Palm Trees, Libraries and English Chippies: a Writer’s Weekend in Torquay

Torquay. Part of the English Riviera in Devon, popular tourist destination, and home to one of the greatest writers of all time, the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. The time taken to admire the place, experience all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures, seems to rush past; and then it’s a rush to the station—the wrong station, as it turns out upon arrival—a three hour train journey and the holiday is over.

I began to miss Torquay the morning after my return to London. I missed the short walk to the (refreshingly sandy) beach, the fresh sea air, the abundance of greenery and in particular the palm trees dotted about—one of the best, I feel, holiday destinations in England. I sincerely wish I had given myself enough time to explore it all. Now I am back in the city, my nostrils filled with exhaust fumes and the familiar but somewhat depressing urban jungle of concrete. Torquay may have been further away from my home in rural Sussex than London is, but it felt closer. Although I have grown used to the hustle and bustle of the city over the last few months, for some weeks my heart has been yearning to be back in the country and the long weekend away was the break I needed. Back in Southgate, I am beginning to wish I had stayed away far longer.

My previous visit to the Rainbow Hotel, Torquay, had been back in 2009, when the annual conference of the National Society for Phenylketonuria—of which my father is the chair—was held there. Up until Spring 2009, Torquay to me had been Fawlty Towers country (and indeed on my last visit, I did pass the Gleneagles Hotel on a tour bus). But then I visited personally, and it suddenly became associated with something else: inspiration. I was in the process of a project for my Art A-level which was based on the beach environment, and as I collected photos and memories of the area I grew more and more attached to it. Before I had visited, I also had the idea for a distinct character for a novel in my head, but she had no surrounding setting or plot. The places I was photographing, and the hotel itself, seeped into my head and took care of the problem. My character became firmly rooted in a fictional Torquay hotel, and my plot developed over time until I came, recently, to try and redraft. In an effort to reignite the inspiration, I planned to return to the source, and my father put me in contact with one of the Rainbow’s owners.

I have visited a number of hotels and English holiday destinations in my life, but have not come across anywhere quite like the English Riviera. While not as hot or exotic as Lesvos, my latest and only beach holiday abroad to date, it is probably the closest you can expect to find to the Mediterranean sea within the British Isles. The coast lined with old English pubs and chippies, and cabbage trees, otherwise known as Torquay/Torbay palms, sprouting between the numerous hotels, makes it a pretty unique place. The only beach sandier I have found in Britain is Camber Sands, but I do not recall any palm trees there! In the late afternoon light, the waves further out look like rippling teal satin; a beautiful contrast to Brighton’s usual gloomy grey.

Why, I ask myself, was I mad enough to go for such a small amount of time? On the last day I did consider asking to extend my visit and exchanging my train ticket, but the pull of work to finish back in London stopped me. While it may have been more sensible to wait until I had finished everything before going gallivanting around the country, I had needed a break, and there were road works starting outside my house—it was the perfect time. But I am sure I will return to Torquay sooner or later, hopefully for a much longer stay.

On my arrival, making my way from the station on foot dragging my case behind me, I felt déjà vu as I recognised the Riviera leisure centre, the other hotels and the Pink Fountain Restaurant, the gift shops filling the pavement with racks of cheap flip-flops and plastic buckets in primary colours, the gardens with the maze paths and the giant hot air balloon ride, and the Singing Kettle tea rooms. One trek up an awful slope later, and I finally checked in at the Rainbow, assaulted by familiarity. The main part of the hotel that had inspired me was its hallways; they twist and turn and break off each other but it’s still surprisingly easy to memorise the route to your room. After leaving my things in my room I took a wander around the building with my camera, preserving every inch to look back on.

After the emergency purchase of a sunhat and pair of flip-flops, I could resist the beach no longer. The setting sun cast dancing orange lights over the waves, which I wouldn’t allow to rise higher than my knees. The sand between my toes made a pleasant change; my closest beach to home is Brighton, which is mostly stones that can be agony to bare sensitive soles.

Torquay Pavilion fascinated me. Maybe because it is on a much smaller scale to Brighton’s famous one; maybe just because its architecture is quite different to the one I’m used to passing closer to home. The ‘Palace of Pleasure’ was opened in 1912 and designed to combine Classical and Art Nouveau styles; it is now the only significantly historic building open to the public for free. It is filled with shops selling any kind of gift, from microwavable teddy bears and magnetic jewellery to mobile phone cases and huge, ornately-carved candles. In addition to the consumerism, historic displays about the building and Agatha Christie can be found, and an homage to Anthony Gormley comprised of rows and rows of lavender lady dolls. The second floor restaurant area spreads onto the roof, and hosts a spectacular view of the coast, with the hotel-lined cliffs, clusters of boats in the harbour and of course the natural beauty: beach stretching out of sight and the abundant greenery surrounding the town buildings.

Rather than battle with sandy towels first thing in the morning, the less messy option  is to dip in the Riviera Centre’s leisure pool with its wave machine. While there I wallowed in both the deep water and fond memories of my first trip with my brothers, and afterwards I noted down the ways the colours inspired me.

Some of the afternoon I spent exploring the seafront, the pavilion, and the harbour. I always find the names that people give their boats interesting; from Sea Horse to Cicida, it makes me wonder how the names were chosen. Unsurprisingly, the seafront is scattered with tourist shops, chippies, cafés and pubs. Further in I discovered some familiar franchises such as W H Smiths and Laura Ashley, but most are quirky little places selling kimonos or leather goods, not to mention ice cream available in most of the gift shops.

I spent many hours in the hotel writing, or to be more precise re-planning, my novel. By the reception is a small lounge with a few tables and armchairs. During my previous visit, somebody had referred to it as the ‘library’ due to the three glass cabinets inside which held a few old hardbacks. I realised upon my revisit that the notion of the hotel library had been rather exaggerated in my memory, but when I worked in the room it was still easy to paint in extra shelves, although I toned down the lavish library I had created in my novel.

Once my creativity had dried up I made the most of the opportunities to enjoy the environment while I was there. Most of the places to visit were all-day activities; spoiled for choice I chose first to take a tour on the Torbay Land Train, which circles the area and stops at various tourist attractions, a couple of places along the seafront, in the town centre, and right outside the hotel. I made a stop at the Torquay Museum, which houses the only Agatha Christie collection in the world, as well as an Egyptology exhibition which I thought Christie herself would have enjoyed.

On a different day I visited Cockington Court in Cockington village, which looked more like a hamlet, only just outside Torquay. The beautiful yet not very well signposted house and gardens also houses a yard where artists, blacksmiths, tanners etc can be viewed making their various wares, which were on sale in the house shop. Sadly the chocolate stall was closed the day I visited, but I found the glass-blowing fascinating to watch, and was tempted to buy one of the small bird shaped paperweights. My other favourite stall was the toy maker, who specialised in wooden rocking horses—for adults as well as children, although the prices were, perhaps fortunately, far out of my range!

My biggest adventure was taking the ferry—or to be more precise, two ferries; the Fairmile to Dartmouth, and then the Christie Bell the rest of the way—to Greenway to see Christie’s holiday home. En route the Fairmile encountered dolphins, several of them who swam alongside the ferry for a while, making me very glad I chose the ferry route over the vintage bus route, which I am sure would not have helped me achieve one of my childhood dreams.

Once we had landed at Greenway, I spent a while signing up for my own National Trust membership, and then had a quick lunch before I was allowed into the house. Visitors were ‘guests of the Christies’, and shown round in small groups. The house had been left as the Christie family had left it, and although it was mainly how it would have been in Agatha Christie’s days there, there were a few things that looked out of place, like a couple of modern electrical appliances, and a Harry Potter scarf draped over a chair that at first I thought a visitor had left behind.

The house was beautiful, and filled with interesting things that Christie had collected over the years. In every room there were china jars and plates with unusual patterned glaze, ornaments from all around the world, and in one room glass displays of objects that her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan (later Sir Max) had found with descriptions of what they were and where they had been found.

My favourite, and according to the tour guide also Christie’s favourite, room was of course the library. It was really more of a small living-room in an ‘L’ shape, where the shorter end was lined with bookshelves along all three walls. Many of these were Christie’s own works, but others were old classics, a Bible, a dictionary, and many I did not recognise.

The books that belonged to Christie were not the only attraction in the room, either; a frieze is painted along the top of the wall, depicting the movements of the American army in the Second World War. The house was seized for the war effort, and American soldiers were based there for some time; they painted the frieze using grey, brown and green paints used for camouflage. When the house was returned, Christie didn’t want it painted over, which is why the piece of history can be viewed today.

Before I left Greenway, I found out about a performance of And Then There Were None that was on at Dartmouth the next night. I had never seen one of Christie’s plays before, and it was not only too good an opportunity to miss, but the perfect way to end my trip.

Christie had it right when she described her place of birth as “the loveliest place in the world”. Torquay not only reignited my inspiration, it resparked my love of seaside towns and especially sandy beaches, leaving a passionate desire to find one closer to home that would be more practical to fall in love with!

The End

Copyright Alex Harlequin 2012

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