Memories of the Cary family spark new life in the old resort
THE heyday of the traditional seaside resort has long passed. Today's successful coastal towns have reinvented themselves - once staid Bournemouth is now packed with trendy clubs and bars, and bucket-and- spade Newquay is the surfers' party capital of the West Country.
The jetty in Babbacombe Cove, viewed from the terrace of the Cary Arms
The blue and white painted Cary Arms
Torre Abbey's main buildings date from the 18th century
The main gateway to the abbey
Some of the remains of the Norman abbey, which was demolished after the Dissolution of the Abbeys
Torquay, formerly the jewel of the English Riviera, has been slow to change and the shopping centre is a sad string of chain stores and charity shops.
But change is in the air. Even in these credit crunch times there is new life in this once elegant resort and 2009 has seen two openings that bring a dash of panache, a flavour of contemporary art and a buzz of excitement to the fading beauty of Torbay.
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You won't immediately spot the connection between Torre Abbey and the Cary Arms at Babbacombe Beach, but it's in the name Cary.
Memories of the Armada
Torre Abbey is the oldest building in Torquay. It has a history spanning 800 years. Following a massive three-year Heritage Lottery-funded restoration project, the Abbey reopened this year and visitors can now explore the most ancient and hallowed parts of the building where some stunning finds have been unearthed.
Founded in the 12th century, Torre was at one time one of the wealthiest religious foundations in the West Country. The monks surrendered to King Henry VIII's commissioner in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and many of the ancient buildings were demolished. But the south and west ranges were mostly unscathed, and the tithe barn was used as a prison for 397 Spanish Armada prisoners of war in 1588 - it is still known as the Spanish barn.
In 1598, the remains of the abbey were converted into a house for Thomas Ridgeway and the house came into the ownership of the powerful Cary family in 1662.
Around 1740 the buildings were remodelled in a Georgian style that is mostly intact today. The Cary family invested in further reconstructions throughout the 19th century, including building a small brewery. Torre stayed in the family until 1930 when financial difficulties forced Commander Henry Cary to sell it to Torquay Borough Council.
Now the Georgian mansion, the ancient buildings and the tithe barn are open to the public, and provide a wonderful setting for exciting contemporary artworks. During the summer, the tithe barn hosted a month long exhibition of Antony Gormley's Field for the British Isles, bringing thousands of visitors to Torquay's "newest" attraction.
At home with Miss Marple
Coincidentally, this spring also saw the Cary Arms at Babbacombe reopening after a major refurbishment by new owners, the de Savary family.
As you drive into this little resort you really feel that time has stood still, and any of Agatha Christie's characters could be enjoying a leisurely walk along the cliff-top, settling down to a pot of tea and a good book or peering round their menu in their hotel to observe the behaviour of fellow guests.
The creator of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, who was born in Torquay in 1890, would be quite at home among the Edwardian villas and 1940s guesthouses!
But take the narrow steep road down to Babbacombe cove and you find a beach-side gastro-pub with breathtaking views, which combines the light and relaxed style of a New England B&B, the satisfying menu of a traditional inn and the warm welcome of a yachtsman's bar.
A famous visitor, Queen Victoria, said of Babbacombe: "It's a beautiful spot ... red cliffs and rocks with wooded hills like Italy."
A perfect setting
Fishermen are on the jetty, walkers make their way up and down the vertiginous cliff paths, families with children and dogs enjoy the rocky beach, and relaxed informal waiters serve excellent and mainly locally sourced food to holidaymakers, day trippers and visitors enjoying a luxurious break in the Cary Arms bedrooms and cottages.
The menu, prepared by the pub's chef Denise Tarriela, is on a blackboard in the bar (where the beers are excellent). The dressed crab salad is praised by everyone, and other regular specials include shoulder of South Hams lamb, Devon Steak and Otter Ale Pie, locally made butchers sausages and Otter Ale-battered Brixham fish with "proper chips." It's excellent and unpretentious - just the thing to enjoy as you sit on the terrace, with the white-washed, blue-painted pub behind you, enjoying one of those perfect English sunsets, looking across the blue sea towards Portland.
The de Savary farmily bought the Cary Arms a couple of years ago, and have lavished, care, cash, imagination and attention to detail on the refurbishment, including a relaxing spa where you can be pampered with products from the Temple Spa range. They reopened it in the spring and immediately began to collect accolades from visitors and the travel press. It has already been awarded five AA stars and five Visit Britain stars.
It's an easy day-trip or an ideal destination for an indulgent weekend. But this "boutique bolthole by the sea" is essentially a pub on a fishing cove, and children and well-behaved dogs are welcome.
For more information visit the website, www.caryarms.co.uk; email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01803 327110.
Report and pictures by Fanny Charles