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Torre Abbey: A Thread Through Time

Updated: Aug 26, 2023


Torre Abbey, the English Riviera Geopark's most significant heritage building, transports visitors back in time to the 12th century. Established in 1196 by the Premonstratensian order, this remarkable structure has witnessed and survived epic moments of history, evolving from a thriving monastery to a grand Georgian mansion. With its 122 rooms, 20 levels, and 265 steps, Torre Abbey offers a fascinating experience for modern-day pilgrims seeking to explore eight centuries of history.


Since its foundation, Torre Abbey has upheld a tradition of hospitality that has endured for over 800 years. The six Canons of the Premonstratensian order, who arrived in Torquay in 1196 thanks to Lord William Brewer's generous gift of land, initiated this tradition. Throughout the centuries, it was continued by Abbots, Canons, and later, the Cary family, who purchased the property after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Today, the local authority proudly grant public access to the largest surviving medieval monastery in Devon and Cornwall, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in its history.


Despite the austere life of the 12th-century Canons, supported by their servants and staff, Torre Abbey thrived and became the wealthiest Premonstratensian Abbey in England by the 15th century. This prosperity enabled the construction of Torquay's first harbour and the establishment of a neighbouring town, which came to be known as "Newton Abbot." In addition to their religious duties, the Abbey also offered free board and lodging to travellers, ensuring that their doors were always open to those in need.


Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, the Cary family acquired Torre Abbey in 1662 and transformed it into a private residence. Over the course of nearly 300 years, the family added a grand Georgian mansion to the medieval structure. Renowned for their hospitality, the Carys earned the Abbey the local moniker of "The George Hotel," reflecting their commitment to welcoming guests.


Within the grounds of Torre Abbey lies The Spanish Barn, a medieval Tithe Barn originally used to store taxes paid to the Abbey in the form of agricultural produce. Its historical significance is firmly established during the time of the Spanish Armada. In 1588, Sir Francis Drake captured the Spanish flagship, and among the prisoners held in The Spanish Barn was the fiancée of a Spanish lieutenant. The tragic tale of "The Spanish Lady" and her eternal search for her lost love adds an air of mystery to this historic site, which now hosts exhibitions, events and weddings.


In 1930, Torre Abbey was purchased by the local authority, transforming it into an art gallery and museum. With its extensive collection of paintings, antiques, and the largest surviving collection of Victorian sculptor Frederick Thrupp's works, Torre Abbey became an essential cultural and artistic hub.

A Home for Arts and Artists

The cultural significance of Torre Abbey perhaps makes it an obvious attraction for a plein air painter such as Martin Dutton. Perhaps, as a regular exhibitor in the Spanish Barn, it was this proximity that drew him to consider the gatehouse as a subject for two works in his Torquay series, with its two prominent arches granting access to the front of the Abbey and picturesque views across its lawns to the sea.


You can discover Martin's work at Artizan Collective Gallery until June 25th. For more information, visit www.art-hub.co.uk/ex/md23


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