Watcombe hasn’t changed much since Isambard Kingdom Brunel fell in love with it 170 years ago. The little crescent of red sand framing a disc of turquoise sea is still backed by steep cliffs, with patches of rust-coloured rock poking through thick deciduous woods.
There are no modern tourist facilities and barely a building in sight from the challenging footpath down to the beach.
This is what Brunel’s generation dubbed ‘the English Riviera’, so I roll up my trousers for a quick paddle.
Enchanting: Brixham harbour as the sun begins to set. The once shabby fishing port has reinvented itself as a seafood capital
Torbay’s many sheltered south and east-facing beaches were the ingredients that first attracted 19th-century visitors, re-routed from the French equivalent by continental wars.
Rival resorts such as Bournemouth, Brighton and Weston-super-Mare offer one long beach; Torbay has more than 20.
They vary from little coves like Watcombe to classic wide sands such as Goodrington, packed with watersports opportunities, and Torre Abbey Sands in Torquay itself, once judged to have the UK’s best sand for making castles.
Brunel’s railway helped speed visitors to this 22-mile coastline in South Devon. The GWR reached Torquay in 1848, and there were soon two stations to cope with demand. While surveying for the rail route, Brunel was beguiled by a plum spot above Watcombe.
Figures from TripAdvisor confirm that the English Riviera is all the rage once more. They show searches for Torquay, pictured, leaping ahead of all UK rivals
A Devon cream tea, which visitors to Oddicombe can enjoy with views across the bay
He decided to build his dream retirement home there and asked William Burn to design a glorious parkland estate. Brunel died just before it was finished.
Brunel Manor, latterly a Christian conference centre, was sold earlier this year but neighbouring Orestone Manor, where Brunel once posed for a portrait by its owner John Callcott Horsley, is a hotel and restaurant.
Lunching on its terrace, eating Brixham seafood and gazing at the view over Watcombe Woods to the sea, offers a glimpse of what seduced Brunel.
Figures from TripAdvisor confirm that the Riviera is all the rage once more. They show searches for Torquay leaping ahead of all UK rivals, including the Lake District and Newquay.
I settle into a water’s-edge room at another pretty cove a short walk along the coastpath. My glass-sided cabin at the Cary Arms Hotel is a few feet from the waves.
I sample the free decanter of home-made gin and watch seabirds swooping around the hotel’s yacht moored offshore.
The next day, I explore Oddicombe, another beach just round the headland.
Simon explored Oddicombe – a beach on the headland. He took a rattling funicular to the cliff-top gardens
A rattling funicular carries me up to cliff-top gardens and cafes serving cream teas with views across the glistening bay.
The heart of the Riviera is still around Torquay’s busy harbours and marinas, where palm trees line a promenade with a Mediterranean ambience, its cliffs dotted with whitewashed Victorian villas.
The kiss-me-quick atmosphere has been brushed discreetly behind the old candyfloss kiosks, replaced by stylish, wooden-floored cafes and opportunities for culture, such as the Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones Gallery at Torre Abbey.
Brixham, once a shabby fishing port, has reinvented itself as a seafood capital.
Strolls on the breakwater are punctuated by offers of boat trips to mussel farms, and ‘catch-and-cooks’, where you barbecue what you hook. There are dolphin safaris, too.
I opt for a takeaway on the Blue Flag-rated Breakwater Beach.
In today’s chic new Riviera you need not settle for cod; new offerings include gurnard and monkfish curry. But, best of all, cuttlefish and chips.