Normally, August on a popular Devonshire beach would be my idea of hell – shoulder to sunburnt shoulder with loud families, frazzled kids demanding endless Mr Whippys and overcooked Nanas complaining about the heat – but this year, like for many for British seaside resorts, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Last weekend, I swapped the pebbled beaches of my hometown of Brighton for the sandy shores of Torquay on the English Riviera.
Torquay, Paignton and Brixham form a trio of resorts which daisy-chain along the south Devon coast. It was the Victorians who first called it the English Riviera as its quaint harbours, sandy beaches and balmy climate were thought to resemble that of the Mediterranean.
I suppose with a chilled rosé on the quayside, the tinny chink of sailboats, gleaming white cruisers and dusty palm trees swaying in the breeze, if I squint – and ignore the chants of the lager-fuelled lads behind me – it could, at a push, be mistaken for St Tropez.
There’s a notable absence of coachloads of silver-haired seniors and American tourists this year; instead it’s largely families desperate for some beach time after months of lockdown. They aren’t staying at my pad, however. The 25 (the25.uk), a swish adults-only boutique B&B which was recently named the World’s Best B&B by TripAdvisor users for a second year running. It’s on Avenue Road, the main stretch down to the beach lined with small hotels and B&Bs, but many are boarded up or have No Vacancies signs in the windows, suggesting it’s not a normal summer season in Torquay.
“We’re all operating below capacity. Due to social distancing, restaurants are not filling as many tables and as in our case we’re selling a third less bedrooms and leaving a 24-hour gap where possible between bookings,” explains Andy Banner-Price, who runs The 25 with husband, Julian.
“It was a slow start, people understandably cautious about leaving their homes, and we didn’t see the promised rush of bookings, just a steady stream. But once quarantine was announced from Spain, bookings increased as people clamoured to book staycations instead.”
After a cracking breakfast – Covid-adapted, naturally, with staggered dining times and a virtual buffet (printed on a sheet) – I wander down through the gardens of Torre Abbey, a 12th-century monastery turned museum and arts centre (torre-abbey.org.uk), to Torquay’s main beach, Torre Abbey Sands.
On my way I notice the Riviera International Centre; the Brutalist conference/leisure centre is still closed and the tennis courts and bowling green lie empty, although I did witness the unbridled glee of daytrippers finding a parking space right on the front.
It’s 26 degrees and the beach is busy but not August busy. Most folk are socially distanced but it feels more like a good day in May rather than peak summer. Livermeads at the western end is quieter still, while Institute Beach, a tiny cove further along towards Paignton, has only a handful of paddlers.
“We’ve seen an influx of tourists in the nearby campsites over the last few weeks,” says Jennifer Corcoran, a LinkedIn trainer (mysuperconnector.co.uk) from Shaldon, seven miles east of Torquay.
“Sometimes it gets so busy on the beach that I avoid it and head to the estuary side, which is calmer and not such a tourist hotspot.”
However on the whole, there’s definitely a more sedate vibe to the Riviera this summer. Strolling along the palm-lined prom which sweeps around the bay, I notice very few are riding the English Riviera Wheel (englishrivierawheel.co.uk) and just a handful of kids on the carousel in Princess Gardens. The Living Coasts aquarium, one of the town’s biggest attractions, did not survive the pandemic. After 20 years of bringing penguins, seals and puffins to the Riviera, a sad A4 sign on the locked gates says it’s permanently closed.
A couple of miles along the coast in Maidencombe is Orestone Manor (orestonemanor.com) a family-run boutique hotel with views over Lyme Bay. “We opened on July 4 but it was a slow start,” says chef and proprietor, Neil D’Allen. “All our rooms are full now and it’s probably even better than last year. And this winter could be busier than normal as I think people might treat themselves to a short break closer to home rather than risk going overseas.”
Back on Torquay’s quayside, the usually packed bars like Offshore and Vaughans still had empty tables, while Mitch Tonks’ Rockfish restaurant (therockfish.co.uk) was quiet although all (distanced) tables were booked out in advance. I saw several closed bars, restaurants and shops on the main stretch, and while most people were social distancing, very few were wearing masks.
“We just hope that more people have been reminded of the enjoyment of a holiday in this country,” says Andy.
“And next year – subject to a vaccine being found – will be a bumper one for the tourism industry. But personally, I feel it will take three years to build back what we’ve lost this year, but I do feel positive about the future.”