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How a Victorian Hotel In Torquay Was Transformed Into a Luxury Holiday Villa

The refurbishment of a former 7 bedroom Victorian B&B into a luxurious holiday home is no easy feat but that is exactly what the new owners of Marstan Villa decided to do when they took over the running of this beautiful property in April 2022.

The History

Formerly ‘The Marstan Hotel’, it was a quintessential seaside guest house offering bed and breakfast to visitors throughout the year. The house was traditionally decorated in rich dark reds and greens and furnished with opulent antiques throughout (some of which remain in the villa) very much in keeping with its origins.

In fact, in the mid 19th century, with the advance of railway connections, Torquay evolved from a quiet fishing village and rapidly became a fashionable seaside resort. With its exceptionally mild climate Torquay quickly became a playground for rich Victorians and the place to be seen and grew exponentially of the following decades. Wealthy gentlemen of the area and naval officers started building large villas and hotels aimed at the higher end of the market, resulting in Marstan Villa being built in 1852.

Originally a private home built for a wealthy Victorian gentleman, the villa was one of four grandiose villas designed by William Kitson, nestled in the leafy hills surrounding Meadfoot Beach. In 1912 it became a boarding house offering 20 bedrooms and just 3 bathrooms and would have cost you a shilling for a weeks stay! In 1924 it became a hotel and took the name ‘The Pembroke’ as can be seen in the 1950s ad below.

Along came the 1970s and with it a building upgrade and a new name; the owners at the time, Margaret and Stan, amalgamated their names to form ‘The Marstan’ as we now know it today.

As the Torquay tourist industry boomed and guests’ expectations became higher the 1980s saw the owners decide to half the number of bedrooms. This enabled them to offer en-suites with the rather fetching pink or avocado colour theme so popular at the time. Remaining untouched since then, in 2005 a massive refurbishment programme was undertaken which involved repairing the structure of parts of the building, redecorating, upgrading the en-suites and re-furnishing throughout. After suffering a decade of decline and change in ownership, the hotel was purchased by the author Ian James Krender, who penned the novel, “Murder in Torbaydos” based on some strangely supernatural experiences he encountered while alone in the building at night! During his tenure the hotel was extensively refurbished with the fabric of the building being substantially improved, achieving a five-star gold rating from the tourist board.

But guests’ expectations continue to change meaning Marstan Villa needed to evolve yet again to meet the needs of its visitors. That’s where the Williams and Canning families come in…

The Journey of Refurbishment

Two local families, the Williams and Cannings, bought the property at the end of April 2022 and were excited to get started on sensitively renovating the villa from a bourgeois, boutique, 5 star hotel, into a 21st century, functional family holiday let. Having not been upgraded seemingly since 2005 it was a mammoth task and there were times they thought they had bitten off more than they could chew.

Many challenges were thrown at them along the way including supply issues, late April showers, interesting ‘finds’ of a very old building and two water obsessed children wanting to constantly be in the pool to name but a few! One of the greatest challenges they faced however was how to respect and retain the Villa’s history whilst deciding on how to decorate.

“We visited all of our neighbours and sought advice and inspiration and invited a number of previous owners back for some ‘inside info’ over some drinks. We have stripped back the heavy velvets of red and gold & the nostalgic baroque furniture to something more relaxed, clean and modern. We’ve maximised the spaces whilst celebrating the original and intact features from the 1850’s." Mike Canning – Owner of Marstan Villa

In fact, much of the furniture has been patiently upcycled or restored including the boudoir grand piano and an impressive giant Egyptian chandelier.

Gone are the dark, opulent colours and materials of the past to make way for a much more modern and muted colour scheme. Now tranquil blues, crisp whites, pebble greys and sandy neutrals really capture that seaside ambience, an obvious choice being a mere 300 yards away from the beach!

When it came to decorating and they decided they needed to make the most of the expansive windows and let the natural light flooding in do the talking so the dark reds and greens of the past needed to go.

Accommodation within the property really is all you would expect and more from a modern holiday let. All 7 elegant bedrooms now offer guests the ultimate in luxury and comfort, with each having their own en-suite. You will also find remnants of days gone by as much of the furniture that remains in Marstan Villa has its own history and story, including the piano, chandeliers and unique coving.

The bar has had a make-over and is now named ‘The Percy Fawcett’ after Torquay’s much under-celebrated but inspirational explorer and writer. Percy Fawcett disappeared in 1925 whilst exploring the Amazon rainforest. His exploits provided a stimulus for several Hollywood movies, including the Indiana Jones series and James Gray’s epic ‘Lost City of Z’.

Dartmouth’s Naval illustrator Paul Barclay has also been commissioned to draw the building and create our own logo. There are two other commissioned artists currently working on individual bespoke art for each of the seven rooms and five communal rooms.

What Makes Marstan Villa Stand Out?

Location, location, location! The Villa is so close to the bustling harbour of Torquay yet conveniently so far away. It is a haven of peace, calm and tranquillity.

It is literally a stone’s throw to the sea; positioned precisely three hundred metres from the shoreline of Meadfoot beach, recently awarded with blue flag status. Meadfoot beach looks out onto Thatchers Rock and its sister outcrops, some of which are visible from Marstan Villa’s sea bound windows. Meadfoot is a haven for paddle boarding, rock pooling and sea swimming. High above the beach are a series of pine-rich woodland trails that wind their way towards foliage-lined Ilsham Green, a wonderful open space perfect for games, picnics and outdoor fitness.

You’ll be in good company staying here as former guests include Dame Judy Dench, and Sir Ian McKellen! It is also rumoured that Charles Darwin frequented the Villa (then Pembroke House Gentleman’s Club) when he was staying at the nearby Osborne and studying the Kents Cavern cave systems. In recent times, the hotel was popular with celebrities such as Julie Walters, Julia McKenzie, The Hollies, Jenny Éclair, Suzy Blake and many others.

One service that Marstan offers that really makes it stand out from the crowd is the bespoke concierge service. The resident Canning family are excited to welcome guests and offer a lifestyle concierge service (including walking, picnicking, hiking, cycling and paddle-board assistance) to enhance all stays at Marstan Villa.

We think you will agree that the current owners have accomplished an amazing amount in only 2 months! The fact that they have invested massively in guest experience, modernised the décor for the needs of the modern tourist, whilst retaining the original features, really speaks volumes about how much they care about their guests but also the history of the building. It has been an emotional and challenging journey, but the end result is a spectacular one-house destination for group bookings that is sure to be the place to stay while visiting Torquay.

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