Impressions of Torquay: Riviera Blues

The Grand Hotel.

Take the wrong path through Torquay, in the wrong weather, and it can seem a decaying place.

Despite the very point of the English Riviera being the gentleness of the climate the buildings look weather-beaten. Their paint peels and they are streaked by gulls and pigeons. “You have to keep on top of it,” one local stopped to tell me as I stared up at one particularly forlorn building. “Lick of paint, keep it in good repair, or round here nature sort of comes and starts to take it back.”

Hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments with grand names have ageing Perspex signs that are missing letters, or sagging under the weight of crowns of nails intended to keep incontinent birds away. It’s as if they’re one good season away from the full refurbishment they need, but always one full refurbishment away from that good season.

There are too many junctions that make no allowance for pedestrians, or rather treat them as a nuisance to be managed, prodded out of the way of traffic by fences and obstacles. Boy racers fly through town using the gravitational pull of roundabouts to boost acceleration, although sometimes what looks at first glance like a Hot Hatch is actually just a Hatch being driven by a hunched pensioner hammering the pedal for fear that the car won’t make it up a steep hill.

Torquay Town Centre.

An entire row of shops in what ought to be a prime location is derelict, near collapse, while a huge post-modernist mall with galleries and walkways dominates the centre. The old market hall, built in the 1850s and with a plaque from the local historical society, has been gutted and partitioned so that the interior, like a reverse Tardis, barely has the grandeur of a Portakabin.

Riviera Centre.

A leisure centre lurks beyond the promenade – a last dry breath of brutalism from the 1980s, the grey Atlantic Wall intimidation exercise of its exterior undercut by a curl of fibreglass waterslide that pops out and back in again like some parasite. At ground level it is all warning signs, cameras and black grilles, some of which blast sickly-warm chlorinated air across the weed-covered car park.

The landmark Pavilion Theatre on the seafront is a beautiful Edwardian building that, scaled up, would look at home in Monte Carlo, except it is derelict and boarded up – too precious to demolish, but too much trouble to use, and so being left to rust and rot.

Mini golf. Bowling.

And yet come at Torquay from another angle, in the sun, in a better mood, and the Riviera fantasy of GWR posters and The Persuaders lives on. The marina is full of yachts, some of them sleek and substantial, and the streets nearby accordingly full of yacht people – tanned, posh and loud. Motorboats motor across the bay as middle-aged couples in designer clothes (men sockless, women perfumed) stroll arm-in-arm, summoning the spirit of Nice.

Torquay looking like the South of France.

Even the bland modern blocks on the hillsides add their own glamour, evoking the aggressive development of the coastlines of the Mediterranean.

My favourite parts of town, though, are those reserved for purposes other than tourism or shopping: the remarkable Central Church with its concrete launch gantry; the boldly Art Deco council offices, and more modest library of the same vintage; the Edwardian town hall; and St Andrews with its rows of dignified white war graves.

Torquay, I think, is a deeper town than all the seaside superficiality might suggest, with plenty more to discover yet.

West Country Stereotypes #1: Chewing Grass

A woodcut of a rural type.
By William Nicholson, 1898.

An outstretched hand brushing the stalks until, yes, this one, and then a soft snap. Tidy it up first, nipping it off with a thumbnail at the thick part above the knee; then stripping away the sheath to reveal the brighter green inside; and, finally, trimming straggling lower seed spikes to leave a neat arrowhead. It is ready.

When Jarge Balsh, the comic hero of William Jones’s once popular Somerset bumpkin stories, first appeared in 1925 it was with grass in his mouth:

One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to realise that he was connected with the agricultural industry. His boots and leggings were generously plastered with samples of the usual contents of the farm-yard, whilst to his slouch hat and old bottle-green morning coat there still adhered strands of hay…. Halting before me, and spreading his legs, he thrust his hands deeper into the cross pockets of his corduroy breeches, and changed the straw he was sucking to the other side of his mouth…. “Be you the young gent as is gwain ta bide wee widder Toop? ‘Cos if ye be, I be come vor ‘ee.”

The depiction of Balsh on the title page of the book cemented the image:

Jarge Balsh, 1926.

The prepared rapier of grass lightly bridges the lower teeth and lip, its feather-duster-head in the distance bouncing with each step, shaking its hair. Chewing the stalk destroys it quickly so instead it is held gently in place by the jaws and worked by the tongue like a rudder, pulling it in to make the seedhead swing out, and pushing it out to bring the brush swishing back to the centre. Relax the jaws and it droops; thrust the lower jaw out and the grass comes up to eye level. Up, down, left, right, swish, swirl – simple but absorbing.

Along with tractors, cider and smocks, the chewing of grass crops up over and over in lists of West Country stereotypes, often in the defensive form “There’s more to Devon/Somerset than…” There’s some embarrassment perhaps in the idea of being seen to ruminate dumbly, further evidence of the supposed animal stupidity of the bumpkin.

And yet it doesn’t take much to work out that chewing grass is a habit claimed, or disclaimed, by rural communities all over the country, and indeed around the world. Grass is not, after all, a scarce commodity, and the urge to nibble on it, I would say, is very nearly instinctive.

Eventually the bruised stalk begins to release its sap in the mouth – a bitter, raw taste that has a strange effect on the other senses. With a length of grass in the mouth birdsong seems louder, while traffic sounds diminish. The aroma of wildflowers intensifies. This is the easiest, cheapest, most innocent of psychedelic experiences.

I don’t believe chewing grass is something we, or anyone, should feel defensive over, or self-conscious about, whether alone on a quiet lane, or among the faux-rurality of the unkempt meadow-land in Hyde Park, sick for home.

Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney By Barry Lategan, 1969, via Paige Sterling.

There is no more sap, no more structure – the grass has become tasteless and is nearing collapse. Take it out, throw it away — it doesn’t matter, grass is free — then stretch out the hand, brush the stalks, until, yes….