As Paignton (and Torbay in general) began to expand, then it was only a matter of time before other small adjacent villages were added to the urban area’s population. For Paignton, it included the villages of Goodrington to the south, and Preston to the north.
Preston sits between Old Paignton and the boundary with Torquay at Hollicombe, and over the years has expanded up the hill inland, but from a visitor’s perspective the main points of interest are Oldway Mansion and Preston Sands.
At low tide Preston Sands are a continuation of Paignton Beach, but is generally regarded as the shoreline between the Redcliffe Hotel and Hollicombe Head. It’s a safe beach ideal for sunbathing and swimming, as well as rock-pooling at Hollicombe Head.
The promenade is lined with Beach Huts, many of which are owned by locals, but there are also council owned huts as well which can be hired out. There is also a Green where ball games can be played if you have the energy, but generally speaking this is a quieter beach than Paignton and people are happy just to lounge around or visit the Boat House.
The Redcliffe Hotel is a prominent landmark and was a favourite holiday location for the steeplechase jockey and author Dick Francis. Of all the things that he achieved he’ll probably best be remembered for the one thing that he didn’t: In the 1956 Grand National he was riding the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Loch, and was one of the favourites to win. He was leading comfortably on the home stretch when for some inexplicable reason the horse fell with just yards to go. After that, he packed up racing and concentrated on writing; his first book was an autobiography called The Sport of Queens, which included his account of the race. His second book, called Dead Cert was turned into a film.
For over 60 years from 1951 onwards, Dick Francis and his family came to the Redcliffe Hotel for their annual holiday, even after he moved to Florida and then the Cayman Islands, where he died in 2010. The hotel has a suite named after him.
There’s also a suite named after Isadora Duncan, the famous American dancer, who had an affair with Paris Singer who lived at the nearby Oldway Mansion.
The mansion was built for Isaac Merritt Singer, the American founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company who came here to live out his retirement, which he did until he died in 1875. His grave can be seen in Torquay cemetery.
It seems like Isaac had time for pursuits other than business because Paris, who was born in the city of the same name, was his twenty third child, and why he was able to inherit his father’s home at Oldway I can’t say – but he did – and turned it into his very own Palace of Versailles.
On entering the building there is a Grand Staircase, where in the Gallery above, a huge painting dominates the main wall. It’s a replica of the original that Paris Singer bought in 1898. The original by Jaques-Louis David is entitled Le Sacre de Napoleon (Coronation of Napoleon) and was here until 1946. It was sold to the French government who passed it on to the Palace of Versailles. It now hangs in the Salle du Sacre which is where it was always intended to be. The painting depicts Napoleon crowning Empress Josephine in Notre Dame in 1804.
On the first floor Gallery you can see a mini ‘Hall of Mirrors’ with its parquet floor and marble walls and balustrades, and even the mansion’s gardens have a Parisian look about them. Ok, Versailles it’s not, but it’s without doubt Paignton’s most remarkable building.
Paris Singer lived here until his affair with Isadora Duncan came to an end in 1917, and from then on, the mansion had several different uses until the Paignton Urban District Council bought it from the Singer family in 1946.
In 2012 Torbay Council decided to sell off the property and plans were put in place for Akkeron Hotels to take it over but still allowing public access. It was a controversial decision which became even more controversial when the mansion lay empty while the two parties failed to agree on how the development should progress. In August 2016 after four years of protracted negotiations the council and hotel group decided that it was in everybody’s best interests to call it a day.
The Friends of Oldway have now joined forces with the Oldway Charitable Trust and Torbay Council to raise funds to secure the building’s future. The aim is to restore the building with the ultimate aim of opening it to the public. They’ll need all the help they can get and it won’t be an easy task, but let’s hope they succeed because Paignton doesn’t have another building that comes anywhere near close to this impressive historic gem.
ORIGINAL POST – JUNE 2018
LATEST UPDATE – JULY 2020