Jim Parker: ‘We need our Oldway gem to sparkle again’

Ventured over to Oldway Mansion at the weekend to have a look at the impressive Devon Rocks and Stones display.

In pre-Lockdown days in this social media craze children were encouraged to paint small rocks and stones and hide them for other youngsters to find. Bit like letter-boxing on Dartmoor. With ‘stay at home’ the order for the past few months there has been none of that. But now they have re-appeared with lovely messages and thanks to the NHS and other key workers on the walls around the mansion.

I only wish poor old Oldway was as impressive. This historic mansion was once one of the jewels in the crown of Torbay. Now it is closed and looking a sorry state. Volunteers have worked hard to maintain the grounds but they just aren’t like they used to be - the overgrown tennis courts kind of did it for me. I was truly saddened and to be honest a little angry at the same time, angry to think that we had allowed to let this grand lady sink so low.

But perhaps I was being a little unkind, a little premature, a little unfair on those battling to return Oldway to its former glory.

The mansion, once linked to a luxury spa hotel and housing development and threatened with being sold by former mayor Gordon Oliver, was ‘saved’ by people power and its future is now in the hands of the Oldway Trust.

Councillor Darren Cowell is the chairman of the Oldway steering group which brings together the Trust, main partners and other Oldway users.

He said the idea of a Trust running Oldway with a long lease from landlords Torbay Council was to ‘take it away from politics’. It also makes it easier to obtain grant funding.

There was an early setback on that front just a few months ago as the Trust applied for £10 million from the Heritage Horizons Fund but we were unsuccessful.

Darren puts that into context when he says: “There were 140 applications. Only eight are going to be awarded so it was always going to be a long shot.”

He added: “The funding applications have been stopped due to Covid but we are going to be bidding for interim funding for a project manager to draw up a new bid and a business plan for Oldway.”

He is quick to praise the volunteers who have worked hard at the mansion.

He says: “The Friends of Oldway have re-invigorated themselves. Volunteers have also been improving the ground maintainence of the gardens. They have done a fantastic job.”

He says now the mansion has been ‘saved’ by the community it is time to move forward with a new plan for the future, starting with open days and getting the tea rooms re-opened.

He says: “The council has still been maintaining the building and undertakes emergency repairs.

“If you look inside there is some plaster coming off the walls. I was surprised when I looked around inside. It was almost as if you were walking into a building that had just been closed the night before. It is in a remarkably good condition.”

He reckons any restoration, improvement, regeneration or whatever you want to call it of Oldway will cost £15 million.

Paigntonians have always wanted public access to the mansion and the grounds to be maintained. Now they have won that battle even they accept that there has to be a commercial element to securing its long-term future.

Darren says: “There is an acceptance the first floor could include a commercial element. There are separate commercial opportunities for the old Rotunda building as well - like a restaurant.”

A controversial scheme for a just-as-sad-looking historic building across the Bay is ringing bells here. The dear old Pavilion was going to be used as a foyer and entrance to a four-star hotel (we won’t mention the apartments block).

Now that’s an idea. We just have to have our jewel back.