There used to be a Torquay Saturday night drinking game called the Great Torquay Slalom Run. The name comes from Alpine downhill skiing between poles where skiers would start at the top of the hill and then compete as they headed down, to finally come to rest at a flat area as their final destination. Taking this analogy, if you start around Torre and end at the Harbourside, Torquay’s limestone and sandstone topography sort of fits that same idea, with the poles being replaced by pubs along the way. There’s also a bit of a metaphor here about aging and life – the places and people we’ve lost along the Great Torquay Slalom Run.
During the late twentieth century the Runs began in the mid afternoon but, over the years, started later and with fewer participants as locals moved away or married. It was always a young man’s game.
Before the true beginning of the Saturday event, those joining from Newton and beyond would alight at Torre Station and visit the Clarence Hotel – now apartments. They would then join the main Torquay contingent at the Pelican, opposite the Police Station, which would become the Parrot, also now replaced by flats. Then came the Railway only a few yards away, with its regular bands including one called Muse.
It was then the Brunswick, now the Fox and Firkin, for a quick pint and to the Printers Elbow II in Higher Union Street. Up until 1982, this was the Globe and had been since 1833 when it changed from a private home to a coaching house and the last stop in Torquay for Royal Mail coaches on their way to London. Incidentally, the original Printers Elbow was in Swan Street, now buried beneath the concrete canyon of Fleet Street.
Next stop was the Exeter Inn opposite the courthouse. Once with a biker clientele, in the 1980s the pub experienced an attempt at gentrification. Optimists with an eye on an affluent legal custom transformed the venue into the Wig and Pen and then the Jolly Judge, though few solicitors and clerks were ever seen to drink there.
Also during the eighties, for the more sophisticated Runners there was the short lived Bluitts, one of those cocktail bars which were so popular for the trendy – again long gone.
And, of course, there was always the Castle. We now know it as less than salubrious, but in its heyday it was a great venue. Built in 1837 and the oldest Torquay pub actually build for that purpose, during the 1970s the Castle was “the most valuable public house in south Devon”. The Inn contained a public bar, off licence, the ground floor Castle Lounge, a basement lounge bar – a popular disco – and three staff flats. Ready to cater for new tastes in the market, in 1981 the Castle opened Plonkington’s Wine Bar, but by 1992 was being described as “a drug troubled pub” and was relaunched under the name Chaplin’s Cafe Bar. It’s now back as the Castle where the old drinkers still mourn the 20p pint.
Sadly, for a few locals and visitors, Factory Row and Temperance Street symbolised the transition of joyous Torquay drinking to the despair of addiction. We lost a couple of us on the Run somewhere around Castle Circus – some Saturday night drinkers became Monday morning drinkers, while other casualties succumbed altogether to alcohol and narcotics.
We said that over the years the Run shortened. It also narrowed. At one time, half way down Lower Union Street some Runners would part ways. They would divert off to the Hop and Grapes, affectionately known as the Hope and Grope – the eventual destination being the Hideaway, the local’s club with its notoriously sticky floors.
Others would head up what was once a sophisticated Abbey Road to the crowded Mousetrap wine bar and its powerful ‘coolers’ – it only took a few candles to make a place look cosmopolitan. On the way there was the Falcon which became the Town House, but all that remains of this popular hostelry is a large carved bird of prey on the roof. On the way up the steps beside the cinema was the downstairs part of Ryan’s Bar which used to be the Old London Inn. Located opposite the Gallery entrance of the Theatre Royal, it used to attract the audience, actors and staff of the theatre. When the building changed into a cinema in 1933 a good deal of trade was lost.
The pace picked up once the old GPO roundabout was reached and, heading down Fleet Street, there was the Cider Press. It was only in 2000 that pubs could legally open all day on Sundays. Before then pubs closed at 2.30 in the afternoon. This made the Cider Press Torquay’s Sunday lunchtime party bar- the last drink before the coach parties picked up at the Strand to head home to Bristol, Cardiff and lands beyond. It used to be that pubs closed at 11.00 and clubs at 1.00 in the morning but the liberalised longer opening hours of the early first decades of the twenty first century and social changes led to the closure of many of the old Torquay clubs – among them the Hideaway, Doodles, Claire’s, and the 400.
Almost next door to the Cider Press is a bar that has had many names and you can sometimes guess how old someone is depending on how they refer to it – is it the Piazza, the Blu Cargo Canteen Bar or, more recently, the Bierkeller? Bizarrely the grand building began in 1839 as the church of an evangelical religious sect known as the Starkites and then became the School of Art or the Vivian Institute.
And so to the final destination – the Harbourside, the Strand, the epicentre of Torbaydos. This is the location of many decades of young men skirmishing, pavement pizzas, stags and hens, mass-produced fancy dress, street people, and Street Pastors consoling the lost and the lonely. The Strand was the original site for inns before Torquay began to explode its population and drinking venues in around 1800. The pubs just changed and evolved as did Torquay. The Bird in the Hand became the London Inn and then Wolfinden’s London Inn in 1840, and eventually the Royal Hotel. It’s now back on around the same site as the original London Inn, using the same name. The Old Inn in Torwood Street became the Commercial Hotel, and later Gibbons’ Commercial Hotel, and is now Park Lane.
Long gone are the days when a Torquay pub could have its own unique personality and become famous throughout the country. Such was the Yacht. Once upon a time it was a quiet haunt for fishermen but its character changed radically at the time Rock and Roll was introduced and so came the Teddy Boys. By July 1976 a local reporter eulogized, “It’s the height of the summer season in Torquay and lads from all over Britain are bevying it up in the long dark music bar. The girls are with them, indistinguishable with their long hair hanging over sweat shirts and faded jeans. This is Torquay’s most notorious public house which attracts the wild, the youthful and the unemployed. At a time of year when Torquay is one of the ‘in’ towns in the country, the Yacht is the ‘innest’ place of all.”
And so regretfully to the drinking barn that is Wetherspoons. Forbidden by eagle-eyed copyright holders to be named the Agatha Christie, here is the final metaphor of imbibing life in Torquay. Even some indigenous Runners have returned as sensible parents, decades after the demise of the original Run. From infants with their masticated Monster Munch to the elderly Welsh coach parties, all human life is to be found here paying ‘sensible prices’.
That’s pretty much the culmination of the Great Torquay Slalom Run. You can’t go much further and get a real drink. Though once you could. In April 1974, fire gutted the Islander bar, half way down Princess Pier. Opposite, also long demolished, and replaced by an aviary, was Coral Island, that great monument to concrete, lager and lime, and cheese and onion crisps.
Now, though the original Slalom Runners have long gone and the sobriquet forgotten, the Run’s still there, though shorter, narrower and briefer. The Saturday night tradition survives though tempered by budget-conscious pre-loading. And, for a few short hours, the Harbourside still heaves with Saturday night revellers, and perhaps always will.