28 April 2020
Let’s start this chapter departing Exeter, having travelled from the North by train. I was planning a new tour of Devon and Cornwall and would be visiting as many hotels as possible in five days, shoe-horning a couple of steam trains in where I could, before flying back from Newquay to Leeds on the Friday evening.
From Exeter city centre, the train famously hugs the Exe Estuary, before even more famously hitting the coast at Dawlish Warren, then running right along the charming seafront of Regency resort Dawlish, where you can almost touch the sandcastles and smell the candy floss as you trundle past the sands and the coastal path.
A short detour inland courtesy of the Teign Estuary brings us to Newton Abbot, before we finally hit the seaside again at Torquay, whose station is somewhat out of town on the seafront, but conveniently just across the road from my first hotel.
The Grand Hotel is the place where Agatha Christie spent her honeymoon night with her first husband, Archie, on Christmas Eve 1914. Archie was serving with the Royal Flying Corps and had come home on leave from France. Nowadays the author’s name lives large across the Torbay region and from the hotel you can walk the “Agatha Christie Mile” along the promenade to Torquay’s other elegant landmark Victorian hotel with Christie connections, the Imperial Hotel, where she attended many functions in her youth and would later set several of her novels.
Having dropped my bags in my room at the Grand I ventured out for the evening. Tantalisingly for this bowler, just across the road is the Kings Bowls Club, setting for the 2003 film ‘Blackball’ with Paul Kaye, Johnny Vegas and Bernard Cribbins cast within a mixed plot about a bad-boy bowler from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make his way up a game entrenched in polite applause, tea and cucumber sandwiches.
Hopping on a train from Torquay the next day, five minutes later you arrive in Paignton, a traditional seaside town with a lovely prom and gardens, plus plenty of kiss me quick nostalgia. But the nostalgia doesn’t stop there. The Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway operates from Paignton station along a preserved part of the former Great Western network to Dartmouth, as the name suggests, although Dartmouth is reached at the end using a ferry service across the Dart Estuary from Kingswear, which can be included in the ticket.
The good people at the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway showed me their preserved ‘First Class’ wagon with some pride, a Pullman observation car made for the ‘Devon Belle’ service that once plied the route from Paddington to Paignton in luxury in the golden age. At this point I would normally be telling you to sit on either the left or right hand side of the carriage for the best views, but this one is pretty impossible to call. It’s a journey of two very different halves.
From Paignton the glorious scenery for the first half of the journey begins immediately on the left hand side, with seascapes and vast sandy Torbay beaches as you trundle above the charming, colourful beach huts of Goodrington Sands. The drama of a steam train, coupled with the innocent pleasures of the Devon seaside could grace any poem by Betjeman, that loquacious lover of the southwest and the railways. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any “sand in the sandwiches and wasps in the tea” today though.
I did say this was a journey of two halves. That’s because, after Greenway Halt (where you could alight to explore Agatha Christie’s Greenway Estate) things eventually switch from the coastal panoramas of the left to the serene glistening waters of the River Dart’s estuary on the right, with boats bobbing in the harbours and delightful Dartmouth, with its naval college, just across the water. A short foot passenger ferry whisks you from Kingswear to Dartmouth itself for a well-earned pint in the sunshine. Well, that’s what I did anyway! Don’t tell the boss!