Despite being a huge crime fiction fan, it had been many years since I’d read an Agatha Christie novel. That changed on a visit to Devon, the home of the “Queen of Crime” and setting for many of her best-selling who-dunnits.
Clutching a copy of And Then There Were None (which has sold 100 million copies), I spent my first night on the English Riviera at Torquay’s imposing seaside Grand Hotel. Although it’s not featured in any of her books, the hotel was host to Torquay’s most famous daughter on her wedding night, Christmas Eve 1914, when she married the dashing RAF pilot Archie Christie.
Agatha Christie was born in Torquay in 1890. The town and surrounding countryside plays homage to her at every turn, and it seems that she was as much a mystery as any of the characters in her books.
I put myself in the hands of local tour guide Alex Graeme, whose Unique Devon Tours explores this beautiful part of England, where he has lived all his life. From the Grand Hotel, we hit the Agatha Christie Mile which takes you to some of the places that inspired her or appeared in some of her books.
The long stretch of the Princess Pier – with its lamp-posts and iron lace seats – was built in the same year Agatha was born and was later apparently a favourite spot of hers for roller-skating. I could see why!
Nearby, the elegant Pavilion was the spot where (after attending a Wagner concert), Archie Christie popped the question to the young Agatha Miller. There’s a special plaque on the building, and close by there’s a bronze bust of an older Agatha, created to commemorate the Agatha Christie Centenary Year in 1990. I couldn’t resist giving her a bit of a look inside my book (see pic at top)!
The imposing Imperial Hotel, set on the clifftop above Torquay Harbour featured as the Majestic Hotel in Peril at End House and The Body in the Library, and as itself in Miss Marple’s final case, Sleeping Murder….and there’s more as you stroll around the town. The Torquay Museum is worth a look for die-hard fans, as it is home to the UK’s only dedicated Agatha Christie Gallery.
But we are headed out of town, to Anstey’s Cove, a secluded little beach where Agatha – in her single days – once had a romantic picnic with a suitor called Amyas Boston. She later used his unusual name in her novel Five Little Pigs (Amyas Crale was the unfortunate murder victim). And it’s here, as we take the woodland trail down the slope to the beach, that Alex relates the story of the great mystery surrounding the author. Of course, it might still be a mystery, but it’s certainly no secret: in 1926, when she was married with a child and with her sixth novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd selling well, Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days, sparking one of the biggest missing-person searches in British history. After she was found, she had no memory of the “missing” days…and despite speculation and theories, the true story will probably never be known.
Later in the day a visit to Agatha Christie’s country house, Greenway, is in order. I board the train to Dartmouth and after a delicious crab sandwich for lunch (a tip from a local), take the ferry down the Dart River to get a glimpse into the private world of the Queen of Crime and her family.
Agatha Christie described Greenway as “the loveliest place in the world” and it was here that she and her second husband, Max Mallowan, and their daughter Rosalind retreated with family and friends. Here, to the locals, she was simply “Mrs Mallowan”. That said, three of her novels are also set here: Five Little Pigs, Dead Man’s Folly and Ordeal by Innocence.
Surrounded by expansive gardens, the house is a time capsule preserved with much of the same furniture and knick knacks that belonged to the family. I particularly liked the frescoed walls in the library…completed unexpected and slightly eccentric (as I hoped she would be). In such an otherwise imposing house, it’s a delightful surprise.
At the river’s edge, the Greenway boathouse is a quiet spot to contemplate the Dart and there are also plenty of books if you fancy a browse (all Agatha’s, naturally). An aficionado of her work would also know that the wooden boathouse was also the scene of a murder in Ordeal By Innocence (and Greenway appears as Sunny Point House).
In 1959 Rosalind purchased the house from her mother. She and her husband Anthony Hicks moved in after the deaths of Agatha in 1976 and Max in 1978, and in 2000 they gave Greenway to the National Trust. From then on, the garden was opened to the public. Rosalind and Anthony Hicks lived at Greenway until their deaths in 2004 and 2005 and the house was later opened to visitors too.
I finished off my visit to Greenway with a Devonshire tea (what else?) in the cafe in the gardens, rather self-consciously reading a few pages of my who-dunnit.
Die-hard fans should note that every September there’s the Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay, and plan their visit well ahead!