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.
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.
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.
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.
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.