‘The bay is like a proscenium theatre – it’s dramatic, it’s magical, there’s a sense of moving through a narrative as you follow the coast, through geographical, cultural and social history. But the thing we come for, the thing that’s all around us, is the thing we don’t notice – the sea, a truly wild thing.”
I’m on a boat with author Philip Hoare (and a hundred other punters) crossing Torbay. You might think his words for the oft-satirised resort hyperbolic. But I live nearby – shamefully, it’s the first time I’ve crossed the bay on a boat – and I have to admit that from the sea, the palm-fronded curves, clay-coloured cliffs and undulating coastal hills do look very beautiful. If I squint a bit and ignore the bruise-coloured clouds rolling in from Dartmoor, I could be in Saint-Tropez or the Caribbean.
Hoare is in Torquay to put the final touches to the Tale, an “immersive” site-specific celebration of Devon’s English Riviera produced over three years – and a dozen visits to the region – in collaboration with Bristol-based public art organisation Situations. It’s inspired by his book, RisingTideFallingStar, part memoir, part meditation on life – human, animal and mineral – in the liminal zone between land and sea.
A central theme is childhood. Born in 1958 in Southampton – where he still lives – Hoare belongs to the generation of working-class families for whom Torbay (spanning the towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham) was an “approximation of a foreign resort”, just as it was for the health tourists of centuries past.
During the late 1960s and early 70s, Hoare, his five siblings, housewife mother and factory-worker father spent two weeks every summer on a caravan site above Paignton, tripping down to the coves, strands, harbours and headlands of Torbay.
“Apart from the car, that holiday was the biggest single expenditure of the year. It bought freedom for the kids – and for our parents, who forgot about work for that one time in the year.
“At the seaside, you could live out your dreams, escape your parents, meet girls, even have sex – that wasn’t easy [at home] in a three-bedroom semi.”
A cabinet of curiosities at Torquay Museum – where the Tale begins – will showcase Hoare’s memories through photos and slides, fashion relics such as platform shoes, and the flotsam of family life. He also wants to take visitors beyond Torquay’s oppressive literary cliche – Agatha Christie – and visit sites associated with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who bathed here to treat spinal problems; Oscar Wilde, who fell for Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas while holidaying at Babbacombe Cliff; and Amazon explorer Percival Fawcett, who was born in Torquay.
But the Tale does not spring solely from Hoare’s experiences. At tiny Beacon Cove, just south of Torquay centre, I meet local teenagers Jade Whatley and Robyn Evelyn, who are taking part in a project mentored by Australian theatre company One Step at a Time Like This.
To challenge tourist industry tropes about Torquay, they and five friends have recorded stories – accessed via an audioguide – that, as Jade puts it, “Show that it’s not the idyll it looks to holidaymakers, and has problems such as joblessness, drugs and domestic violence … In spite of this, I have a lot of hope for Torquay. I went into The Kind Grind [coffee shop] the other day and everyone was discussing how to be positive. It’s not about the aesthetics, but the people.”
Originally from Rhondda, Wales, Jade’s family moved to Torbay because they came on holiday and her mum liked it. “Even if it’s not the same when you live here, it’s still beautiful,” she says. “I have my own place where I can go and I can sit and not see people, buildings, anything. I go with friends sometimes to talk about problems, the planet, our mortality, our morality …”
One Step’s Julian Rickert sees the Torquay stage of the Tale as a psychogeographical ramble. “People will experience aspects of the place they don’t normally experience – back alleys, car parks, views from inside shops. We want to strip the place of all the ways you usually see it – shopping, eating, drinking – and make people look and feel something new. We’re interested in the connection between Philip’s memories as a young person visiting and what the local kids feel.”
An hour away on foot is Paignton, where the art deco Picture House cinema will be used as a backdrop for a piece by visual artist Britt Hatzius. Welsh artist Marc Rees is contributing a work inspired by the lives of two celebrated sisters nicknamed The Alphington Ponies, who promenaded around the resort in unusual clothes in the 1840s. The details of these, and works by renowned artists such as Ellen Gallagher, Jonathan Anderson and Ingri Fiksdal, are under wraps; Situations wants visitors to be surprised.
For the three consecutive weekends of the Tale (from 8-10 September), all transport will be included as part of the ticket. For my preview, Philip and I jump on the ferry across the bay to Brixham, Torbay’s main fishing port. Its tiers of terraces remind me of Italian coastal towns, rougher round the edges perhaps, but lovely in the right light. The Hoares came here every Sunday to the town’s Roman Catholic church – named, aptly, Our Lady, Star of the Sea.
“Even going to church was fun,” he recalls. “Because it was a different building, and there were different people, and you were on holiday.”
At Brixham, the Tale will tap into Hoare’s overriding passion: swimming. He swims off Southampton every day, no matter what the weather, no matter how busy he is. When he travels, he does his best to find water; he manages a quick dip while I’m talking to Jade and Robyn. At 6.30am on Saturdays and Sundays during the Tale’s run, he will lead dawn swims from Meadfoot Beach Cafe in Torquay.
In RisingTideFallingStar, he writes: “[I’m] so in love with it that sometimes I think I can only think by the sea … It is the only place I feel free and alive.”
At Shoalstone Pool, a seawater lido 15 minutes’ walk from Brixham, swimmers choreographed by dancer Claire Cunningham will give form to this deep feeling. A little further along, at Berry Head quarry, musician and sound recordist Chris Watson – formerly of influential Sheffield band Cabaret Voltaire – will present a sound installation that takes listeners on to the waves, into the shallows and down to the seabed through recordings of underwater life.
Multi-sensory, genre-hopping, participative and provocative, the Tale is part of an Arts Council-backed project to put Torbay on the map for those seeking more than fish, chips, caravans and crab sandwiches.
“Torbay lacks any real cultural attraction,” says Hoare. “That’s one of the main raisons d’être for the Tale – to add something cultural. I hope it sums up the nostalgia we feel for the sea, such a vivid element in our lives; the sense of everything old and everything new, renewed by the tide … what histories it holds and what possibilities it offers.”
• The Tale runs Friday-Sunday on 8-10, 15-17 and 22-24 September, tickets £20-22.50, under-16s free. Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar is available from bookshop.theguardian.com for £14.44