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Exploring Devon and Agatha Christie.
Who would you put on a list of English Literary Heroes? There are some obvious contenders – Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth for instance. How about more recent figures like J K Rowling or Julian Barnes? For whatever reason, despite being the best-selling novelist of all time, writing 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections which have sold over a billion copies in the English language and a billion in translation, Agatha seldom makes the critics’ lists.
Although I loved the stories I read about Agatha Christie as a child, her books were not on my school reading list and the first novel I ever read was a translation in French which I picked up on a visit to a French family who owned a large collection of her murder mystery tales. Somehow ‘L’Homme au Complet Marron’ seemed a logical read to a thirteen-year-old staying in the heart of Savoie given the other options were Flaubert, Zola or Camus. I’ve since discovered that the famous caves at Kents Cavern in Torquay were Agatha Christie’s inspiration for Hempsley Cavern in ‘The Man in the Brown Suit’. Once you’ve started to read Agatha Christie you are anything like me you might just get hooked on this prolific writer who was inspired by everything around her.
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Agatha Christie and the English Riviera.
Agatha Christie’s link with the English Riviera is unquestionable. Born in 1890 on the northern edge of Torquay, Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller grew up in Devon. The villa where she lived was demolished in the 1960s and even the blue plaque that should mark the location is missing at the moment. But, throughout this part of England, you’ll find places that you recognise from her novels – and places where you can learn more about her life.
Of course, staying at Burgh Island Hotel is a good start – you can even rent and stay in the Beach House which Agatha used as a writer’s retreat before she bought Greenway. And there’s something very special about immersing yourself in the elegant Art Deco surroundings.
There’s plenty more to do in and around South Devon though. Indeed, there’s even an Agatha Christie festival, this year (2019) taking place in Torbay between Thursday 12th and Sunday 15th September. Of course, the festival includes events at many of the iconic locations in Torbay, including a Murder Mystery event at The Grand Hotel in Torquay where Agatha spent the night of her honeymoon to first husband Archie Christie.
The Agatha Christie Mile.
Starting at Torquay Railway Station, the ‘Agatha Christie Mile‘ in Torquay will take you past the Grand to various other spots, including the Princess Pier, which was a favourite spot for her to practise roller-skating as a child, nearby Princess Gardens which feature in ‘ABC Murders’ and Torre Abbey Gardens, where there’s now a ‘Potent Plant Collection’ inspired by Agatha.
I was intrigued to discover that Agatha, after starting work as a Red-Cross Nurse in the First World War, moved to the pharmacy, where she trained on the job. She worked in the pharmacy again during the Second World War too. The inspiration behind many of her murder mystery stories can be linked back to her studies of poisons and on medicines that, improperly used, could cause fatal results.
Torquay is also home to Beacon Cove, at the time when Agatha would have swum here, the ‘Ladies Bathing Cove’ as it was known, was for women and children only. Swimming out to a raft, just off the beach with her young nephew on her back, Agatha nearly drowned. The story goes that she was pushed under the surf by her nephew on a day when the current was rather strong. She was, however, rescued by one of the local boatmen who looked after the bathing huts on the beach.
The Imperial Hotel, built in 1866, features in ‘Peril at End House’ and ‘Sleeping Murder’. We know it was a favourite of Christie for social functions, with breathtaking sea views from a clifftop position looking out over Torbay.
At one end of the ‘Agatha Christie Mile’ you’ll find Torquay Museum which is home to the Agatha Christie Gallery.
Nearby it’s worth visiting Anstey’s Cove, a favourite spot of Agatha Christie who used to come here for moonlight picnics. The site of a romantic meeting between Agatha and Amyas Boston, an RAF Pilot, she not only rejected his advances but used his name as one of the characters in her novel “Five Little Pigs” who was poisoned by a hemlock derivative in his beer. I wonder just how bad that date was!
Now popular with rock climbers, there is a steep walk of about a quarter of a mile from the road down to the shingle beach, which is surrounded by cliffs. With a small cafe and changing facilities, it’s a good place to come if you want a quiet escape from Torquay.
To the south of Torquay is Cockington Court. Agatha Christie links to Cockington date back to before her first marriage.
Cockington Court was the mansion house of the Mallock family. Built in the 16th Century and extended and altered over the years by the Mallock family, wealthy silversmiths originally from Exeter, who owned it from 1654 to 1932. They were family friends of Christie’s and she was a regular visitor to the house and was even tempted to take part in amateur theatricals staged there. Her novel ‘Why Didn’t they ask Evans’ is dedicated to Christopher Mallock.
Today the estate is owned by Torbay Council and is home to a collection of artisan shops and studios.
Greenway – Agatha Christie’s Holiday Home.
Further south, on the far side of the river Dart is Greenway.
Agatha Christie’s holiday home is a ‘must visit’ for any fans of the novelist and a fantastic ‘through the keyhole’ type experience. It’s easy to immerse yourself in Agatha here. Now a National Trust Property, the house has been preserved so carefully that it takes little to imagine the door creaking as she walks back in. A deliberate policy to keep things ‘just as they might have been’ from family portraits to rails of clothes in the wardrobes through to music on the piano helps.
Perhaps though, some of that realism comes from Agatha and her family’s strong personalities. They were collectors, archaeologists and explorers all living a full life so Agatha herself struggled at times to find time to write.
Agatha and her second husband, Max Mallowan bought the ‘idyllic’ house on October 28th 1938 as a holiday home where they could spend time with the family away from the public. At Greenway, Agatha was known by her married name, Mrs Mallowan. The house cost just £6,000 – quite a discount from the £16,000 that Agatha had thought was the asking price.
At the start of the Second World War, Agatha and her husband spent a lot of time at Greenway, but in 1943, the house was requisitioned by the US Navy and used to house US Marine Coastguards. One of the most striking features of the house is a frieze in dark blues and beige painted around the wall in the library.
Painted by Lieutenant Marshall Lee it shows various battle scenes together with Greenway and the woods which surround the house – and a stunning nymph. Once the house was returned after the war, the Admiralty offered to paint over the frieze but Agatha famously refused, replying that it would be a historic memorial.
Of course, the house appears in Agatha’s novels. As Alderbury in ‘Five Little Pigs’ and more extensively in ‘Dead Man’s Folly’ where the Boathouse is the scene of the crime. At the time, the boathouse was used as a plunge pool where people could come and ‘take the waters’ by bathing in seawater from the Dart estuary, with the room about used to warm up and get dried after.
There are plenty of options if you are travelling to Greenway. Choose from taking the ferry from Dartmouth or Dittisham and enjoy travelling along the River Dart.
Once you reach Greenway quay, there’s a steep uphill walk through the garden to reach the house which should take about 15 minutes but offers some great views along the river. If you prefer not to walk, there’s a shuttle service available.
Alternatively, you can travel from Paignton or Kingswear by steam train to Greenway Halt, where a 30-minute woodland walk will bring you to the house. Again there’s a shuttle service at certain times of the year. We know that Agatha herself used the steam train service regularly and there are splendid views across the Devon coastline.
The South West Coast Path.
Finally, if you really want to get under the skin of Agatha and learn more about her world, why not spend half a day or so following the South West Coast Path from Torquay to Brixham.
It’s around eight and a half miles of footpath, with some moderate hills. Start on the seafront at Corbyn’s Head, you can follow the path through the pretty village of Goodrington on to Saltern Cove which is a site of special scientific interest thanks to a diverse community of intertidal plants and animals. Continue past Broadsands beach to Elberry Cove, another of Agatha Christie’s favourite bathing spots and the setting for the death of Sir Carmichael Clarke, in ‘The ABC Murder’
Follow the path on to Brixham Battery and Marina and if you have the energy walk up to Berry Head, a stunning headland with lighthouse and two forts dating back to Napoleonic times. Surrounded by water on three sides, there are fabulous views across Torbay.
If you don’t fancy the walk, Brixham itself, with its thriving fish market has some great places to enjoy the local seafood. I can recommend Rockfish, on the quay looking out over the harbour. And, if they happen to have local lobster, don’t hesitate to try!
I was lucky enough to have Alex Graeme from Unique Devon Tours as a guide on this trip. Unique Devon Tours offer a range of tailormade award-winning luxury tours including a one day Agatha Christie tour. Many of the photos in the feature are from Alex including this stunning image of Burgh Island Hotel at night
For more information about Greenway, please see the National Trust Website. Greenway is open daily until the end of October, then weekends only; adults £12.20. The Dartmouth-Greenway ferry takes 30min (01803 882811; greenwayferry.co.uk). Torquay-Dartmouth ferry takes 90 minutes; the same firm runs a combined steam train, boat and bus service, incorporating Greenway (01803 555872; dartmouthrailriver.co.uk).
For more information about exploring the English Riviera check their website.
I stayed at:
Burgh Island Hotel, Bigbury on Sea, South Devon, TQ7 4BG
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