The Great Torquay Saturday Night Out – you were there...


A few weeks ago we posted an article called the Great Torquay Slalom Run. It was about the Torquay Saturday night drinking game based on downhill skiing between poles – with the poles being replaced by Torquay’s pubs and clubs. This really seemed to remind readers of their youth and the piece quickly received more than 130 comments. It seemed a shame not to pick up on some of those memories, so here goes…

First of all there was always more than one Slalom-type Run. We wrote about the Torre to the Strand Run but others preferred the Alpine to the Strand, Appleby’s to the Strand, St Marychurch and Babbacombe to the Strand, or pretty much anywhere to the venues situated along Abbey Road. It also had a range of designations – Alison’s “ex-father in law used to call it the Suicide Run”, for example.

In what follows we’ve partially redacted identities to protect the innocent and, indeed, the guilty. It would be cruel to open up accusations of gentle hypocrisy against those Mums and Dads who will, this weekend, surely be lecturing their offspring about the perils of alcohol and the dangers of Fleet Street at dusk. Moral authority fades when the younger generation acquire evidence that it was their mother who invented the song, “Let’s all go to EJs and let’s get f****** p*****!” Similarly all dignity is lost if that shaky video footage ever turns up of you with big hair, a boob tube, and a rah-rah skirt ‘dancing’ to the Birdie Song, and then swallow diving off a table top as many appear to have done. So we’ll be discreet.

One of the first things we said was that it was a young man’s game but, reading all the posts, it was certainly just as much a young woman’s game. And, for many, it wasn’t even much of a pub crawl. Indeed, you seem to have not got much further than a couple of now legendary bars in what was, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a very sophisticated part of town. Younger readers will not, however, ever believe that Abbey Road was once a classy place to have a drink.

And what drinks they were. Certain venues were even known for a specific tipple – notably the Mousetrap for its notoriously potent damson, peach or strawberry coolers – “Ooh. Remember falling down the steps to Hop n Grapes after those coolers!!!” recalls Karoline; Candy, “after three you couldn’t even remember your own name”; while John mourns “the annual STC (pre Nortel) Mousetrap night out which was once won by an individual drinking 22 wine coolers”. Then there was the Piazza for tequila shots; EJs for toffee vodkas; and Blewitts and Peacocks for the cocktails.

Besides the above, what else were we imbibing? Here’s a few alcoholic blasts from the past: fluorescent cocktails with either faux exotic or just plain sleazy names; Lambrusco; Babysham; Cherry B; Skol lager, Colt 45; the Snowball; Black Tower; Dubonnet; Cinzano; Pernod and Black; Snakebite; Taboo; Watneys Red Barrel; Double Diamond; White Lightning; Hooch; Aftershock; Mad Dog 20/20; Metz; Reef; and many more. We may not know their like again and, for some of the above, that may not be such a bad thing.

Unforgivably the article held many sins of omission when it came to listing favourite venues. Those that were neglected included: the Merry Monk; Valbonnes; Ritzy’s; the Cafe Royale; the Downtown Bar; Blewitts; Peacocks; the Dungeon; the Cantina; Starbase; the Soda Fountain; Judy Gs (“and that bar below it that served that rather sulphuric beer”); Yates; the Big Apple; the Venue; Kim’s Cavern; the Waterfront. We will not see their like again, which is a Torquay tragedy.

And, of course, there was EJs. A question was posted, “Was there dancing on the tables in EJs?” If you can’t remember, you probably were there, and as John posted, “My liver hurts just thinking about EJs…”

Another fondly remembered local’s club was Monroe’s at the top of Market Street. It was originally one of Torquay’s seven cinemas, the Empire Cinedrome, which offered “cinematograph entertainment” from 1912 to 1959. It operated again between 1962 and 1963 as “a cinema showing continental films”... you can guess what that means. In the mid-60s it was the Empire Ballroom – Torquay’s first disco. Then it successively became the Scotch Club, Tiffs in Town in the early 70s, Tiffs Club in 1978, and then Monroe’s.

It was 12:01am on August 1, 1981 that the first 24-hour music channel MTV was launched, the inaugural video being ironically the Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. Always open to new ideas, Monroe’s acquired one of the first projectors and big screens in the Bay which could show these new-fangled videos. Unfortunately it only seemed to have two clips – Bowie and Michael Jackson – which the club screened in a sanity-draining everlasting loop.

Meanwhile our gay friends would head, via the Clipper, to the Double Two Club which became Rockey’s. There they were joined by post-shift female bar staff who just wanted to have a good time after being hit on all night by Barry from Barnsley and Mike from Merthyr. ‘It’s Raining Men’ was always a floor-filler.

And from even further back, indeed from truly antediluvian Torquay, came memories – some written on scraps of parchment – of barely remembered pubs and clubs: the Top of the Town; the Casa Marina; the Carlton; the 400; Mr Matt’s; the Shiphay Manor; and Zulu’s.

It’s funny how we remember the strangest things. While there was debate over whether the Hideaway really did have three dance floors, we all seem to recall the sticky carpets. Sometimes you couldn’t even see that clearly inside the pubs anyway. It was only on 1 July 2007 that it became illegal to smoke in enclosed spaces. A naysayer noted that with the exile of the smoker, you could then smell the sweat, Old Spice and Brut of crammed-together bodies. It appears to be the odd sensory glimpses we recollect, not those we expect to.

In our youth each of us acquires a personal soundtrack. It’s said that the music you loved when you were 18 is the music that will stay with you for the rest of your life – kind of an internal Stars on 45/Jive Bunny compilation. Sometimes a single song can bring a lump to your throat. How about “We will Survive” in the Hope and Grope? As Claire posts, “Reading this article makes me sing”, but somewhere inevitably a salty tear will be falling for lost youth.

Then in the 1990s something terrible swept in from the East to change our social lives forever. We just weren’t prepared for it. In Japanese the word meant “empty orchestra” and soon 11,000 British pubs and bars were running regular karaoke nights. Suddenly monotone Matthew from Chelston could channel Elvis, while slightly eccentric Ellie from Watcombe could howl ‘Summer Nights’ even in the dark depths of February. But still the pubs survived.

It was the sheer variety that keeps coming through. As Lee posts,”We could say to friends ‘top of town or bottom’ as there was so much choice”. And Mark responds “‘Where shall we go out – top or bottom of town?’ is not something young uns will ever say”.

Inevitably, on a good or not-so-good Saturday night, it came to closing time and, “Shoes off for barefoot walk home back up the hill to Babbacombe”, though you could “still come home with change from a tenner. God they were good days”.

For others the need to feed took over. The world’s best chefs could never rival post-club catering: the 50p curry at Rib ‘n Fry; the KFC fillet burger; the Factory Row Chinese; something vaguely Mediterranean at the Embassy Tavern; the Strand burger hatch; “a free cheese and ham toastie at the Casino; Ali’s Kebabs after and sit in Castle Circus until 4am or later”; and then there was the legendary Hideaway potato man. This was the nectar of the gods, even if much of it ended up on the pavement or on your new shirt.

And for a few there was romance, though it may have just been moments of lust and longing amongst the technicolor palm trees of Rock Walk. This was the old Rock Walk of eyeball-searing sodium lights and primeval rickety wooden bridges, not the new sand-blasted sterility of stainless steel and barren blue neon.

A few posters have again located each other through the article and some have suggested meeting up again and revisiting old haunts. By all means, do rendezvous. But be aware that inevitably the Torquay Great Night Out isn’t as great as it used to be. Reminiscence can segue so easily into requiem, so perhaps it’s best to journey to Paignton or Newton and find a bar that somehow vaguely reminds you of EJs or the Mousetrap. Just don’t even think of dancing on the tables, even if they do play Agadoo ironically on the juke box. Leave some memories as they are.

As one poster poignantly wrote, “I remember, but I can never remember the end”, and that’s probably how it should be. So let’s finish with the Meatloaf chorus: “It was long ago and it was far away; and it was so much better than it is today” (repeat, and repeat, and slowly fade).

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Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College when it was at Torre. After studying at Birmingham City University, he returned home because there’s nowhere else quite like Torquay. He then became involved in community and adult education, completed a PhD at Exeter University , and started writing about the weird and unknown side of town. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the Bay.