Watcombe hasn’t changed much since Isambard Kingdom Brunel fell in love with Watcombe 170 years ago. The small crescent of red sand that frames a slice of turquoise sea is still lined with steep cliffs on which rust-colored boulders protrude through dense deciduous forests.
From the demanding footpath to the beach, there are no modern tourist facilities and hardly a building in sight.
This is what Brunel’s generation called “the English Riviera,” so I roll up my pants for a quick paddle.
Adorable: Brixham Harbor as the sun goes down. The once shabby fishing port has reinvented itself as the seafood capital
Torbay’s many sheltered beaches to the south and east were the ingredients that first attracted nineteenth-century visitors, being diverted from the French equivalent by continental wars.
Rival resorts like Bournemouth, Brighton and Weston-super-Mare have a long beach. Torbay has more than 20.
They vary from small bays like Watcombe to classically wide sands like Goodrington, which offers plenty of water sports, and Torre Abbey Sands in Torquay itself, which was once rated as the best sand in Britain for making castles.
Brunel’s Railroad helped speed visitors to this 22 mile long South Devon coastline. The GWR reached Torquay in 1848 and there were soon two stops to meet demand. While surveying the railroad, Brunel was seduced by a plum stain over Watcombe.
Figures from TripAdvisor confirm that the English Riviera is back on trend. They show off the search for Torquay as pictured and jump ahead of all British rivals
A Devon cream tea that visitors to Oddicombe can enjoy while looking out over the bay
He decided to build his dream retirement home there and asked William Burn to design a beautiful parkland property. Brunel died just before it was finished.
Brunel Manor, most recently a Christian conference center, was sold earlier this year, but neighboring Orestone Manor, where Brunel once posed for a portrait of owner John Callcott Horsley, is a hotel and restaurant.
Lunch on the patio, eating Brixham seafood, and gazing out to sea over Watcombe Woods provide a glimpse into what seduced Brunel.
TripAdvisor figures confirm that the Riviera is trendy again. They show searches for Torquay ahead of any UK rival including the Lake District and Newquay.
I settle in a waterfront room in another pretty cove just a short walk down the coastal path. My glass-enclosed cabin at the Cary Arms Hotel is just yards from the waves.
I try the free carafe of homemade gin and watch sea birds hover around the hotel’s yacht moored offshore.
The next day I explore Oddicombe, another beach around the headland.
Simon was exploring Oddicombe – a beach on the headland. He took a rattling funicular to the gardens on the cliffs
A rattling funicular takes me to the gardens and cafes on the cliffs, where cream teas are served with a view over the glittering bay.
The heart of the Riviera is still close to the bustling ports and marinas of Torquay, where palm trees line a Mediterranean-themed promenade and the cliffs are dotted with whitewashed Victorian mansions.
The atmosphere in which you can kiss quickly has been discreetly brushed with cotton candy behind the old kiosks and replaced by stylish cafes with wooden floors and cultural opportunities such as the pre-Raphaelite Burne Jones Gallery in Torre Abbey.
Once a seedy fishing port, Brixham has reinvented itself as the seafood capital.
Walks on the breakwater are interrupted by offers of boat trips to mussel farms and catch-and-cooks where you grill whatever you hook. There are also dolphin safaris.
I opt for takeout at the blue flag award-winning Breakwater Beach.
You don’t have to settle for cod in today’s chic new Riviera. New offerings include gurnard and monkfish curry. But best of all are squid and fries.