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.

Impressions of Weston-super-Mare

Statue of Liberty

My snapshot image of Weston from childhood is of great, clean whitewashed walls weaponised by the sun.

Blackpool was seedy – knickers for a nicker, pants for a pound, and drunks scrapping in the street – and Burnham-on-Sea was boring. But Weston… Weston was glamorous. Squint and you could be in Miami, or Nice. It was the posh seaside.

Revisiting it in 2018, especially on a rainy day, lifts the spell. There is more grey and more dereliction than I remember, and a sense that Weston’s problems – the same problems afflicting many towns – are breaking through its plaster façade.

Abandoned retail unit streaked with rain.

Though it may seem less pristine than 30 years ago, however, I find in it greater depth and detail as an adult.

Victorian back street building.

Alleyways and back streets reveal Victorian details, ghost signs, beerhouses and post-modern oddities.

Abbey National logo on wall.

There’s Art Deco.

ODEON cinema. Former Burton's building. A house near the station.

There’s plenty of post-war modernism.

Post-war church.

Post-war mosaic tiling.

And concrete brutalism.

Collage of brutalist buildings.

The museum, recently reopened, is small but dense: look down on an architectural model of a post-war Weston that never was; feed 20p to the What the Butler Saw machine and watch the imprisoned ghost of a long-dead dancer perform with a length of silk; and place a hand on a stretch of railing from the old pier where millions of fingers sticky with ice cream and rock have been before. The narrative also does a good job of bringing home the extent to which Weston was Blitzed – something that surprised me, and which helps explain some of the buildings above.

Amusement machines. Architectural model.

The pier is good, even in its post-2008-fire incarnation: worth walking up and down three or four times for the thrill of feeling truly at sea, and a little nearer mysterious Steep Holm.

Priests near a pier.

And there are memories. Having thought it long gone I stumbled upon Revolver Records the very smell of which – tobacco, damp, worn-in leather jackets – transported me back to standing at my Dad’s side as he flipped through racks of vinyl looking for who knows what.

Amusement arcade in red.

And I approached the Golden Gate amusement arcade from just the right angle to trigger a specific recollection: coming to Weston in about 1992 with the express purpose of experiencing virtual reality. At 14 I’d read William Gibson, was buying Wired most months, and fancied myself quite the cyberpunk in my Hi-Tec trainers and generic sweatshirt from Highbridge market. I went with two friends and we had to queue for about 20 minutes to pay £1.50 each for five minutes play time on a supposed combat flight simulator that actually consisted of a nausea inducing field of blue (sky) and green (ground) with occasional blocks of grey jerking across it.

I’m glad I now live near enough to Weston to visit whenever I like. I suspect there’s plenty more to find yet.