Torquay is located on Devon’s south coast and is part of the fabled English Riviera. Overlooking the wide sweep of Tor Bay, this vibrant resort is renowned for its attractive harbour, a collection of impressive beaches and a picturesque palm-fringed promenade. Read on as we now take a look at the history of the town and profile some of the most popular Torquay visitor attractions.
The earliest evidence of human settlement in the area was discovered at the famous local caves, Kents Cavern. Hand axes and skull fragments suggest that people inhabited the region some 40,000 years ago.
Roman settlements were also unearthed at Totnes and Newton Abbot in the 18th century. Despite these discoveries, there’s no evidence that the Roman’s actually occupied Torquay itself.
Celtic Kingdom of Dumnonia
Instead, it’s thought that Torquay has its origins with a post-Roman Celtic kingdom known as Dumnonia. The Celtic translation of this kingdom is Dyfneint which was eventually corrupted to become Devon.
Dumnonia was eventually conquered by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Wessex. However, there’s no recorded mention of Torquay until the Domesday Book.
Saxon Hamlet of Torre
Torquay actually grew around a Saxon hamlet named Torre that derives from the word ‘Tor’ meaning craggy peak. In 1196 Torrey Abbey was founded by a local community of monks. Built using locally-quarried stone, the Abbey owned a great deal of land in the area and was considered the richest monastery in England.
The monks also constructed a fishing quay, from which the name Torquay originates. At this point, fishing and agriculture were the village’s main industries and remained so for hundreds of years.
Unlike many coastal locations in the UK, Torquay’s development was generally unhindered by calamity or incursion. For the most part, the town remained on the periphery of major conflicts which mercifully played out elsewhere. During the 15th century, a medieval barn was used to house Spanish soldiers captured from the ill-fated Spanish Armada.
More than 100 years later, William III landed at the nearby Brixham with some 14,000 troops. The army marched through Torquay on its way to London where the King took control of the country in the Glorious Revolution.
And it was another distant military struggle that contributed to Torquay’s most pronounced and sustained development.
Birth of a Seaside Resort
The Napoleonic Wars were a huge factor in Torquay’s evolution as a holiday resort. The conflict, which raged across Europe from 1803 to 1815, prevented Britain’s rich and well-to-do from touring the continent.
So instead they looked for UK coastal locations such as Torquay in which to holiday. The large bay of Torbay was also well-suited for large ships. As a result, the Channel Fleet, which protected Britain from French invasion, often anchored in the vicinity. The fleet brought with it naval officers and their wives who also helped turn Torquay into a fashionable holiday spot.
The first major redevelopment of the town occurred in 1807. A new harbour was built to replace the previous boatyard which had fallen into disrepair. But Torquay still wasn’t considered fit for purpose. So radical redevlopment plans were submitted by local politician William Kitson.
The Maker of Torquay
The plans introduced much-needed upgrades to the fledging resort’s infrastructure. These included the introduction of amenities such as a road network, sewer system, water supply and street lighting.
Exclusive residential areas were also constructed in the Warberries and Lincombees area of town. Hesketh Crescent is one of the most notable surviving buildings from this rebuilding phase and features a grand, sweeping Regency facade.
The reconstruction and renovations of the 1830s and 40s are unparalleled in the town’s history. Indeed, Kitson’s influence on the town’s evolution was such that he is considered ‘the maker of Torquay’. He was essentially given free reign to develop it as he saw fit. The impact of his plans is still very much in evidence today, especially in regards to the town’s architecture.
Visit of Princess Victoria
As testament to Torquay’s growing reputation as a fashionable holiday location, Princess Victoria visited in 1833 – Victoria Parade is named in her honour and was where the heir presumptive first set foot. Torquay also started to attract the wealthy infirm who sought the perceived health-giving properties of the local sea air and coastal waters.
By the 1850s, visitor numbers had increased significantly, thanks largely to the railways. This new mode of travel connected Torquay to the rest of the UK and ushered in a sustained period of prosperity.
The town’s popularity reached its zenith in the mid 19th century as the rich and well-healed of Europe began taking their holidays there too. Notable visitors included the Russian Romanoff family as well as a variety of famous literary figures such as Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde.
In 1889, the now defunct Winter Gardens were created to entertain winter holiday-makers. They comprised a cast-iron and glass concert venue, a bowling alley and three tennis courts. Despite a slight downturn in visitor numbers around this time, Torquay continued to expand, eventually incorporating the nearby areas of Chelston and Livermead.
Second World War – Haven, Embarkation Point
At the turn of the century, Torquay’s status as a top holiday destination was secure. However, this status was temporarily interrupted following the outbreak of the Second World War. As well as sheltering London evacuees escaping from the Blitz, the town hosted the US 4th Infantry Division.
On June 6, 1944, they would set sail for Normandy and the killing fields of France as part of the D-Day Landings. After the Second World War, Torquay gradually began to reassert itself as a tourist destination.
Today, Torquay is the largest and most famous resort in Devon. Surrounded by high-wooded hills that offer panoramic views of Tor Bay, the town is graced by a variety of luxurious hotels as well as an assortment of elegant stuccoed villas. The prevailing aura here is one of sophistication but also friendliness.
During the summer months, the vivid colours of the sub-tropical trees, bay bushes and sea front gardens lend Torquay a distinct Mediterranean ambience – it’s easy to see why the holiday town is considered by many to be the nearest thing to a French Riviera resort in all of Britain.
There are of course plenty of things to see and do in the area. Read on as we now look at top Torquay visitor attractions and activities.
Babbacombe Model Village
The award-winning Babbacombe Model Village offers a great day out for the whole family. Its centrepiece is an elaborate world in miniature comprising more than 400 model houses, shops and factories.
The village is populated by more than 13,000 tiny townsfolk and a variety of vehicles including cars and trains. Numerous architectural styles are showcased, from Shakespearian to Victorian. Accompanying the model village is a 4D theatre, tearoom and shop.
Living Coasts Zoo and Sea Life Aquarium
Living Coasts Zoo is another award-winning Torquay visitor attraction that boasts an abundant array of marine life. The zoo, which is arranged into a variety of enclosures, includes an artificial tidal estuary, a tropical mangrove and a penguin beach.
There’s also a massive aviary covering some 5,500 square metres that’s home to more than 300 birds such as puffins, penguins and guillemots. Other highlights include an underwater aquarium that’s houses aquatic species like seahorses, starfish and stingray.
The acclaimed Animal Experiences package is another popular attraction, allowing visitors to meet and feed some of the zoo’s inhabitants.
Nature-lovers looking to travel a little further afield should enjoy Paignton Zoo which is about a 15 minute drive from Torquay. Covering 80 acres, the zoo features thousands of exotic animals. Giraffes, black rhinos, cheetahs and ostriches are among the most notable residents.
Like Living Coasts, Paignton Zoo is also graced by a wonderful array of exotic bird species. The Reptile Tropics enclosure, with its crocodiles, iguanas, chameleons and monitors is a big hit too.
Dartmouth Steam Railway
The Dartmouth Steam Railway is a great way to explore South Devon. Historical steam locomotives operate on a 7 mile heritage railway that wends its way along the spectacular Torbay coast. Calling at Torquay, Dartmouth and Totnes, this heritage railway is one of the premier Torquay visitor attractions.
Round-robin tours can also be arranged which carry passengers along the River Dart by paddle steamer, taking in some beautiful riverside settings.
Torquay’s Dinosaur World
Torquay’s Dinosaur World is an indoor exhibition that displays full size and scaled dinosaurs as well as an assortment of fossils from Jurassic times past. Geared towards kids, notable attractions include a T-Rex scull and an assortment of life-like replica reptiles including a triceratops and a Parasaurolophus.
A series of interactive exhibits help bring these fearsome creatures back to life and there’s also a well-stocked gift shop.
Cockington Court and Country Park
Within a about a mile of Torquay is Cocking Court, another award-winning visitor attraction. In addition to being an arts and crafts centre, this historic manor house is set within a country park that’s part of the UNESCO English Riviera Global Geopark.
It combines a variety of landscapes ranging from unspoilt woodlands to well-manicured lawns and rose gardens. A number of self-guided walks are available that allow visitors to experience the idyllic surroundings in all of their splendour –information about these can be found at the visitor centre.
Other highlights include a children’s play area, a walled art garden and a series of craft studios that are open to the public.
Torquay’s attractive seafront with its sub-tropical trees is further enhanced by beautiful Princess Gardens.
Situated next to the marina, they were named after Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria who laid the foundation stone in May of 1890.
The Princess Theatre sits in the middle of the gardens and hosts a variety of musicals and shows throughout the year. A variety of events are also held at the gardens themselves including the popular Agatha Christie Festival Fete.
Princess Pier is another sublime throwback to Torquay’s hey-dey as a holiday resort. Built in 1890, it offers the perfect opportunity to take a stroll and enjoy the wonderful sea-front. Sightseeing boat trips run from the end of the pier travelling to the nearby towns of Paignton, Brixham and Greenway.
Founded in 1196 by Premonstratensian monks, Torre Abbey is an English Riviera UNESCO Globl Geopark Site. Its one of the most well-preserved medival monasteries in South-West England and features an array of well-presented medieval and Georgian rooms.
Today, the abbey serves as a museum and art gallery. Numerous interactive displays and galleries tell the story of its fascinating history. There are more than 600 works of art dating back to the 18th century.
Visitors also have access to the abbey gardens which feature well-manicured lawns, ancient tombs, a palm house as well as the ruins of a church that once stood in the grounds.
While in the town, it’s well worth paying a visit to Bygones. Laid out over three floors of a timber-framed former cinema, this quirky museum houses an eclectic range of items from Victorian times and other epochs.A life-sized Victorian high street is of particular interest with its 15 little shops as is a 27-ton steam engine.
The museum also features 8 Victorian-era rooms as well and an excellent collection of WW1 and WW2 memorabilia. A souvenir gift shop is located on-sito and stocks traditional toys, games and retro items.
Torquay Museum on Babbacombe Road is renowned for an extensive range of items spanning some 400 million years of human history. Its collections include more than 150,000 insects, some 20,000 shells, 6000 rock samples and around 250 marine plants sourced from local beaches.
There’s also an expansive ornithological display that consists of 500 mounted bird specimens representing most of the UK’s bird species. The field of geology is also very well represented with about 6000 samples collected from the Moors and local area.
As well as permanent galleries, the Torquay Museum features a variety of exhibitions. The current exhibition iy D-Day 75 which tells the story of South Devon’s involvement with Operation Overlord.
Kents Cavern is a five minute drive from Torquay and in considered one of the oldest known human dwelling places in Britain. Occupied as far back as the last Ice Age, the stalagmites and limestone-laced water dripping from the rocks, helped to preserve the skeletal remains of sabre-toothed tigers and even bears.
It’s also one of the country’s most impressive show-caves. Tours are operated daily with experienced guides taking visitors around the caves explain how the caves were formed. They also provide insights into how the caves were used by our ancient ancestors to shelter from the harsh elements.
Various objects unearthed at Kents Cavern are displayed in a series of galleries and include tools as well as bones and teeth from ancient Ice Age creatures. The Great Chamber is one of the most impressive and displays objects excavated during Victorian times.
For more information about Torquay and the surrounding region visit: https://www.englishriviera.co.uk
Looking to stay near Torquay? Visit our Devon holiday properties page for information!