
Torbay's "Measured Miles" initiative is joint effort by the Torbay Council and the local NHS Trust to encourage people, visitors and residents, to choose the healthy option of walking around the bay area rather than driving. A series of maps mark the main attractions of the area between Torquay's harbour and Paignton's Corbyn Head with the distances marked in quarter miles and miles both on the maps and physically on the route.
Whilst just about everything else around Torbay is commercially driven this is purely designed for the health benefits and the maps have no business sponsors, merely pointing out the natural highlights of the route such as beaches and viewpoints. Also clearly marked are things like bus stops and the train stations and the information boards mention the #12 bus route which will take you onwards or back to where you started should you require it.
Of course this isn't just for walkers - you can jog, run or cycle too plus the route is fully wheelchair accessible.
Copies of the map, and timetables are available from doctor's surgeries, visitor information centres and online through the link on the website below.
I read comments about mooring being expensive in Torquay. It's important to keep in mind that there are two marinas in Torquay: a private one and a council run one. The visitors pontoon in the town dock has plenty of room for visiting boats and a night in a ca. 27 ft vessel will set you back this season just under GBP 15. Not bad compared to Salcombe,Dartmouth or Plymouth. Brixham is another alternative at roughly the same price. Showers available in both. Don't attempt to moor up in Babbacombe Bay in one of the swing moorings of The Cary Arms as they want GBP 50 for the night. Even if you are heading for the pub to eat !
This is one of the best historic buildings in the area. You can look through the family chapel, the gardens, and the best preserved meieval abbey ruins in the southwest part of England -- it started as a Premonstratensian Canon monestary. Founded in 1186, this place lets you trace over 800 years of developmetn ranging from the mediveal monestary up to the Mayor's modern day residence. The art gallery is worth some time, too - it doesn't just have paints but pottery and other pieces of art.
Torre Abbey was built as a monastery in 1196, this prestigeous building has been well looked after over the past 800 years and is a delight to visit. It later became a family home to the Cary family, who played a major part in the development of Torquay. Apart from the house itself with its art galleries and Agatha Christie room, there are gardens and palm house to explore. Also within the grounds a Spanish Barn, so called as it housed Spanish prisoners from the Spanish Armada in the late 1500s. Torre Abby was bought in 1930 by Torbay council and is now the Mayors Parlour.
Admission is £3.50, opening times are daily between April1st to November 09:30 to 18:00.
View of the centre of Cockington Village.
The low roofed building is the Forge and this is one of the most photographed buildings in the country. It dates from the 14th century. Some of the older pictures of Cockington Forge show my great grandfather who was one of the many Ironsmiths over the centuries. Unfortunately, no longer a working forge, it is now home to the famous miniature horseshoe.