(Editor’s note: This wonderful article was written by my co-worker, Diane Turner-Hurns, at the Journal and Topics Newspapers in Des Plaines, IL. Diane and her husband visited Dame Agatha Christie’s summer home. Diane thought it would make an informative travel article for the Journal. It was recently published in the travel section. I asked her if I could reprint it in my blog because I know how much it would mean to Agatha Christie fans. Thank you, Diane, for this wonderful contribution.)
By Diane Turner-Hurns
It’s no mystery Agatha Christie, the queen of crime, and her Greenway, UK estate remain so popular today. Thousands of people trek by train, bus, foot, bicycle, wheelchair and car every year to the author’s favorite home, Greenway, located high on a hill on the banks of the River Dart in South Devon, England, fondly known as the English Riviera.
This was the summer and holiday home of the beloved Dame Agatha Christie, a native of nearby Torquay, and world-renowned author of mystery novels, plays, poems and short stories. Christie died at 85 in 1976 and her family later gave the home and immense grounds to the National Trust charity for safekeeping and to open to the public.
We traveled from Torquay to Greenway, walking through the entrance way, past the restaurant, book store and gift shop and around a corner where we were in awe of the three story, white home sitting at the top of a grassy green hill with sweeping views of the Dart River, boats sailing by and rolling green hills across the way, all with the warmth of home.
The house at Greenway is a treasure not only for the place, but for the contents.
Walking through the front door takes one into a Poirot mystery novel, which is not far from the truth. Last December’s (U.S. showing) ITV’s ‘Dead Man’s Folly’ starring David Suchet as Christie’s famous Hercule Poirot detective was filmed at Greenway. It was featured in many of her novels.
Every item in the home belongs to either Christie or her family. As you walk through the many cozy and lived in rooms it seems as if the house is full of Christie’s novel characters and family members; so much so that you expect Christie to come bounding around the corner at any time.
Couches with flower patterns and puffy upholstery beckons one to sink next to the tables filled with framed family photos, fly fishing gear and games strewn in the main living areas.
There are no velvet ropes keeping guests from admiring the Christie family’s belongings which also included family knick knacks, artwork, rare Meissen porcelain, snuff boxes, books, clothes, rare mideastern finds from past archeological digs and more. Even one visitor, a Chicagoan, was allowed to play Christie’s Steinway grand piano, learning in the process that Christie had achieved the level of concert pianist, but withdrew from the concert stage due to her shyness.
“We encourage all guests to play the musical instruments at our National Trust homes. It not only gives the property a homey feel, but keeps them in tune,” one docent said. “Especially the piano here at Greenway. Many people do not know Agatha Christie not only wrote novels, plays, and poems, but music as well. Her music was published under an assumed name.”
In each room are printed brochures with brief descriptions of the room’s items. The home looks like the family never left. Christie’s writing room on the second floor is filled with photos and books next to a writing tablet. Books from other mystery writers and histories of the Mideast sit next to vinyl albums including one of Disney songs. Her typewriter is on a desk next to the window where one can look out to the River Dart and the boats sailing along as well as the sweeping green hill leading to the boathouse, beach and gardens.
Christie, who wrote more than 80 detective books, plays and more, was born in Ashfield in Torquay, not far from Greenway. Christie sold the Ashfield family home while in her 50s and bought Greenway with her second husband Max Mallowan just before WWII, in 1938. Her daughter, Rosalind Hicks, who died in 2004, gifted Greenway with the home, gardens and property to the National Trust. Rosalind and Anthony Hicks lived at Greenway until their deaths in 2004 and 2005. It opened to the public in 2009 after a multi-million dollar/pound renovation by the National Trust with monetary gifts from members worldwide. Access to Greenway is free for National Trust members, as this writer is, and for others it is a nominal fee.
National Trust, founded in 1895, preserves UK open spaces and historic homes and properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland including coastlines, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages, historic houses, gardens, mills and pubs.
This year is the centenary celebration of the year Christie wrote her first detective novel, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’, which introduced detective Poirot to the world.
Since it opened to the public in 2009, Greenway has seen record crowds. In addition to the home, there are miles of gardens complete with a boathouse, pet cemetery, and camellia gardens along with a croquet lawn, tennis courts, greenhouses and more.
“This year we’ve been so crowded that we even ran out of Greenway guidebooks in July,” local Trust Volunteer Ann Emby told this reporter in early September. “The Christies were great collectors, and the house is filled with archaeology finds, Tunbridgeware, silver, botanical china and books.”
During WWII, the U.S. Coast Guard was stationed at the house. In the first floor library one can still view the beautiful frieze painted on the walls and ceiling of war events by U.S. Lt. Marshall Lee. He was stationed at the house in the run up to the D Day landings.
It is said Christie and the nearby English welcomed American soldiers with open arms and they too enjoyed being posted to the home of one of the world’s most talented mystery writers. During WWII, the house was used first to house child evacuees and from 1944 to 1945 by the U.S. Coastguard.
The grounds of Greenway are as spectacular as the home. The property includes a large, romantic woodland which drifts down the hillside towards the sparkling Dart estuary. The walled gardens are home to a restored peach house and vinery, as well as gardens cared for by local school children.
As you walk the grounds, your breath is taken away by the views, the quiet, the smell of roses and other gorgeous flowers near benches along the well maintained walkways, which take you down to the river and around the gardens. The boathouse sits at one end of the trails. It has a pool and also a sign stating that the area is a ‘Bat Roost’ meaning that in order to save bats from distinction, Greenway has become their sanctuary.
The boathouse is the scene of the crime (both in the book and the recent ITV show) in ‘Dead Man’s Folly’ filmed on location in Greenway in 2013 for ITV. It features David Suchet playing Poirot.
“David Suchet is amazing. When he was here he was never out of character,” Emby said.
Suchet is the celebrated English actor who has played Poirot in most of the recent Christie murder mysteries movies and TV series.
When visitors leave the boathouse to walk back up to the main house they come across an overlook complete with its own cannon battery. As one continues up, and we mean up, you pass the beautifully manicured croquet court area and find yourself again at the front door of the home.
Passing the home back toward the entrance and to the right are the formal gardens and greenhouses. The grounds are home to over 2,700 species of trees and plants.
“Throughout the year we have garden sales where people from the area come to buy flowers, vegetables, shrubs and trees,” a Greenway gardener told us. They are extensive and in a pristine state. Christie was known for her prowess with poisons so the gardens served as a hunting and experimental ground for her and her novels as well as her past as a nurse during the war.
Christie, born to an American father and English mother in 1890 died Jan. 12, 1976. She is also famous for writing the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap. The Mousetrap opened in the West End of London in 1952. It has had more than 25,000 performances.
In 1971, Queen Elizabeth named Christie a Dame for her contribution to literature. Her Dame credentials and jeweled pin are among several treasures on display in a cupboard in a small room between the living room and the large kitchen at Greenway.
Each room at Greenway is filled with history. The rooms include the morning room, drawing room, expansive and bright kitchen, comfy and bright library filled with first editions, the long dining room with rich wood furniture and hutches and upstairs the sitting room filled with archaeological finds, vinyl albums and books; the bathroom, her writing room and Christie’s bedroom filled to the brim with her clothes and other personal furnishings.
So how do you get there?
The GWR train from Paddington Station in London to Torquay takes about three and a half hours. It’s a comfortable and scenic ride. We stayed at the ‘Grand Hotel’ in Torquay, across the street from the train station and Torquay Bay. Christie spent her honeymoon night at this hotel in room 216.
The view from our room was wonderful, but lacking. It looked out over a veranda roof full of moss and unknown plants growing out of unmanaged water pools with country flags in rags posted. There was no artwork on the walls and the furniture looked to be throwaways. However, the location was great. Downstairs the glass enclosed restaurant and bar area near the pool and overlooking the Bay was nice.
When the fire alarm rang one morning, we called down to the hotel operator. It went unanswered. Somehow we thought that our coffee brewer may have set it off. When we left the hotel that morning we told the manager about it and he said, “No worry. Someone burnt toast in the kitchen at breakfast. That caused the fire alarm to go off. So you can spend your day guilt free.”
We’re thinking ‘Fawlty Towers’ (the English comedy TV series) reboot. And, yes, ‘Fawlty Towers’ was based in Torquay, but at a hotel across the road.
There were no Agatha Christie maps or Greenway info at the Grand Hotel. When asked, the clerk was unaware of whom the author was, despite Torquay being the celebrated author’s home town and that the hotel was listed as the start of the “Agatha Christie Memorial Mile’.
Not to worry. Torquay was full of Christie information including a Christie sculpture in the middle of town near the harbor, a full map of the ‘Agatha Christie Mile’ which retraces Christie’s earlier life such as where she helped wounded WWI soldiers at the ‘Dispensary’ and much more.
To get to Greenway we hopped, bought round-trip tickets (4.90 pounds each), on the local bus which stopped across the street from the Grand Hotel to the Paignton train station, several stops away, but the final stop. Exiting the bus we walked across the street to the Paignton train station where we caught a Dartmouth Steam Railway train, powered by coal, to Greenway. Cost for two for the steam train and bus shuttle to Greenway roundtrip was 17 pounds.
One could get off before Greenway at Churston and take a free shuttle bus to Greenway or get off at Greenway and walk a hilly, but beautiful path, of about 20 minutes to Greenway. We did the walk.
The return train runs are limited as are the shuttle buses. We were able to catch the last shuttle bus to return to Torquay at exactly 5:05 p.m. at the front gate at Greenway beyond the parking area. It was on a deserted country road, but luckily two other visitors joined us to wait for the bus. The bus took us to an almost empty Churston train station where strangers told us what side of the tracks we needed to be on. The steam train came right on time and took us to Paignton where we got off, crossed the street and hopped on the bus to return to Torquay.
For more Christie history, the Torquay museum is a gem. Located off the beaten path on Museum Street, it has an excellent display of local explorers including that of Percy Fawcett, a boy mummy, an ancient Egyptian presentation and “the only permanent Agatha Christie gallery filled with iconic works, props and costumes.” It also had the cane David Suchet presented to the museum and used while playing Poirot in the TV programs and Poirot’s complete study and lounge from the TV set.
The clues were always there to unearth Christie’s hometown history. It’s hard to leave the comfort of Greenway, but one can always return by reading one of Christie’s many crime mysteries featuring, yes probably an unpleasant murder, but also the irrepressible detectives Poirot and Ms. Marple and her beloved summer and holiday home, Greenway.