Tracking down Agatha Christie at Greenway

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For those of you of a certain age and a certain comic disposition, this is the sea view from my room at the hotel in Torquay where I stayed overnight before embarking on my visit to Greenway. Image taken without resorting to climbing on wardrobes, chairs or other items of furniture. It has been suggested that the finest view of Torquay is seen from the roof of the Riviera Centre on much the same grounds that the finest view of Paris is obtained from the roof of the Pompidou Centre.

The following morning I caught the steam train from Paignton on the Dart Valley Railway for Greenway Halt.

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Along the way we passed the beach huts at Goodrington Sands which Christie used in her short story The Rajah’s Emarald, the only tale to feature both James Bond and Campion (albeit Lord Edward rather than his illustrious namesake Albert). “The beach at Kimpton is a long,  straight stretch of sand. A row of bathing-huts and boxes stretches evenly along it for about a mile and a half. The party had just stopped before a row of six huts all labelled imposingly, ‘For visitors to the Esplanade Hotel only.'”

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Our journey continued to Churston Station, made famous as the location for the third murder in The ABC Murders and described by Hastings, reading from the ABC GUide as “Churston, Devon…from Paddington 204 3/4 miles. Population 656. it sounds a fairly small place. Surely our man will be bound to be noticed there.”

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Once we had got off the train at the next station, Greenway Halt, we had a half hour ramble over the hill and through the woods to reach Agatha Christie’s summer holiday home, Greenway House.

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Agatha, although she never wrote her novels while staying here, used features from the garden in some of her most ingenious plots. We therefore made our way down to the riverside and the battery, facing out onto the River Dart, which provided the scene for the murder of artist Amyas Crale in Five Little Pigs. “Mr Crale had been painting in a small enclosed garden, known as the battery garden, from the fact it overlooked the sea, and had some miniature cannon placed in embattlements. It was situated at about four minutes’ walk from the house…downwards through some woods…[He] was reclining on a seat and he was dead.”

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A little further down the path beyond the battery we came to the boathouse, most famously the scene of the discovery of the victim’s body during a Murder Hunt in Dead Man’s Folly  at Nasse Housk, the home of Sir George and Lady Stubbs during a fete. “They passed the Folly and zig-zagged down the path to the river.  The outlines of the boathouse showed beneath them. Poirot remarked that it would be awkward if the murder searchers were to light upon the boathouse and find the body by accident…A short steep slope led down to the door of the boathouse which was built out over the river, with a little wharf and a storage place for boats underneath… [The victim] was playing her part nobly, sprawled on the floor by the window.”

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In the same novel, “In a mood of exploration Poirot went through the front gates and down the steeply twisting road that presently emerged on a small quay. A large bell with a chain had a notice upon it: ‘Ring for the Ferry.'”

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This ferry, though travelled in the opposite direction, featured again in the opening of Ordeal By Innocence in which “[Arthur Calgary] left to drive the seven miles along the crowded coast road and then inland down the wooded lane that ended at the little stone quay on the river. There was a large bell there which his driver rang vigorously to summon the ferry from the far side…He heard the soft plash of the oars as the ferry boat drew in to the side of the little quay. Arthur Calgary walked down the sloping ramp and got into the boat as the ferryman steadied it with a boathook.  He was an old man and gave Calgary the impression that he and his boat belonged together, were one and indivisible.”

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Having thus explored Christie’s fiction we returned to Greenway House. Here we found a portrait of the four year old Agatha holding a favourite doll, which has survived to the present day and sits, somewhat unnervingly, next to the portrait.

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More appealing to the musician in me, in the next room, was Agatha’s Steinway piano. Agatha played to almost concert standard but crippling shyness prevented her performing in public. Only her husband Max Mallowan was ever allowed to listen to her.

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Although Agatha never wrote here, Max would use the holidays in their summer home to type up his notes from the archaeological digs he supervised in what is modern day Iraq. The tiny Remington Victor portable typewriter he used is in his study upstairs.

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Agatha and her family were inveterate collectors and hoarders of stuff. Found hidden at the back of a cupboard were the insignia with which she was invested as Dame Agatha.

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In an upstairs sitting room is a portrait of Agatha aged about 20, dressed in her finery to attend a social event at the end of the Edwardian era.

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In the same room is a revolving bookcase which featured in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. “Mrs Franklin…was dressed in a negligee of pale eau-de-Nil and was lying on her chaise-longue. Beside her was a small revolving bookcase-table with the coffee apparatus set out.”

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Though Agatha did not write at Greenway, she did correct proofs and, in defiance of any superstitious nonsense, did so in a favourite comfy chair in which she would sit during the sunny afternoons, down by the river in the boathouse. Which seems an appropriate place to leave her, having tracked her down to her lair in the garden of her summer holiday home close to the town where she grew up.

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