Torquay. Report from the Buildings Section

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Author(s): Wilson. Helen; Year published: 2012; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): buildings; Location(s): Torquay

The image of Torquay as a classic Victorian seaside town has long been tempered by modernity, but enough remains to give the visitor a glimpse of what drew our ancestors to this place. Arriving at the railway station, itself a Grade II listed building constructed in 1878 for the Great Western Railway, one emerges almost on the seafront. Here, overlooking the bay, is the Grand Hotel, which epitomises the splendour that once welcomed well-to-do visitors. Heading east along Torbay Road, Abbey Park emerges on the left, with Torre Abbey, founded in 1196 by William de Brewer, beyond it. This Grade I listed building was converted to a residence after 1598 and later became the home of the Cary family. The complex now includes the gatehouse, Abbot’s tower, south and west ranges, chapter house, remnants of the Abbey Church and a medieval barn.

Moving along Torbay Road with the seafront to the right, one passes the former Palm Court Hotel, built in 1912, and recently destroyed by fire, and the c. 1842 former Toll House to Torbay Road. Further around lies the harbour area, the original enclosure begun by Rennie in 1803, with the outer breakwater completed in 1867. As part of a comprehensive redesign and improvement of the seafront in the early 1890s, associated with the formation of the New Harbour, Princess Gardens and Royal Terrace Gardens were laid out, and Princess Pier built. In 1911 a Pavilion was built, consisting of a steel frame covered by Doulton stoneware, a copper roof and an elaborately plastered barrel-vault interior, described by English Heritage as an ‘exuberant’ seaside building.

From the harbour, the town rises on low hills on which Georgian and Victorian villas are now joined by modern high rises. Prominent on the skyline is the church of St John the Evangelist, built 1861–73 by G. E. Street and Grade I listed. The interior is richly furnished, with impressive stained glass by William Morris & Co and a later Lady Chapel by J. D. Sedding. In general, the churches of Torquay are of the Victorian period when the town expanded rapidly. An exception is the medieval St Saviour, the parish church of Tormoham (now Greek Orthodox and renamed St Andrew), although the exterior and interior are so heavily restored that the general feeling is of a Victorian church. A truly Victorian church is All Saints at Babbacombe by William Butterfield, built between 1865 and 1874 and Grade I listed. Pevsner describes it as one of Butterfield’s most important churches, reflecting as it does the architect’s interest in structural polychromy and sharp geometric designs. Returning to the Harbour and continuing east, along Torwood Road and then Babbacombe Road, one arrives at Torquay Museum, a Grade II listed building of 1874–76. This two storey, five-bay fronted building is of limestone with bathstone dressing. It was designed to house the Torquay Natural History Society, founded in 1844 by William Pengelly who was responsible for the exploration of Kent’s Cavern.

A visit to the Torquay area would not be complete without an excursion to nearby Cockington. It is a village like many others, with manor house, church, cottages and farm buildings, but they are all so well preserved that there are no fewer than 43 listings. Cockington Court (Grade II*) was the seat of the Carys before they went to Torre Abbey. Their successors, the Mallocks, set up a Trust in the 1930s aiming to preserve “entire and unchanged the ancient amenities and character of the place”. They intended some development in the form of a model village centre, designed by Lutyens, but only the Drum Inn was built. The effect can be rather ‘chocolate box’, but Cockington is nonetheless a fine achievement in building conservation.

Helen Wilson

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