A bit of an effort to get there….car, walk, bus, bus…but it was certainly worth it. We seem to be making a habit of visiting abbeys these days. Anyway we were here to make first use of our new National Art passes which I had worked out would save us money just by visiting about five local attractions (but giving us so much else besides…..). Torre Abbey sits in parkland, just outside Torquay, on the so-called English Riviera. Today it didn’t look anything like the South of France, but did it matter? No, it didn’t. The bus driver made sure we got off at the right stop, and we walked up to the Abbey through a beautiful garden by the side of a stream and overlooking a cricket ground, a rugby union ground complete with dinky stand, and the bowling club.
As we approached our destination, the first thing we saw was the tithe barn, impressive in its own right and, as we learned, with an interesting history…The tithe barn, built along with the abbey in the early thirteenth century, is known as The Spanish Barn after it was used for fourteen days to hold 397 prisoners of war from the Spanish Armada in 1588…..’
The Abbey itself consists of the rather grand house built out of the ruins after the Dissolution and extensive ruins….these are all extremely well signed with excellent information boards.
After looking at an exhibition of finds on entry we were informed that we should start on the top floor of the Abbey house and work our way down through the four levels. There is a major exhibition on the history of the Abbey on the top floor and very enjoyable and interesting it proved. As usual, the Historic England entry has as much detail as you would wish about the history of the abbey. Suffice it to say that it was founded in 1196 as a monastery for Premonstratensian canons, and is now the best-preserved medieval monastery in Devon and Cornwall. In fact in 1196 six Premonstratensian canons from the Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire founded Torre Abbey when William Brewer, lord of the manor of Torre, gave them land. By 1536 the Abbey’s annual income made it the wealthiest of all the Premonstratensian houses in England. The canons surrendered to King Henry’s VIII commissioner in 1539 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries and immediately thereafter in 1539 a 21-year lease of the site and demesne of Torre Abbey was acquired by Sir Hugh I Pollard (fl.1535,1545), lord of the manor of King’s Nympton, Sheriff of Devon in 1535/6 and Recorder of Barnstaple in 1545. In 1543 Pollard acquired the freehold from John St. Leger (d.1596) of Annery, who had himself acquired it in 1543 with other lands from the king in exchange for other lands and payment of a cash balance. Dissolution resulted in a widescale demolition of the church and east range, and all items of value, including the lead from the roofs, were taken. The south and west ranges were mostly unscathed and, in 1598, were converted into a house for Thomas Ridgeway. After a succession of various owners, the house became the possession of the Cary family in 1662. It stayed in the family until 1930 when, during worldwide economic crisis, financial difficulties forced Commander Henry Cary to sell it to Torquay Borough Council. It has since been used as a municipal art gallery; the mayor’s parlour and, during World War II, it was used by the Royal Air Force.
There is quite a good section on Nelson (who visited his boss who based himself here), and on Napoleon who ended up in Torquay of all places after defeat at Waterloo.
Following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, surrendered to the British and was brought to Torbay on board HMS Bellerophon. This famous picture, which is part of the exhibition, shows the scene in Torbay on 7th August 1815, when Napoleon was transferred from the Bellerophon to HMS Northumberland for transportation to exile in the island of St. Helena.
The Bellerophon is to the right and the Northumberland, under the command of Captain Ross, is to the left; the central man-of-war being the Tonnant, flagship of Admiral Lord Keith, Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth. To the right of the Northumberland, the Tonnant’s barge is conveying Napoleon, Count Bertrand and his wife, General Gourgaud, Count de Las Casse and Admiral Keith to the Northumberland, which sailed for St. Helena at 6pm. Luny knew a number of naval personnel who were involved with this operation, and ‘The Exile’s Departure’ was doubtless painted from their accounts.
Obviously it was all of tremendous public interest, and Torquay became the centre of the universe for a while….
The exhibition occupied quite a lot of our time, and we adjourned for a bite to eat….as the cafe had just closed we went to the large leisure centre in the park. Next time we plan to visit the Grand Hotel which we found out later is just as near for a cup of tea and a sandwich. Returning to the museum we found we had no time to view the other floors, as we wished to look round the gardens. The Abbeys has a terrific art collection…….we just glimpsed some paintings on the stairways
‘With over 600 incredible works of art from the 18th century to present day, the Abbey’s collection includes Pre- Raphaelite works including Holman Hunt’s ‘The Children’s Holiday’ and Burne-Jones’ drawings of ‘The Planets’. Highlights are the watercolours by Thomas Luny and FJ Widgery and a rare proof set of William Blakes’s Book of Job…..there are also various other galleries…the Frederick Thrupp Gallery, Battle Scenes, Green and Pleasant Land, The Call of the Sea and Seaside Fun for instance. Next time for all this.
Even at this time of year the gardens were beautiful, and the glass houses amazing….
and we had a very interesting chat with the gardener in the hot house who was explaining how quickly the plants grew. Next week scaffolding would arrive to enable them all to be chopped down to near ground level ( a job he used to do on ladders before the strict emphasis on Health and Safety ), and within weeks they would be soaring up again. He showed us, and told us about, some of the exotic blooms on display….magnificent they were too……
A very full three or four hours, and we certainly look forward to returning.