Torbay spans a 22-mile stretch of Devon’s coastline, looking out across to the English Channel – an expanse that encompasses the three towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. However, the region is perhaps better known as the English Riviera, a moniker given by the Victorians who were reminded of its French namesake thanks to warm weather, a palm-tree-lined promenade and its now-Blue Flag beaches.
Previously famous for its naval ties, the area became popular during the Napoleonic Wars when the upper classes could no longer travel to continental Europe. Acquiring a reputation as a health resort for the wealthy, it quickly adopted the Latin motto, salus et felicitas – “health and happiness”.
While the Riviera can be busy at the height of summer, the extensive coastline and an abundance of enchanting villages ensures the crowds are more spread out than in neighbouring Cornwall. Discovering hidden bays – like Fairy Cove, located behind the very beautiful Paignton Harbour – can give you the feeling of being utterly alone with the waves and the wildlife.
Today there are fewer palms (a long-standing battle between residents and Torbay Council, accused of unnecessarily uprooting the beauties), but with international travel once again impeded, the region is ready to be rediscovered by staycationers. And once again, its unique climate has delivered a new attraction – the vineyards of Sharpham Wine estate.
Things to see and do in the English Riviera
The Victorians weren’t the first to find refuge here. Follow in the footprints, quite literally, of our Stone Age ancestors with a tour through Kents Cavern, Britain’s oldest known prehistoric home. Remains of woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and even a human jawbone (teeth and all) have been found here, dating back some 41,000 years.
For something a little more genteel, there’s the picturesque Cockington Village. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, you’ll still find a church tower constructed in the early 1200s, a plethora of 300-year-old thatched cottages made of cob, and a 14th-century blacksmith’s forge. Savour the village’s tranquillity over cream tea in the garden of Weavers Cottage – just remember that in Devon, it’s cream, then jam.
The Wine Loft in nearby Brixham is an independent wine shop with 400 bottles to choose from – including a large Iberian selection. Or head a little inland to the utterly charming Totnes Wine Co, which specialises in Old World wine. In both boutiques, you can sit inside with a glass of wine and while away the hours – with the former serving tapas to complement its by-the-glass selection.
Where to eat and drink in the English Riviera
Unsurprisingly, seafood reigns supreme, with Brixham home to England’s largest fish market (by value of fish sold). There are a number of excellent eateries, similar to Michael’s Dublin restaurant, serving up the day’s catch including Mitch Tonk’s Rockfish, Michelin-starred The Elephant or Man Fridays Lobster House, where bottles on the wine list have been sourced from local estates, including Sharpham, Lyme Bay and Old Walls.
The Old Sail Loft is home to Brixham Gin: the distillery’s flagship expression is Red Sails, named after the red ochre painted onto trailer ships to protect them from the weather. Sip it from the distillery shop’s new pop-up bar, and watch those sails drift by. A few doors down, but with the same seaside views, is Liberty Tea Parlour and Cocktail Bar, with its impressive array of 35 loose-leaf blends and single-estate teas.
If you’re driving and don’t mind 30 minutes by car, head to Buckfastleigh for The Riverford Field Kitchen (of Riverford Organic fame – you might have been lucky enough to enjoy their vegetable boxes in lockdown). All seasonal ingredients come from its own organic garden, there’s a great outdoor space for diners and there are workshops on breadmaking and vegetable growing if you feel like getting hands-on.
Where to stay in the English Riviera
The Cary Arms and Spa, set within a sunny and sheltered spot in Babbacombe Bay, is a New-England-style hotel (which also offers cottage accommodation), where you’ll be lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.
At the southerly tip of Torbay, there’s the Berry Head Hotel, perched on top of a small cliff in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and with six acres of its own grounds. It’s more traditional in decor, but that means an open fire that’s perfect for curling up next to on rainy days. And when the sun shines, there’s a glorious terrace for reading, relaxing and enjoying those views.
The ultimate English Riviera drinking destination
Sharpham Wine estate has planted its vines on the banks of the River Dart, a 30-minute drive from Paignton. Among the first wave of modern commercial vineyards in England, it now produces whites, rosés and reds, with its English sparkling wine – ‘Sparkling Blanc’, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – the star of the show.
The estate stands out for its own on-site creamery, where you can treat your taste buds to a range of sheep, cow and goats’ cheeses. Sharpham Brie, a Great British Cheese Awards runner-up, is firm, rich and creamy when young, developing mushroom notes and a chicory finish with age.
Visitors can go on a self-guided or staff-led vineyard tour, and can finish the trip with a wine and cheese-paired tasting that showcases the area’s artisanal triumphs.