Babbacombe Downs are said to be the highest seaside promenade in the UK and has to be one of the finest coastal views in England. It stands at 300 feet above sea level and looks out over Babbacombe Bay and Lyme Bay beyond, looking left to right one can see Teignmouth, Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth in Devon and on a fine day Portland Bill in Dorset.
Situated at the northern end of the English Riviera Geopark, the whole area being of importance and interest to geologists from across the world. Looking beyond Oddicombe beach one can see two distinct rock formations; red sandstone and the limestone of Petitor. Both became very beneficial to the local economy during the 1800’s and 1900’s.
The sandstone is soft and constantly moving and falling, access along Oddicombe Beach is now limited with Little Oddicombe just a pile of red rocks.
The poet/writer John Keats was just one of many who in the last 200 years spoke so eloquently about this view and the snow white pebbles on Oddicombe Beach that dazzled in the sun, the dazzling white pebbles are long gone.
The Victorian Gentleman’s Bathing area beyond being impossible to reach. The remainder of the house that is on the cliff edge was built quite some distance back in the 1920’s and until quite recently the South West Coastal path over the top of Oddicombe passed to the seaward side of the house and garden. The cliff has crumbled and fallen into the sea taking with it the footpath, garden and house. A detour inland is the only link now.
Until about two hundred years ago the downs were wild with some rough paths down to Oddicombe and Babbicombe, it was a very dangerous area especially around the cliff edge. There was very little vegetation along the downs, the roughwood around where the Theatre and Babbacombe Cliff apartments stand being one of the only wooded areas. The roadside was fenced off in 1812 and villas and cottages were built along the road from the middle of the century. The first purpose built hotel in the area was the Royal in 1863.
The seaward side of the fence was still dangerous and it was common for something or someone to fall over the cliff, a horse and cart was one, but after a Baby and pram went over, the first railings were put along the cliff edge in 1882. The railings have been replaced only once since, in 1988.
After St Marychurch U.D.C was incorporated into Torquay Council in 1900 and by this time more visitors were frequenting Babbacombe, the paths and flower beds began to be formed. The beach roads had already been completed so footpaths down to beaches from the downs were created. The water that seeps out of the St Marychurch water plateau was directed into drains and gullies to cascade alongside the footpaths, eventually pouring dramatically down the cliff and under the path near Black Ball cove. A little of what was created still exists, although many of the footpaths are now closed off or impassable.
The Buildings on the Downs
Most have changed in name and appearance but if you look carefully you will see the additions and fill ins. Walking from the Babbacombe Theatre opened as the Concert Hall in 1939, over Beach Road, the next building is Babbacombe Cliff, once the residence of Baroness Mount-Temple. The coastguard cottages and the Coach House Inn, previously named the Roughwood, built in the 1700’s follow. The Roughwood was the first purpose built Inn locally. On the opposite side of the road the Combe Court Hotel started off life as Marystowe, a villa owned by the Reverend Harry Grey. What are now Greys cottages were the stabling for the house.
Babbacombe Beach Road and Oddicombe Hill Road were constructed by unemployed persons in the 1800’s. These two roads were often referred to as “the relief” roads. Beach Road admitted carriage traffic in 1870. Before this it must have been both tedious and difficult to negotiate this road, especially in rainy conditions. No real change even now.
Opposite the Theatre, originally The Babbacombe Bay Hotel became the Continental and any number of names; Churchill’s, Wilson’s and Marley’s. Kim’s Cavern and the John Lee. It is now Hamilton’s. The Babbacombe Inn follows, previously a villa called The Grange which became a restaurant of the same name. The row of Victorian cottages, Prospect Terrace, hide the older cottages built behind, the two are linked as one, the thickness of the walls as one walks from the front to the back of the house is all that gives the game away. All are residential except the last being Angels previously the Tea Rose. Next, Babbacombe Bay terrace, once all residential are now businesses of one kind or another, again having as many changes of names. The two terraces are numbered as Babbacombe Downs Road properties now.
The Royal Hotel…….the first purpose built hotel in the area by Henry Turner in 1863 still stands and looks similar now as it did then. The Babbacombe Hotel previously named The Sefton built in the 1930’s to replace the Victorian villa Sefton Hall is very Art Deco in design, box shaped and although it was different from most of the other buildings, it still had its place. Erskine orphanage stood next door from 1860 to 1960. The Babbacombe Hotel has extended into the land between and then into the house, the Victorian roof of Erskines is just visible jutting out on the right hand side. Morningside, Oddicombe Hall and further along the Sunningdale Holiday Apartments was formerly called “Ferny Bank”, it was a hostel for working single girls. From the late 19th Century to 1950’s the local Babbacombe boys would hang around outside hoping to get a date with one of the ‘Skinner girls’. Another large villa next door was until the 1950’s Villa Norcliffe, became the Norcliffe Hotel and now Summer Bay Resort.
The Cliff Railway linking the Downs with Oddicombe beach opened in 1926 and Cliff Railway Cafe are the last buildings before Higher Downs and the Hampton Estate begins.
During WW2 Babbacombe became the receiving centre and Training Wing for the R.A.F. with many of the hotels being used for the war effort. The Norcliffe for RAF officers. The Sefton (now renamed the Babbacombe Hotel) for the airmen, machine guns were located on the roof.