Agatha Christie’s Green­way

The au­thor called it “the loveli­est place in the world”. Pat Coul­ter vis­its Devon­shire to find out why.

The People's Friend Special - - THIS WEEK’S COVER FEATURE -

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.

Green­way’s draw­ing-room.

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