Do you remember being about 12 years old, sitting in the back seat of the family car in a driveway in Nova Scotia, waiting for our parents to finish visiting friends so we could go back home? I was bored out of my mind. You, far more resourceful, were engrossed in a book you’d thought to bring along. It was an Agatha Christie murder mystery, I can’t remember which one now. What I remember being impressed by, at the time, was how you weren’t scared to death, reading a book about murder, betrayal and bad guys.
When I was 12, I discovered Miss Christie as well, and voraciously consumed her books. I watched the Poirot and Marple series, over and over again. Last year, I saw Mousetrap in the West End.
Given my adoration for her, it was only a matter of time before I planned a journey down to her holiday home in Torquay. We spent the afternoon happily padding through her home and gardens.
‘One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young…So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees – the ideal house, a dream house‘ – Agatha Christie
At every turn, I could imagine Hercule Poirot walking down the hall, tut-tutting over the very Englishness of this house, or Miss Marple sitting in a chair knitting a pink, fluffy shawl while puzzling over St Mary Mead’s latest crime wave.
Entering the house, my eye was caught by the pharmaceutical set on display at the front door.
During the Great War, Agatha worked in a dispensary and learned about medicines, herbs and poisons, a handy education for her writing career.
A helpful book to draw upon when plotting a murder
We entered the Drawing Room, which, aside from the many collections of pocket watches and snuff boxes on display, was notable for two things:
A portrait of a very bored or sleepy Agatha, aged 4, holding her dolly, Rosie.
Below the painting sits Rosie, who looks a lot less chirpy than she does in her portrait.
The other thing that captured my interest was the Steinway in the corner. I didn’t know that Agatha was an accomplished musician, and enjoyed playing piano and singing as well. A woman after my own heart! Unfortunately, her shyness precluded her from performing for anyone but her husband, Max Mallowan. As soon as someone would enter the room where she was playing, she would bring the song to an immediate, abrupt end.
On top of the Steinway is a lovely assortment of family photos.
Photos include Agatha’s mother, grandmother, glamourpuss daughter Rosalind and grandson Matthew. Oh, and a beloved family dog.
Next up, we went into a small room contained an impressive silver collection amassed by Agatha and Max over the years. To an untrained eye, this room looks like a very expensive, exclusive junk room. In amongst all the shelves of porcelain, sits Agatha’s D.B.E (Dame of British Empire) award. She kept it hidden from view in a back drawer, until her grandson found it years after her death. If I hadn’t known to look for it, I doubt I’d have noticed it in the clutter.
Her medal, in amongst the china.
We walked upstairs and on the landing we found an Arts & Crafts style bookcase, made in 1984, to hold paperback editions of Agatha’s books.
Can you work out how many books she wrote?
I was wondering where she sat to write her books but found out she wrote where and whenever she liked.
‘I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write. This has caused much trouble for me in the ensuing years, since whenever I had to receive an interviewer their first wish would always be to take a photograph of me at my work.
“Show me where you write your books.”
“But surely you have a place where you always work?”
But I hadn’t. All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter.’
Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, 1977
Inside her bedroom, we found two beds, one for her and one for Max, who preferred sleeping on a camp bed. I had read this before and was imagining the army cot our grandfather slept on. Max’s bed is a far cry from that. It doesn’t fold up, it weighs about a ton, and is larger than most tents I’ve been in. Max wasn’t slumming it, let’s put it that way. Of course, Agatha’s bed was nicer and more beautiful, but Max’s wasn’t chopped liver either.
We were invited to open drawers in the Sitting Room. Inside each was a treasure trove of articles, clippings and reviews. Here is a small sampling of what caught my eye:
We wandered into the formal Dining Room, which was set for dinner. At any moment, the dinner gong might go (as it does every half hour, as a signal to the guides to move from one room to the next) and Agatha and her family might sit down for a meal. Agatha was teatotal, so instead of wine in her glass, she had a jug beside her, filled to the top with…I can barely stand to write it…double cream. Ugh.
I wish I were joking, but I’m not.
Given her apparent love for creamy concoctions, it will come as no surprise to you that, for her 80th birthday celebration at Greenway, the following was on the menu:
Homard a la Creme
Ice cream and Blackberries a la Greenway
Dessert was served in this lobster dish. I want one.
Moving to the Library, I’m happy to report there were no corpses in front of the fireplace. There is a fantastical frieze on the wall, though, painted by a member of the US Coastguard. They occupied the house in 1943 while preparing for the D-Day landings. It tells the story of the significant events of the Americans, starting at their base in Florida and wrapping round the room where it ends with a view of Greenway perched high over the river, with a landing craft in the river below.
On the right wall, over the word Dartmouth, you can see Greenway painted in this frieze.
After the war, ‘The Commander wrote and asked me if I would like the fresco painted out and the wall put back as it was. I hurriedly replied it would be a historical memorial, and that I was delighted to have it.’ – Agatha Christie
In the gardens outside, the atmosphere tends towards the eerie, especially this time of year when the trees are still bare.
The entrance to the camellia garden.
One of the thousands of camellias on display.
The path leading to the camellia garden. What’s inside the old iron chest? I didn’t want to ask.
On our way down to the boathouse, we stopped to admire the view from here.
This boathouse inspired the scene where a body is discovered, in Dead Man’s Folly.
Finally, in homage to Agatha Christie and her wonderful story-telling, this summer Lars and I will take the Orient Express, London to Venice. Hmmm, I wonder which book I shall bring with me, to while away the hours?