Not just any old monastery

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
Entry for coaches to Torre Abbey is via the Swan Gate just off Avenue Road in Torquay. ALAN PAYLING

Alan Payling visits Torre Abbey on Torquay seafront to investigate what is on offer for coach parties when they visit the English Riviera

Visiting a monastery might not have a great deal of appeal to the average coach party, particularly as they have in the main been closed for nearly 500 years. Even one that sits right on Torquay sea front might again, on the face of it, not have a great deal to offer. But, Torquay’s Torre Abbey is not just any old monastery and, for a number of reasons that could have wide appeal, it’s a place that offers a great deal to passengers and operators alike.

For passengers, while Torre Abbey is indeed the site of an ancient monastery, in addition the site offers beautiful gardens replete with an exotic palm house, an art gallery with sea views, a museum with sea views, an historic Georgian house with period artefacts and sea views, an exhibition of local artworks including beautiful pottery with sea views and history with a capital H.

The history of Torre Abbey includes visits from some of England’s greatest naval heroes and the involvement of the Abbey’s tithe barn in one of the most momentous events in England’s history. Oh, and there is a tea shop which overlooks the seafront and the sea. People need a cup of tea after taking in all that Torre Abbey has to offer. For operators, it gives them the chance to take passengers somewhere new and interesting when they bring coach parties to this part of the world.

The history

But first, the history: there is quite a bit of it so I’ll keep it as short as I can. The monastery was first set up in 1190 and the first building, the tithe barn, was completed in 1210. When I talk about history, this is really ancient stuff. The abbey prospered, becoming one of the wealthiest institutions in the land, largely from its extensive holdings of land. So much so that the nearest town – Newton Abbot – was named to celebrate the abbey’s leading figure, the Abbot. Hence, it became the Abbot’s new town (a ‘ton’ being an old word for a town).

So wealthy was the monastery that the monks had to ensure that, were there to be an invasion from the sea – a potent threat – they could protect themselves. Some of the remaining buildings, particularly the Mohun gate house, reflect such fears and resemble the gates to ancient cities in their robust design and the fact that they have survived largely intact. Some of the other buildings that have survived are in remarkably good condition: this is far from being a complete ruin.

The idyll that the monks enjoyed for so many centuries – just look at the location – came to an end when Henry VIII came to the throne. In 1534 he introduced the Act of Supremacy which led to the dissolution of the monasteries in England, Ireland and Wales between 1536 and 1541. Torre Abbey’s monks were evicted in 1539. This then involved selling the former lands of the monasteries. The land Torre Abbey stands on eventually ended up in the hands of the Cary family in 1662 where it remained until 1929 until it was sold to Torquay Corporation for the princely sum of £40,000. [wlm_nonmember][…]

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for 4 issues/weeks from only £2.99
Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!
[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember]

Shortly after Henry VIII had changed the course of English history, his daughter, Elizabeth I, was at the centre of another great historic event, as was Torre Abbey; this was the Spanish Armada of 1588. Had you been having your summer holidays in Torquay in late July that year – it wasn’t much of a resort at the time, but the weather was good and the hoteliers were wondering if they should put paella and sangria on the menu – you would have had a wonderful view of the mighty Spanish Armada and the nimble English fleet following behind.

Access for full size coaches to the main entrance to Torre Abbey is not a problem. ALAN PAYLING

With an armada of 130 Spanish ships and a fleet of 200 English vessels spread across the English Channel, it was probably one of the most impressive sights in English history. During the skirmishes, Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake – a native of Devon no less – sailing on the Revenge, captured one of the Spanish galleons and brought it into Torbay. He helped himself to the gold on board – the Spanish still think he was a bit of a tea leaf – the gunpowder and the cannon balls, as Elizabeth was a bit tight with her defence budget, and the ship itself. As for the 397 Spaniards on board, as there were no language schools in Torquay at the time they were held in the old tithe barn at Torre Abbey – to this day, still known 430 years later as the Spanish Barn.

In 1688 the residents of Tore Abbey would have witnessed yet another momentous event in Torbay. This time it was the arrival of the Dutchman, William of Orange on November 5th. He arrived at Brixham on the south side of Torbay in a fleet of over 300 ships, carrying a successful invasion force of 35,000 men. This historic spectacle must have filled the bay and been a clear sight from Torre Abbey. It is unlikely that Protestant Prince William visited Torre Abbey and equally unlikely the Cary family would have put out the welcome mat: they were Catholics and William had invaded to depose the Catholic incumbent James II from the throne. So William hurried on to London and, in taking the throne in early 1689 as William III, changed the course of our history.

The Cary family developed the site in 1740, building an impressive Georgian mansion in the grounds of the old abbey where the Canon’s refectory previously stood. This was long before the council insisted on building a road along the sea front, so old George Cary’s front garden went right down to the beach. Nice. He kicked off a bit when the council finally made life easier for everyone and built the seafront road, saying that the sight of people passing along the road – at a distance of well over 150 yards it must be said – would put him off his breakfast. Thankfully, the council wasn’t worried about his digestion or coach operators would have a hell of a game getting from Torquay to Paignton.

Another very famous visitor to Torre Abbey was old Horatio himself no less, who visited in early 1801. Nelson had just been promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral of the Blue and was in Torbay to visit his friend Lord St Vincent, then commander of the Channel Fleet, and to prepare to sail to the Baltic for what would be the Battle of Copenhagen. After a rapturous reception in Exeter where he was awarded the freedom of the city on January 21, Nelson headed down to Torbay where he received some excellent news on February 2. This was the news from Emma Hamilton – his lover – that their daughter Horatia had been born in Piccadilly on January 29.

Another famous visitor to Torbay in July 1815 was Napoleon Bonaparte on the Royal Navy frigate HMS Bellerophon (or the Billy Ruffian). After Waterloo he surrendered to the British, seeking exile in this country or the USA. The British were in no mood to welcome this particular asylum seeker. It was while he was in Torbay that he was told: ‘Non, monsieur, you are not welcome here. But we have a nice place on St Helena just for you.’ And that was the end of Napoleon. Some speculate that he landed in Torbay, but in any event, all this took place in sight of Torre Abbey and one can’t help but feel that the residents did what so many others did and hired a boat to go and have a look at Old Boney while he was on the poop deck of the Billy Ruffian just off shore.

Torre Abbey, like many large buildings in Torquay, was requisitioned during WW2 for initial flight training for navigators, pilots, bomb aimers and wireless operators. They then went on to risk – and all too often sacrifice – their lives bombing Nazi Germany.

‘This is not some stuffy old museum littered with a few dusty glass cases full of mouldy fossils; the design of the interior and the exhibits are sympathetic to the ancient buildings but show everything in an interesting and accessible way. Personally, I loved it’ ALAN PAYLING

As I said, this place just oozes history with one notable exception. It is not known if Churchill visited. After all, he was too fond of the French Riviera to worry much about visiting the English one. So if it had come to him fighting on the beaches, it may not have been the one at Torre Abbey Sands where he would have had his finest hour.

And blimey, I nearly forgot, there’s that much to say about the place. One person who did visit for sure, attending garden parties arranged by the Cary family, was one of the two best-selling authors in the world with book sales estimated to be in the region of two billion. This was of course Torquay’s very own Agatha Christie, who is periodically celebrated in her Memorial Room. On display there are original manuscripts of her many publications, her typewriter, portraits and pictures of her, as well as some of her books.

Visiting today

If the history of this place is not enough – all carefully illustrated in imaginative displays – then the art gallery should delight visiting passengers. With some 600 works of art to choose from, there are some masterpieces to inspire the eye. Insofar as the premier league of the art world is concerned, Torre Abbey has works by William Blake, Edward Burne-Jones and William Holman Hunt. There have also been recent exhibitions there by the contemporary artist Anthony ‘Angel of the North & Iron Man’ Gormley. On a more traditional note, there is an abundance of paintings that celebrate the local area. And given the beauty of Torbay, the sea and places like Dartmoor, artists who have painted in this area over many years have never been short of inspiration for their works – and it shows in the paintings on display. Look out for ‘August – Gold of the Earth’ by Maud Hogarth Clay, ‘Beacon Cove’ by Edwin Morgan and ‘Brixham Harbour’ by Alwyn Crawshaw. You can almost smell the fish in the last one.

Having spent a while indoors, passengers can get a welcome and peaceful breath of fresh air out in the walled gardens at the rear of the abbey’s grounds. This really is a lovely place to mooch about. At the right time of year, visitors can wander along the paths that are lined with cascades of African Lilies (Agapanthus) which will catch the breath and be appreciated by all. In a further connection with Agatha Christie and her habit of bumping off her fictional characters with poison, the sources for such dastardly concoctions as cyanide, morphine and ricin can be found in the nicely named Poison Garden. So if you lose a few passengers, it was the gardener wot done it.

There’s so much to see here that I’ve not really mentioned the exquisite Watcombe terracotta pottery or the many other period rooms such as the Georgian dining room laid out for dinner, the grand staircases, the under croft and the chapel. Oh, and the ghosts, of course. No self-respecting monastery would be without a ghost or three, and Torre Abbey is no exception.

It’s worth pointing out that in recent years, the Torre Abbey site has benefited from an extensive refurbishment at a cost of £6.5 million funded by the National Lottery and English Heritage. This means that the design of – and access to – the site is cutting edge. Speaking as someone who has a pair of knees that are becoming increasingly irritated by stairs, the lift makes moving from floor to floor an easy joy. Similarly, there is an abundance of ramps and stairlifts to ensure everyone can move freely to see all of the displays. This is not some stuffy old museum littered with a few dusty glass cases full of mouldy fossils. The design of the interior and the exhibits are sympathetic to the ancient buildings but show everything in an interesting and accessible way. Personally, I loved it. But then I am interested in the history and culture of our nation. But then, so are an awful lot of people of my now pensionable age group – and older. You know, like the people who travel on coaches.

The well-designed galleries at Torre Abbey bring the history of the monastery to life. ALAN PAYLING

An interesting choice

In suggesting that Torre Abbey could have appeal to the average coach party, I am not going to pretend that it would be of interest to absolutely everyone in a group; not unless it was an organised group with a specific interest in what Torre Abbey has to offer. What I am saying, though, is that the visiting coach trade in Torquay and Paignton should think more about providing greater choice to the people it carries. If all too many coach operators carry on catering to the lowest common denominator and just drop their passengers at Torquay harbour to look round the shops when they’re visiting the resort and give the impression that a coach holiday is the last step on the road to a nursing home, then the business of many operators will simply die off. I speak to too many drivers who, when they tell me their poor numbers, make me wonder how long operators can continue to subsidise trips to Torbay. In that regard, providing choice makes sense.

Certainly, stop off at the harbour. I’m not saying don’t do that, because it will appeal to some passengers. But why not stop off at a place like Torre Abbey first – there’s plenty of room for coaches to get in and out – let the staff get on the coach to describe what’s on offer at the Abbey site and again – I can’t stress this point enough – offer your passengers an interesting choice. I cannot believe that everyone that comes to Torbay from South Wales, the Midlands, northern England and beyond only wants to go and potter round the shops of Devon when they are in the area. I have spent a lot of time guiding many groups round Dartmoor and Torbay and I am acutely aware of the depth of interest there is in the history, the culture, the legends, the characters and the art of this part of the world amongst the coach passengers I have met over the last twenty years. But, because of the age of many passengers and their mobility, they need to be chauffeured about and they need to be aware of what is on offer in the places they visit.

Just a final thought. Still think Torre Abbey wouldn’t appeal? Well, have you ever been to Buckfast Abbey? Many coach operators have. Did your passengers enjoy their visit? Probably, I imagine. And yet, the abbey church at Buckfast Abbey could be described as a fake, a copy. It’s not even 100 years old. Certainly not, like Torre Abbey, medieval. The site is, but the locals nicked all the stone from the original buildings after Henry VIII closed it down. All credit to the half a dozen monks who built the new abbey. It really should appear on Grand Designs one day with Kevin McCloud concluding: ‘They had no plans, no architect, no money and no experience. But look what they built’. It’s impressive certainly, but it has little history to shout about.

The medieval Mohun gatehouse at Torre Abbey, one of the site’s original buildings. ALAN PAYLING

The most notorious characters associated with the place were the monks who abused boys at the then-Buckfast Abbey Preparatory School. It has no art gallery and the gardens at Torre Abbey make those at Buckfast look like an allotment. Okay if you like lavender, but when it comes to horticultural expertise, Torre Abbey is the place to go. There are no sea views and Torre Abbey doesn’t have a reputation for the antisocial marketing of a product like Buckfast Abbey’s Tonic Wine (‘Bucky’ or ‘Wreck the hoose juice’) and high prices in their on-site shop that has earned Buckfast Abbey the nickname: Fastbuck Abbey. So, if your passengers enjoyed their visit to Buckfast Abbey, they will surely enjoy their time at Torre Abbey. And it will be somewhere new for them to go. Actually, no: it will be somewhere really, really old for them to go.

When you’re writing your next brochure then, how about this: ‘Wednesday/Thursday – today we drive into Torquay, the jewel of the English Riviera: the resort with a continental flavour where you can meander around the sheltered harbour or walk along the promenade with views across Torbay. Alternatively, we will drop you in the grounds of Torre Abbey ideally situated on the seafront. Here you will be able to visit a medieval monastery and Torquay’s impressive art gallery where you can stroll through a tranquil walled garden and walk in the footsteps of Drake and Nelson, all to be followed by tea and cakes in the abbey’s tea room overlooking the sea. A visit comes highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the history of England. There is something for everyone at Torre Abbey and a lot more besides – this is not just any old monastery!’

Getting there

By coach: Coaches can be driven straight to the main entrance off Kings Avenue/Avenue Road – and yes, you will get through the Swan Gates okay.

Land train: Travel on Torquay land train from Torquay harbour and Belgrave Road where many coaching hotels are located. The land train goes right into the grounds of Torre Abbey.

Service bus: The number 32 also travels close by, so passengers staying in hotels in Babbacombe and along the Babbacombe Road can travel there by bus, disembarking in Falkland Road.

On foot: Many passengers will be able to walk from their hotels in Falkland Road, Belgrave Road, Scarborough Road and Croft Road. Those in the TLH hotels on Chestnut Avenue can actually see the abbey if they look out of their windows.

Parking: No parking on site. The best place to park up is behind the railway station nearby (which is free) or at the council car/coach park on Shedden Hill Road – fees payable. The Riviera International Centre also has spaces for coaches – fees payable.

Opening times
Tuesday to Sunday: 1000hrs to 1700hrs
Open on Bank Holiday Mondays in April, May and August
Closed from December 24 to January 2

Entrance fees
Adults: £8.00
Concessions: £7.00
Gardens only: £2.50
Gardens only concessions: £2.00
Groups of 10 plus: £6.50 Leader goes free
Kids and teens: Free
(up to four under 19s per paying adult)[/wlm_ismember]