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South West Torquay and Torre Abbey

Marketing itself as the English Riviera with its mild climate and palm trees, Torquay was the place the posh people went on holiday after the war. The rest of us headed to Butlins or the nearest seaside town.


The posh moved on to more exotic destinations and package holidays took over from the traditional seaside holiday. Now people head off to all inclusive resort holidays.

Despite this, Torquay is still a popular and busy holiday resort with its long promenade, gardens, marina full of boats of all sizes, cafes and bars and a sandy beach. Its spectacular coastline is now a Global Geopark. Torquay is thriving.

It has prehistory with Kent’s Cavern. The ruined Torre Abbey, once the wealthiest Premonstratensian monastery in England, gave its name to the later settlement. Torquay Museum covers the history of Torquay, including its connections with Agatha Christie who lived nearby.

The economy was predominantly based on fishing and agriculture. By the C19th, Torquay was a bustling fishing port, with its own Fish Market. Now there are few boats catching mainly crab.


The barking furnace on South Quay was used to treat fishing nets with bark preservative to protect them from the rotting effects of salt water. Bark from beech or pine was mixed with water to high temperatures producing a tar like substance.


The furnace was no longer used after the Second World War and the copper cauldron has been sold off. The brickwork remains.


The Napoleonic Wars meant the English elite were no longer able to visit Europe and the discovery of the virtues of sea bathing brought visitors to Torquay. A medicinal baths opened followed by a spa and assembly rooms on Beacon Head.

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The railway arrived in 1848 bringing more visitors, attracted by the mild climate. A pier was built. The Victoria Hotel opened in 1861, followed by many more. Forget the images of Fawlty Towers portrayed in the 1970s TV comedy series, there are many 4* and 5* hotels here.

Money has been spent to regenerate the town which is now an important local centre for the area, with a good range of shops. It has an excellent bus service as well as ferry services to Brixham and Paignton.

The Pavilion may have closed down awaiting redevelopment, but the Princess Theatre is still busy offering a varied programme .



The big wheel was moved here from the London Olympic Park after the Olympics in 2012 and in the summer months offers amazing views of the town and harbour.


Royal Terrace Gardens have been restored along with a fountain and the war memorial is here.



Gardens and the promenade extend along Torbay road to Torre Sands.



This is a lovely sandy beach popular with swimmers and families, stretching as far as the beach huts below Corbyn’s Head.




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Torquay is centred round the harbour and marina.



The roads along the harbour are lined with shops and eateries as well as kiosks for ferry tickets. The town climbs steeply behind.



The small tourist Information Office is on Vaughan Parade overlooking the inner harbour.


The Old Clock tower at the junction of Victoria Parade, Strand and Torwood Street was built in 1902 to commemorate local MP, Richard Mallock, whose family were instrumental in the development of Torquay as a holiday resort in the C19th. It is now a roundabout.


Fleet Street is the main shopping area with its elegant arcade of two storey shops.


Beyond are elegant late C19th houses with shops on the ground floor.



The splendid building of old post office dates from 1912, reflecting the importance of Torquay.


Torquay has a lot going for it - either for a day visit or longer stay.


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The most complete example of a monastic site in Devon, this once important abbey gave its name to Torquay. As well as the remains of the abbey, there is also a Georgian home built from the stones of the abbey, medieval tithe barn, fortified gatehouse and a Victorian garden.


Founded in 1196, it was the largest and wealthiest Premonstratensian monastery in England. It was one of four monasteries founded by William Brewser, sherriff of Devon, and one of the justiciars appointed to administer England while Richard I was on Crusade and who helped negotiate his release.

Canons from Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire settled here to say prayers for the souls of Brewer and his family. The east end of the church was built first followed by the chapter house and monks living quarters. The cloister and nave were the last to be added.


Novice canons were recruited from the sons of Devon farmers and landowners. They were taught to read and write and to sing in Latin. Once they had taken their vows, they were forbidden to leave the order, although they could leave the monastery to serve as parish priests.

The abbey owned extensive land and manors across Devon. Two thirds of its income came from rents. The rest came from tithes paid to its churches and chapels. The abbey also owned several water mills and peasants had to pay tolls to use these. The use of hand querns was forbiddden.


The abbey was self sufficient growing cereals, fruit, vegetables and vines. Sheep and cattle were kept . There was a rabbit warren, fish pond and dove cote.

During the Hundred Years War with France, the abbey was at risk of invasion. A boundary wall was built along with a fortified gatehouse and Edward III granted a licence to crenellate.


Only one of the three original gatehouses survives. A porter controlled access to the abbey.


Torre Abbey of the last monasteries to be dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Dissolution resulted in a wide scale demolition of the church and east range, and all items of value, including the lead from the roofs, were taken. The south and west ranges were mostly unscathed.


Torre Abbey was bought in 1598 by Thomas Ridgeway, a local lawyer, and he converted parts of the abbey into a family home.


Sir Thomas Cary bought Torre Abbey in 1662. As well as modernising the house, he added a secret chapel and employed a catholic priest to say mass. His family lived there for nearly 300 years and the house was updated and modernised several times to reflect the latest fashions. These can best be seen from the abbey ruins and gardens behind the house.

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The ending of the Napoleonic War led to a drop in food prices and income from the land. By 1856, the Cary’s were almost bankrupt and forced to sell the entire contents of the abbey and move into lodgings. The abbey stood empty for 15 years after a plan to rent it as a hotel fell through.

Surrounding land was sold off for building, allowing the family to move back into the abbey and begin major repairs. The Abbey quickly past through several family members until the death of the final owner, Lionel Coxon Carey, when the abbey had to be sold off to cover accumulated death duty taxes.

Torbay Council acquired Torre Abbey in 1930 for the bargain price of £40,000 for use as an Art Gallery and Mayor’s Parlour for holding civic receptions.

The Abbey is now a multi-award winning visitor attraction housing an impressive art collection with over 600 works of art from the C18th century to the present day. The top floor is an exhibition area telling the story of the Abbey through videos, talking portraits and interactive displays.



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Torre Abbey cont - The House

Entry is beneath a fortified tower into a passage leading to the undercroft which was built around 1230 and is one of the best surviving examples in England.




The vaulted room on the left was the cellarer’s undercroft and has information about the abbey as well as some artefacts from the site.


On the other side is the dining room for lay brothers. The abbey employed about 50 laybrothers, who provided the practical support for running monastery workshops, farms and kitchens.


A spiral staircase in the corner gave access to rooms above.


The top floor of the house was originally the servant’s quarters and has been converted into a large exhibition area about the history of the abbey.


The art galleries and a reconstruction of the Cary dining room are on the first floor.



Below it is the Cary Chapel, which was built in 1776 in the shell of the medieval Abbot’s Hall. Stone steps lead from the outside to the original wooden door with its knocker.


Visitors would wash their hands at the levabo before dining.


The chapel was the first Catholic place of worship in Torquay and although private, local Catholics were able to worship there until a Catholic Church was built in Torquay in 1854. It is a simple chapel with family memorials on the walls.



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Torre Abbey cont - The Abbey Ruins


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Little remains of the Abbey apart from the east wall of the cloister. The holes along the top of the wall are a dovecote and provided squabs to make pigeon pie. The lower holes were cut out of the existing stonework some time after the dissolution of the monastery. The upper brick work and holes were added in 1740


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Beyond are the remains of the Chapter house with sacristy, where church valuables were kept.


A spiral stone staircase led from the sacristy to the monks dormitory above.


Beyond the sacristy is the south transept of the church which would have contained two chapels.


One still has a sandstone coffin.



The large blocks of masonry are all that remain of the tower above the crossing.


Little remains of the nave with its north aisle, apart from the pillar bases in the grass.


The coffin of William Brewer the younger, son of the founder, is in the chancel, before where the high altar would have been.


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Torre Abbey cont - The Gardens

The walled gardens behind the house were created on the site of the monastic cemetery.


They are very attractive with a large lawn with flower beds.





In one corner is Agatha Christie’s Potent Plant Garden, although less poisonous varieties of her plants are grown here.



Behind is the heated palm house containing plants from across the world .





The arid palm house is tucked away in a corner of the garden.



Near it is the rockery


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Torre Abbey cont - The Spanish Barn

This is one of the best surviving examples of a early medieval barn to store produce. The huge double doors on opposite sides allowed a wagon and horses to unload and exit without having to turn round. During threshing, the doors could be open to provide a through draught to blow away the chaff.




The barn was used to house 397 Spanish prisoners when the Nuestra Senora del Rosario which was part of the Armada collided with another ship and her captain was forced to surrender to Francis Drake. The prisoners were held in the barn for 14 days before being moved to prisons in Exeter or taken back to the Nuestra Senora del Rosario to survive on a dwindling supply of provisions before returning to Spain.


During Cary tenure of the Abbey, the barn was used to stable their horses and later their Daimler.

The gardens and abbey ruins are a delight and there are plenty of seats to sit and enjoy the place.

The house contains a lot of information about the abbey and has an interesting selection of paintings.

The guide book is informative and has some good pictures.

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