Destination guide: Torquay
It can be strange to revisit somewhere you used to go as a child. Silver-lined memories and rose-tinted glasses dissipate in a sea of repugnant brutalism, endless graffiti and boarded-up ice cream stalls. Imagine my trepidation, then, when I headed to Torquay last month. We spent all our family summer holidays there from 1988 to 1994, but I’ve not been since.
The 07.33 GWR service departed Paddington a fraction late, but in First Class surroundings this caused little consternation. The only anxiety was that First Class was little more than a ruse to stave off my disappointment.
We pulled into the architecturally superb Torquay station a smidge after 10am. No signs of graffiti or anti-social behaviour here.
The hotel was but 50m from the platform. The Grand Hotel has been a fixture on Torquay skyline since 1881, and offers fantastic views out over Torbay. The ground floor public areas blend modern fittings with that archetypical seaside feel. While the rooms aren’t the most modern you’ll find, they maintain that popular Victorian grandeur.
I elected to take a short walk over to the English Riviera International Conference Centre. The stroll took me through the pristine park and bowling green, with the sea on my right. The English Riviera Centre is a mixed-use facility, but while the public and their kids can enjoy with swimming pool and play area, conferences can make use of the vast facilities in total isolation.
I met Nicky Harding and Simon Jolly. Harding is the convention bureau, and has worked at the centre for more than 30 years. Jolly is the centre’s MD, and again has been around for many years.
There is nothing event organisers like more than to deal with experienced venue personnel, and there is no shortage of experience at English Riviera. This was underlined when head chef served up what can only be described as the best food I have ever had at a conference centre. While that may sound like the ramblings of a sycophant, be assured the mixed seafood starter and chicken breast mains were worthy of any of top London restaurants.
To complement the courses, local wine experts laid on a tasty selection of tipples.
Soon after it was time to learn more about the venue. There are 10 meeting rooms and five larger event spaces, and the venue is a popular choice for associations, with medical and science associations making up a key pillar of the centre’s annual calendar.
The Forum is an impressive room with large stage and sea views. It spans two floors with removable seating and has direct access to catering areas meaning fast service is a given. The versatile room lends itself equally well to conferences, gala dinners, and music concerts. In theatre style it can hold up to 1,500, expanded to 1,840 for a reception or 405 for a cabaret dinner.
The largest room in the venue is the Arena with floor space across two levels. The BBC has used the space numerous times to host Question Time. In theatre layout it can hold 500, but up to a whopping 4,330 in reception layout.
The L-shaped Rositer room has been refurbished and, with sea-views and direct access to the terrace and public gardens, is a light and airy space ideal for conferences. It works well as a reception space and can handle 700 delegates, while a theatre layout seats 400.
Elsewhere in the venue there is the Burdett suite, which is best used as a classroom for 90, although can easily seat 200 in theatre layout, and the Grace Murrell Suite, a room that can be partitioned into four separate spaces. When it is opened up in full, the panoramic view out over the gardens and English Channel are superb, making it a great choice for banquets (up to 100). A reception event can run here for up to 300.
Once my tour of the conference centre had ended it was time to retrace my childhood steps into the heart of the town. The marina and popular shopping area is but 10 minutes away on foot. As I got closer to the marina the memories came flooding back. The heart of Torquay has changed quite a bit since the mid-90s, and for the better. It still has the same vibe and summery feeling and soundtrack of clinking masts and squawking gulls. Everything, though, is tidy and neat. There’s no peeling paintwork or faded ice cream boards.
What I didn’t recognise, however, was Living Coast, a marine-life animal sanctuary. I thought this would make an activity for conference delegates after the PowerPoints had been turned off, so I went in to explore. There were more penguins than I could shake a fish at, and twice as many species of bird. The highlight was the otters. Willy and Wilby were an amusing double act, and one I got to feed. I could have fed the seals, too, but I didn’t want to give them indigestion.
Walk through the rest of the sanctuary and you’ll enjoy all sorts of marine life before finding yourself back outside on the marina.
To see what it looks like from above, I took a ride in the giant Ferris wheel. At 60m in height, and located next to cliff edge, it’s remarkable that even at the wheel’s top you are still below some people’s living room.
For dinner I was booked in to dine at John Burton-Race Hotel and Restaurant. First class service was complemented with an elegant take on fish and chips and a wine pairing chosen for me specifically by the hostess. Delicious.
Torquay is a picturesque seaside town with plenty of bed space, top restaurants and bars and unique attractions, all just a three-hour train ride from London Paddington. But is it that same happy place I remember from my childhood? No, it’s better.