Agatha Christie’s Greenway
The author called it “the loveliest place in the world”. Pat Coulter visits Devonshire to find out why.
IT’S a weekend of unravelling tales of murder and mystery for us on south Devon’s glorious English Riviera, on the bloodhound trail of the world’s most renowned crime writer, Dame Agatha Christie.
Just like her famous characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, we’ll be doing some super sleuthing ourselves, delving into the life of the Devonshire lass.
The anticipated highlight will be a visit to Greenway, her beloved rural retreat on the scenic River Dart.
Let’s begin in Torquay, the opening chapter of her life. Born Agatha Miller on September 15, 1890, her birthday is celebrated annually in the town, attracting Christie fans the world over.
We’re strolling along the Agatha Christie Mile seafront promenade walk, taking in sights once so familiar to the young Agatha.
She embraced the great outdoors, exploring local woodland, roller-skating along Princess Pier and even surfing. Beacon Cove was a favourite secluded spot for her to take a dip, although one day she got into difficulty and had to be rescued.
It’s a dog-friendly beach for Poppy to enjoy. She’s not chasing seagulls, though; instead she’s transfixed by penguins at the nearby Living Coasts visitor attraction!
Laughingly, the dinnerjacketed, dapper little birds with their mincing gait remind me of Poirot!
It was Belgian refugees in Torquay who inspired Agatha to create the character of Hercule Poirot.
There’s the ornate Pavilion where the dashing Archibald Christie proposed to young Agatha following a Wagner concert. They spent their honeymoon at the Grand Hotel on Christmas Eve, 1914, before he headed to war.
Another seaview hotel once familiar to Agatha is the Imperial. The hotel appeared in many a
Christie novel, most notably in the guise of the Majestic in “Body In The Library”.
Just down the road stands the splendid Royal Torbay Yacht Club where Agatha’s father, Americanborn Frederick Miller, was a member.
During World War I Agatha was a nurse in a Red Cross Hospital in Torquay.
Her time spent in the dispensary, gaining knowledge about poisons, would be put to good use
for many of her deviously plotted murders.
Torre Abbey Gardens is home to the Agatha
Christie Potent Plants collection, inspired by the poisons and potions in her books. Look, but don’t touch!
The Devonshire cream tea there is certainly worthy of sampling, and I remember to dollop the cream on first! Agatha loved cream and would happily drink it by the jugful.
The narrow country lane leading to Greenway twists and turns tantalisingly, akin to one of Christie’s convoluted plots. Let’s hope we don’t reach a dead end!
There are enticing glimpses of the sparkling River Dart below, but not yet the great reveal. My sense of anticipation builds, with an overwhelming feeling of leaving the bustling world behind to enter a secretive, tranquil and very special haven.
The main driveway, flanked with purple rhododendrons, tall bamboos, rare shrubs and towering beech trees, offers no clue to what lies beyond.
A wonderfully warm welcome awaits us at the National Trust’s visitor centre at Greenway from cheerful volunteers and helpful staff. Yes, Greenway is dog-friendly and only the house is off-limits to pets.
I’m sure Agatha would be delighted, as she was a great dog-lover from when she was given her first canine companion as a child, a terrier called
George Washington. That first doggy friendship began a lifelong affection for dogs.
A fond favourite was a short-haired terrier called Peter. He was a stalwart companion and great comfort during the difficult break-up of her marriage to Archie, the death of her mother and her disturbing disappearance when she was discovered days later in Harrogate.
Peter was the inspiration for her novel, “Dumb Witness”. In the tale, Bob the terrier drops his ball from the top of the stairs and gives the murderer the idea of how to dispatch his victim.
Poignantly, the book was dedicated “To Dear Peter, most fruitful of friends and dearest of companions, a dog in a thousand”.
There’s a lovely, warmhearted introduction to Greenway from Agatha’s only grandson, Mathew Prichard, in a short film presentation in the old stables.
He speaks fondly of his grandmother, whom he called Nima, explaining Greenway was a place for relaxation, never work.
It’s where Agatha, her second husband Max Mallowan, an archaeologist, family, close friends and, of course, her dogs would gather and stay for the summer months to enjoy the great outdoors, benefiting from invigorating lungfuls of fresh Devon countryside air.
They were idyllic, sunshine-filled days spent engaged in simple pleasures – playing croquet on the lawn next to the house, clock golf by the walled garden, tennis, games of cricket, and pottering down by the river. Greenway enveloped everyone with an inviting house-party-style atmosphere in the most glorious setting.
Agatha bought Greenway in 1938, by which time she was a world-renowned crime writer. The grand Georgian property had been a house much admired since her childhood and her mother had agreed it was the finest house on the River Dart.
When Agatha was told Greenway was up for sale, she at first misheard the price, thinking it was £16,000. To her astonishment, she discovered it was £6,000.
Greenway was more than just a home to Agatha. She declared it to be: “the loveliest place in the world – it quite takes my breath away.”
And it does, as I discover for myself the handsomely proportioned Georgian mansion set high above the River Dart.
Deckchairs on the sloping front lawn face the tranquil river view, and there’s the croquet lawn, mallets and hoops at the ready for an informal game just as Agatha and friends once played.
Agatha was a shy person who shunned publicity and rarely gave interviews. Greenway was her escape.
Happily, Greenway gives the visitor an insight into the real Agatha Christie, beyond the posed publicity photos on her crime novel cover jackets.
The National Trust has ensured the house maintains its integrity and authenticity from Agatha’s day and is crammed with an eclectic array of family collectables and curios.
An eye-catching portrait of the young Agatha adorns the wall in the morning-room, a girl with tumbling tresses and cornflower blue eyes in contemplative gaze.
She’s holding her treasured doll, Rosie. And here Rosie sits, in a chair beside the portrait, her fine, delicate porcelain features as fresh and life-like as ever, as though Agatha has lovingly placed her “just so” before going out to play.
In pride of place by the window in the drawingroom stands Agatha’s Steinway grand piano. Here she would sit and play to an intimate family audience.
She was a most accomplished pianist, trained to concert standard, but her shyness prevented her from performing on stage to a large audience.
Her piano is adorned with family photographs. Agatha was an enthusiastic and adept photographer, documenting artefacts whilst in Syria with her husband Max.
Trips to the Middle East also gave her the inspiration for some of her most famous novels such as “Death On The Nile” and “Murder On The Orient Express” which, in one rare interview, she declared her favourite.
The drawing-room is where the family would gather after dinner, settling in comfy, capacious sofas and armchairs with Agatha reading a couple of chapters of her latest, unpublished book.
She would jot down the outline of her plots in a notebook from
Woolworths, simply beginning with the words “who”, “why”, “when”, “how”, “where” and “which”.
The library was a favourite place for relaxation surrounded by thousands of books.
Agatha was a voracious reader.
Greenway was requisitioned throughout the war. A historic reminder which Agatha insisted should remain is a wonderful frieze painted by a US Naval lieutenant, featuring Greenway and infantry landing craft in the River Dart prior to the D-Day landings.
Upstairs, Agatha and Max’s bedroom, with beautiful views down to the river, is little changed from the 1950s.
An exquisite mother-ofpearl in-laid chest takes pride of place. Bought by Agatha in 1929 in Damascus, it was described by her as “the sort of furniture which reminds one of fairyland.”
It’s time to rescue Poppy, who appreciates a walk through shady woodland on this hot day.
We walk down to the boathouse, where Marlene Tucker was found strangled in “Dead Man’s Folly”.
In 1954, Agatha Christie wrote the story with the intention of donating the tale’s proceeds to a fund which had been set up to buy stained-glass windows for her local church at Churston Ferrers.
She filled the story with references to local places, including her own home of Greenway.
Having completed it, she decided instead to expand the story into a full-length novel which was published two years later, and she donated a Miss Marple story – “Greenshaw’s Folly” – to the church fund instead.
Agatha’s beloved Greenway remained her holiday retreat until she completed the final chapter in her own extraordinary life, at the age of eighty-five.
Greenway was the perfect place for Agatha to escape to.
Agatha played piano well.
Rooms full of memories.
The busy front at Torquay.